Born during the Great Depression, Bob was one of 10 children who lived with their parents on Blossom Street in Boston’s West End.
But on a bleak November night in 1936 Bob’s father, a decorated World War I veteran, was killed in a fall from the fire escape outside their apartment. The freak accident at the height of the Depression sent the entire family into depths of emotional and financial despair.
Within two years, Bob’s over-wrought mother watched as the state stepped in and took away her children: All were suffering from malnutrition. It wasn’t that she stopped loving them. It’s that she no longer could cope with the nightmare that had engulfed them all.
For two years Bob was shuttled from a hospital to a convalescent home in Wellesley and then to the Long Island Hospital in Boston Harbor. His best chance for happiness came and went when a couple in North Reading tried to adopt the then 4-year-old boy. But Bob’s mother refused to sign the adoption papers, hoping to eventually reunite her family.
A year later, Bob was placed with three of his brothers on a farm in western Massachusetts, where his foster parents told the boys to call them Ma and Dad and to accept the other foster children already living there.
Their real mother found where they were living and somehow made her way to Haydenville, walking up the road carrying shopping bags full of oranges, bananas and Italian cookies. Reluctantly, the foster mother invited her into her kitchen but told her she was never to come again.
Even though he was only a preschooler, Bob says he vividly recalls his mother walking away from the farm that day. It felt like a knife had been plunged into his heart, he says.
What followed were six years of cruelty, long hours of farm work seven days a week and humiliation. Visitors who asked about the children were told, “They’re only state kids.”
The hunger, fear, severe beatings and other punishments were nothing compared to the ultimate horror of unexpected, unexplained changes of foster homes. A black car would pull up and the “state lady” would take one of Bob’s brothers. He was never told what happened to them.
Then one day the “state lady” came for him. Bob was told to gather his few clothes, put them in a cardboard box and come with her. The scene was repeated over and over until an emotionally fragile 17 year-old was suddenly on his own. He enlisted in the Marines in time to serve in the Korean War.
Later, Bob learned more of the fate of his mother, who spent much of her tormented life living in bus stations and frantically trying to locate and visit her scattered family. At her funeral, a priest asked God to forgive her of her sins, but she was far more victim than sinner.
Now 65, Bob is reflecting on his life and the fate of his brothers and sisters who were scattered to the winds, and has written his experiences in a book entitled “State Kid.”
This rare eyewitness account of live inside the system should be required reading for the next commissioner of the Department of Social Services.
By Jack Williams
Reprinted with permission of The Boston Herald
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