Please don’t touch me.

Up down up down, like an oil rig. Up and down and up and down. At a summer camp. For children in foster care. In a pool. In the shallowed end — José — holding onto the coping. Wearing goggles. 

Behind him, dozens of other boys swam and threw water balloons and fired squirt guns. 

But some boys didn’t swim; they sat, watched, afraid to touch that water.

Please don’t touch me.

May is Foster Care Awareness Month. Each day of May, I will write on their behalf. 

Yesterday I wrote of children locked in plastic containers

I looked over and noticed José, alone. The 11-year-old was one of the five boys that slept in our cabin.

Coming toward him I shout, “José, let’s swim.”

In an eerie sound of terror — with fear in those shaken brown eyes and the grimaced contortion of his lips — he screamed, “NOOOOO!” 

Almost in a shriek, “Get away from me!”

Immediately, I stop. 

Please don’t touch me.

Twenty thousand RFK volunteers spread across the country and world, all trained not just to identify those symptoms in children in foster care, but more importantly, how to respond. Trust-based relational intervention (TBRI):

I remembered the basics:

  • Stay calm: no matter what.
  • See the need: behind the behavior.
  • Meet the need: find a way.
  • Don’t quit: if not you, then who?

Backing away slowly. “Hey no problem, Jose. Your game looks fun.”

“Yeh, yeh, yeh yeah Paul but please don’t come close to me again. I don’t want to learn how to swim. Please don’t make me.”

“No problem buddy, I just liked your alone game. Dunking yourself over and over. By yourself. So cool! I want to do that, by myself, just like you.”

“Will you teach me how, José?”

“Well. Um, okay, but you have to go over there.” 

He points.

I slowly walk five feet to his right. 

“That’s too close, further! And you can’t come closer or teach me to swim, or touch me!”

(Please don’t touch me.)

“I just want to do your dunking game.”

I grasp the coping. I assume the position. I submerge myself. 

Then up down up down, like an oil rig. Up and down and up and down. At a summer camp. For a child in foster care. In a pool. In the shallowed end — Jose and me — holding onto the coping. I wore no goggles. 

Last month, the United Nations reported, “[h]undreds of millions of children around the world will likely face increasing threats to their safety and wellbeing—including mistreatment, gender-based violence, exploitation, social exclusion and separation from caregivers—because of actions taken to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The chilling symptoms of child abuse. 

The next day, I earned Jose’s trust. I said we should play “follow the leader.” Eventually, he let go of the coping as we walked along the side. Then I showed him how to walk from one end to the other. Then I showed him how to put his face in the water while walking, bending over forward. Then I showed him how to jump forward like a torpedo.

The process took two days. On the third, day, 11-year-old José swam.

An hour later, I felt these electric-like freezing cold tingles throughout my body – up and down up and down. This ebullient José — how to find words to convey the contrast in his confidence? —he sprinted through the cafeteria, announcing to dozens of children, “I know how to swim!”

Today, I wonder about José. I wonder if his father was released from prison. The father that “Got a new tattoo across his face.” The father he called “very rough.”

Is COVID-19 forcing José to stay in a home, alone, with that “rough” father?

If not, other children are. ER doctors are seeing a spike in severe cases of child abuse.

The chilling symptoms of child abuse. We must act…

For the children,