With the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services on the hot seat once again after another child it was monitoring was killed by a family member, Off-Ramp commentator Taylor Orci remembers the County social worker who rescued her.
I was standing outside my fourth grade classroom when my teacher told me to lie.
A few days before, my teacher had asked me if anything was wrong. Creative writing was my favorite subject, and a disturbing story I had written about vampires had led her to ask me if I was having problems at home. I was.
I told her about not having enough food to eat, seeing body parts I shouldn't have been seeing. I told her about my favorite hiding spots in my house where I'd go when I felt like my life was in danger — under the wicker loveseat because it made me feel like I was at a tea party.
The answers gushed forth. I mean, why wouldn't they? The TV always said to tell a trusted adult if something was wrong, and Mrs. Palmer was an adult I could trust — after all, she made sure my clay cheetah didn't break in the kiln that one time during arts and crafts.
And now I was standing outside the classroom where I confided in her, next to my dad who'd shown up without me knowing. Both of their faces looking down on me with equal parts worry and disapproval.
"Tell your teacher you made this up," said my dad.
"I made it up," I told my teacher.
"Tell your dad you're sorry," said my teacher.
"I'm sorry," I told my dad.
"She has a wild imagination," my dad said.
"Oh I know, what stories!" said my teacher.
And then my dad took me home and we never spoke of it again.
Until a few months later a miracle happened.
I was playing handball outside with my next door neighbor when a man in a white car with the county seal of Los Angeles drove into our cul-de-sac in La Verne. Our tranquil suburb was what Vernon Howell used as a kind of test kitchen for his Branch Davidians before he went down in a blaze of glory in Waco as David Koresh. We were full of secrets.
The man had a black mustache and asked if my dad was home. I told him he was. I thought he was his friend. I was 9; I thought all men with mustaches were friends.
My neighbor and I kept playing handball as the sun turned the sky colors that matched my bright purple handball. I had almost forgotten there was a man in my house until he came out with my dad. I saw the look on his face, the same combination of worry and disapproval he had before. I knew this man wasn't his friend.
"Sweetheart, this man wants to ask you some questions," my dad knelt down and looked me in the eyes so intensely I thought I would shatter into pieces. "And whatever you do: tell him the truth." I waved goodbye to my next door neighbor and told him I'd see him tomorrow. I didn't know I wouldn't see him for three years.
The man took me to my room and explained he was a social worker. He told me a family member had told their therapist about my situation and the therapist called the county and sent him. He asked me to tell the truth.
I remembered my dad telling me the same thing, and where telling the truth got me the last time I did it. And despite my better judgment, I told him everything I had told my teacher months earlier. Then he told me to pack my bag because I was going to live with my mom and stepdad.
Driving to my mom's house, I felt so grateful for that man with the mustache. I had become so used to not trusting adults, but this social worker proved you could in fact trust some adults — just not all of them.
I wanted him around all the time to make sure I didn't get hurt. I asked if we could keep in touch. I had a pen pal that lived in Oregon so I knew I was good at it. He said thank you, but that wasn't possible. I remember sitting in the backseat of his county-issued vehicle, which to me was as good as a prince's white horse, knowing my life was about to change. I just didn't know how.
I know I had one of the good experiences, I know there are many more that are tragedies upon horror stories. I just hope more stories will end like mine, and not like the ones that become headlines… about children with no adults to trust, kids who try to save themselves, over and over again.