By the Way

He captured most emotional DHS experiences with his eyes, not his lens

Sun Herald photojournalist John Fitzhugh
Sun Herald photojournalist John Fitzhugh

It’s the photos I couldn’t take that I remember most.

Many times throughout my career, I have struggled to illustrate stories about places like the Harrison County emergency youth shelter or Hope Haven Children’s Services youth shelter in Hancock County because you can’t take photos of the kids there.

The stories are about them, but you can’t show their faces.

Those faces tell the story.

I was granted unparalleled access to the people at the Hancock County Department of Human Services — or at least some of them. But I couldn’t go out in the field with them as they faced daily struggles with families in crisis.

I was also allowed to take photographs inside the Harrison County Youth Court courtroom as staffers and DHS employees prepared for a day’s caseload, but I had to leave before the court session opened.

What I saw when I left the courtroom grabbed me by the eyeballs. It is a vision I will not soon forget.

The waiting room outside the courtroom was packed. People flowed outside that room into an open-air hallway. Not one person was happy.

These were parents affected by the DHS system. They were parents of delinquent children and parents of children who had been — or soon would be — taken away from them by that system.

I was particularly struck by the stare of a woman sitting in the middle of the first row of chairs.

It was blank, hard to read.

It dominated the room of frustrated parents.

I could understand, because I’ve been in that waiting room before.

My wife and I have been foster parents.

We were fortunate enough to be able to adopt two beautiful girls who have been with us for 10 years now.

Their mother had mental-health issues and a drug habit that the court ruled left her unfit to care for her girls.

It was a two-year ordeal for us to go through the foster system, the TPR (Termination of Parental Rights) hearing, then await approval from the state before we could adopt them.

Their mother, unlike most, approved of the process.

She knew we would take better care of her children. She thanked us.

It was all heart-wrenching.

We had a good DHS caseworker. She cared.

Our daughters’ brother was not so lucky.

He suffered through six months of poor care by DHS and the foster-care system before he was rescued by good foster parents who eventually adopted him.

But he still suffers.

Still, you can’t indict the entire system.

It is individuals who make a difference. Good DHS caseworkers and good foster parents make the difference. People who volunteer with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) who take the time to serve as liaisons between DHS and Youth Court make the difference .

It is the difference between a child who gets lost in the system — potentially lost forever — and a child who finds a loving home and a future without pain.

That is what it is all about.