For the first two weeks after her grandson Nathan was born, Jean Fox wasn’t allowed to hold him, and no one at the hospital would tell her why. The truth seeped out, gradually, that Nathan had been born with opiates in his system and was going to need a lot of help.
Her son, who is Nathan’s father, and Nathan’s mother had their own problems to sort out, so it fell to grandma to take over and so she did. She got a phone call on a Friday afternoon from someone in the state Department of Children and Families.
“They told me they were going to put Nathan in foster care,” Jean Fox was saying. “I said: ‘But I’m willing to take care of him. He’s my grandson.’ They said I had a couple of hours to get the paperwork done.”
Jean Fox raced to a courthouse and got the necessary papers, and she and Nathan became a family of two.
Months before Nathan’s birth, Fox had been laid off from her job as a special education teacher. But she called it divine synchronicity because the first year of Nathan’s life was like one long doctor’s appointment.
For 2½ years, in fact, as Fox filled out 350 applications for teaching jobs, she took care of a little boy who needed a lot of time and attention and lived off her life’s savings, which weren’t much to begin with. She was paying $700 a month for Nathan’s special formula. She maxed out her credit cards to pay her utilities. She eventually couldn’t afford to keep the house in Stoughton she has lived in for 24 years.
She put her house on the market in June. It’s still on the market.
“My bank is understanding,” she says. “We can’t give the house away. It’s in foreclosure, so I have no credit.”
Without credit, she can’t downsize to an apartment. She applied for public housing and was put on a waiting list.
“The waiting list is 10 years,” she said.
A few months ago, she started a job as a teacher’s assistant at a Wellesley elementary school. She drops Nathan off at day care to make a 19-mile journey in her Volkswagen bug that can, depending on traffic, take more than an hour each way.
She applied for the state’s $1,000-a-month day care voucher program and was put on another waiting list: six years.
“If Nathan was placed in foster care, the foster family would be immediately eligible for the day care voucher,” Fox said.
She sat with a very nice woman from the state Department of Transitional Assistance and was told she makes too much money to be eligible for anything. Jean Fox makes $27,000 a year.
“The woman at the office of Transitional Assistance looked at me and said: ‘You have to ask yourself. Is it really worth it to work?’”
Now, many people might answer no. But not Jean Fox.
“I’ve always worked; I’ve always paid taxes,” she said. “I went back to get my master’s at 48. I don’t want to not work.”
But the government, our government, is basically telling her to go on the dole. To get help, she needs to be utterly helpless.
Now, it would probably make this a much juicier story to say that Jean Fox ran into complete apathy when she turned to politicians for help. The truth is actually worse. The pols were wonderful, yet Jean Fox’s predicament remains. US Senator Scott Brown’s office assigned a case manager. State Senator Brian Joyce’s staff was great. So was the office of state Representative Louis Kafka.
Ted Philips, Kafka’s chief of staff, ruefully acknowledged that Jean Fox’s odyssey has been Kafkaesque, as in Franz, not Louis.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Philips said. “Jean is trying to do the right thing. All we’ve been able to do is get her on waiting lists.”
Jean Fox understands how the system works, and that’s what frustrates her most.
“I have a son who has struggled with addiction for 12 years. There are more options, more resources, for him than for me,” she said. “That’s wrong. That’s crazy. What about the caregivers? There are a lot of people like me who fall in this middle ground. It would cost the state more to put Nathan in foster care than have me raise him, but that’s what the system is set up to encourage.
“I’ve accepted loss. I’ve lost my pets, my savings, my house. I am not going to lose my grandson.”
Night has fallen, and so has Nathan. Off the couch. He is more scared than hurt, and Jean Fox cradles him and soothes him and tells him to look at Thomas The Tank Engine on his Crocs and soon Nathan is not crying anymore. She tells him Christmas is coming, and he brightens.
“Thank you, Nunna,” he says, and then he’s back at a table eating chicken fingers.
On the refrigerator, Jean Fox has hung something the kids at Nathan’s day care did for Thanksgiving, listing what they were most thankful for. One kid told the teacher, “My Iron Man toy.” Another said, “My dog.” A third said, “My Buzz Light Year.” Nathan said, “My Nunna.”
Jean Fox is not looking to game the system. She’s looking for the system to operate in the real world, where a 57-year-old woman should not be forced to take herself out of the workforce and make herself destitute to keep her grandson from becoming a ward of the state. She’s looking for the system to provide incentives to keep families together, even families of two.
“If only the day care was covered, I could probably make do,” she said.
Jean Fox is looking for a little empathy, a little help, a little sanity.
Is that too much to ask?