Ghana - My Home Again for the Holidays
Social Worker Brittany Roberts is described as having an energy that is infectious, a motivation to learn and a heart that truly cares.
It would take all of these traits and a team of individuals to assist an 11-year-old little girl to return to Ghana - her home for the holidays. This is a story of family engagement, kinship, racial justice and equity of supports all occurring during a pandemic.
In October 2019, Willsy Smith traveled with her father from Ghana, Africa to the United States where she was left in the care of a family friend in New York City. Her father never told Willsy’s mom, Antoinette Smith, about this plan that her young daughter would be left in another country almost 5,000 miles away. “The father said he wanted to travel with my daughter for two weeks. I knew traveling is a good experience, I let her go. When he came home without her, it was awful. I felt helpless,” explained Ms. Smith. “She’s my only daughter in the whole world."
The extended family gathered support and a maternal aunt, Belinda, flew from Ghana to NYC with the intention of reunifying Willsy with her family. It was then learned that Willsy's father took her passport with him and she could not leave the United States. Belinda brought Willsy to a family friend as she herself could only stay in Connecticut for a short period of time.
A call was placed to the Department of Children and Families when it was learned Willsy was without a legal guardian in the United States. After initially placing Willsy into foster care, the Department made the decision to vest an Order of Temporary Custody in a family friend, Dorcus Mesah, so that decisions about Willsy’s school and medical care could rest with her. Ms. Mesah was considered Willsy's kin, and a family with whom she was familiar. Willsy was able to move into the Mesah home but this living arrangement was not easy. “Of course, I said yes but it’s been very, very hard," said Ms. Mesah who has three children of her own.
Enter Brittany Roberts. “The family embraced me as soon as I walked into their lives. We were like family," explained Ms. Roberts. “This was such an interesting case with so many details, I learned so much," she added.
Willsy began receiving behavioral health supports and her education was arranged. She received medical care while awaiting the next steps.
Yet, the barriers to having the family together again were complicated. Ms. Smith was in Ghana, and eventually travelled to the United States under her visa in February 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic then hit and travel back to Ghana was stopped. During this time, Ms. Smith's visa expired, and it was confirmed that Willsy could not leave the country without her passport which remained in the possession of her father who was not responsive to the family or Department's contact.
The family then suffered further trauma. In addition to Willsy, Ms. Mesah also took in her niece during this time as her own sister contracted COVID-19. Ms. Mesah explained that when the children would go to school each day, she would spend her days at the hospital with her sister. Emotional and with much remorse, shared that her sister passed away. “I felt helpless because I was not allowed to visit her anymore because of COVID. My sister didn’t understand why I was no longer coming. She died alone. It was devastating for all of us," stated Ms. Mesah. Yet, she maintained the strength to care for 5 children.
Brittany Roberts only worked harder.
“Brittany reminds me there is no can't in CPS,” said Program Manager, Gerard Downes, adding – “nothing stopped her. Pandemic problems, Brittany found a way to overcome them. Immigration issues in a pandemic, they didn’t stop Brittany. Medical challenges, Brittany found a way."
Ms. Roberts was determined to help a family return to their homeland. “Her ability to build rapport with this family, enough so that they trusted her efforts to get them home, was amazing,” explained Rodney Moore, Brittany’s Supervisor. "She always had the family’s culture at the forefront of her mind."
Once the legal process became clearer, a plan was in place to help Ms. Smith and Willsy return to Ghana. The OTC was vacated, and Ms. Smith remained in Connecticut with her. Ms. Roberts spent a lot of time speaking with the authorities at the Ghana Consulate, who granted a “permission to travel” certificate for Willsy in absence of her passport. Ms. Smith's visa was renewed, and she purchased the airplane tickets with DCF covering the costs of the COVID testing, pre and post, travel. A date was set.
However, the plan was again delayed after a routine medical exam revealed a concern over Willsy’s vision and she was referred to an eye specialist. A recommendation was made for eye surgery to occur in Connecticut to lengthen one of Willsy’s eye muscles with a hope to alleviate her other eye from overcompensating. “It was not believed this procedure could be done in Ghana.
"There was a real fear that Willsy would lose vision in one of her eyes," explained Ms. Roberts. "We just didn’t feel right about sending her home without addressing these concerns,” she added. Glasses were prescribed for Willsy and the surgery was performed. According to Ms. Smith, Willsy is doing very well since the surgery and they are very anxious to return home.
"Working with the family has been a pleasure,” Brittany said. "They were very transparent and welcomed me with open arms. With the help and support of my management team, we were able to work collaboratively and help the family get the proper medical attention and assist them in getting back to Ghana, despite being in a pandemic."
“Brittany took initiative and knew when to reach out for support," explained Program Supervisor Downes. “Brittany used child protective services resources and kinship support to reunite a mother and daughter, helping them find a safe and healthy path home, together. “
On 12/26/20, Ms. Smith and Willsy returned to Ghana.