Her first day of work did not go quite as planned. After being chased by an angry pit bull and jumping over a fence, Tameka Saunders returned to the office with ripped jeans and only one shoe. As her colleagues watched, she was given slippers to wear. Tameka thought, “Are all days like this?”
“You came back,” her supervisor said the following morning - and she has for the past 15 years. Tameka credits this supervisor, Linda Fusco, with giving her the “best foundation” to begin her career and is thankful for those experienced workers who mentored and taught her in this most difficult work. It is easy to realize Tameka does not view her time with the Department as a job. It is a calling. “We are drawn here,” she says. “My compassion and love make me a good worker.”
Tameka specializes in permanency. Her life’s work can be seen in the “permanency book” she proudly displays on her desk filled with pictures, cards and letters for over 45 children she has facilitated being adopted and others who have found permanency via transfer of guardianship. It does not include the countless families she has assisted in reunification. From babies to adolescents, siblings groups and kinship placements, all of these children now have a place to call home.
Perhaps one page in the book tells us the most about Tameka Saunders. It is the page dedicated to a little boy named Leon.
Baby Leon was brought into this world by a family burdened with the ills of society. He was born substance exposed and with multiple life-threatening conditions. Suffering from a compromised immune system, Leon stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit immediately after birth and was eventually transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit where he would remain for 5 months. Afflicted with a genetic heart condition, Leon required a ventilator for all but two days of his life. His body contained a chromosome consistent with Down’s-Syndrome.
Overmatched by unmet mental health needs, cognitive challenges and substance use, Leon’s parents already had one child placed with kin. Tameka was familiar with them, and the extended family, given their prior involvement with the department. They could be challenging she said and “I did the best I could to meet them where they were.” Tameka took the time to understand who they were as people. Medical staff described Leon’s “parents as overbearing” and she was firm to express to the professionals to “be patient.” Despite what they were perceived as not having, Tameka simply wanted the couple to be respected.
Tameka visited Leon literally every day in the hospital from September 2018 through February 2019. That was each day including the weekends, holidays and days off. On the rare occasion she did not physically see him, she called to determine his well-being. “Hey mom, the DCF office is closed,” one Doctor said to her. “I see you here every day.” Tameka made every effort to attend morning and evening rounds for this baby. He soon became her little boy. The staff became so used to her presence, some thought she was actually Leon’s birth mother. .
Each day Tameka came back. Multiple times a day. “I would go sit and have lunch with him,” she recites. “The staff would leave dinner trays of food for me to ensure I ate during my nightly visit.” When Tameka walked out onto the floor, the medical staff would sit with her and give her the updates on Leon’s progress without being prompted. “I still have all my notes handwritten,” she says. “I am not throwing them away.”
The bond between Tameka and this little boy continued. During visits, Tameka would rub Leon’s head and gently stroke his arm. Leon would flinch at first as he associated touch with pain that would typically follow from the prick of a needle. Over time, this learned behavior subsided.
Tameka could not hold Leon in her arms.
When Leon needed heart surgery, his parents asked Tameka to stay with them during the procedure.
Our work is emotional and draining, often taking a negative toll on the balance between professional life and personal life. With the hours spent with Leon taking time away from her own family, Tameka would have conversations with her daughters and explain where she was and why this special little boy needed her. Now, Leon had the entire family’s support. “Leon can have these toys,” her youngest daughter said. This same child gave Tameka her favorite book, “Brown Bear Brown Bear”, and asked her to read it to Leon. While looking at her mother she stated, “Maybe he will open his eyes today.”
Tameka read the book, and others, to him during their time together. Often, imitating the sounds of the characters and objects in them so Leon could be soothed. “I would talk to him when I visited.” One day he faintly smiled.
On a February night, Tameka was halfway home from work and decided to turn around to see Leon one more time that day despite already being with him in the morning. “Something told me to go back,” she said.
Upon entering his room, it was apparent Leon was having a hard time breathing. She held his hand and he calmed. Shortly thereafter, his fragile body became extremely distressed. With Tameka in the room, doctors, nurses and other medical professionals administered emergency care. The attempts could not save his life.
The doctor placed Leon into her arms. “After his death, I held him for the first time and rocked him.” The two of them alone in a room. She cried.
“He waited for me,” she fondly states. “He was not ready to go until I came back.”
Tameka was the one who notified the family and encouraged them to grieve in the manner in which they felt most comfortable. In their own personal way.
Arriving home that night, Tameka expressed to her family the sorrow of Leon’s death, explaining to her daughter, he will now be in Heaven. “Mommy,” she said, “He’s going to get angel wings and he will fly there. It will be so awesome,” her little voice expressed. “He won’t be in pain. We have our own angel now. Someone looking over you now.”
The last page in the permanency book is dedicated to Leon. It was put together by the staff at Yale New Haven hospital as a gift to Tameka. It includes his handprint and footprints-complete with his picture and a short poem. “He’s really your son,” one particular nurse stated, “We’re sorry we couldn’t do more for your son.”
Our young children who leave us so soon, leave behind a legacy. Tameka believes Leon’s legacy was to remind us to “be ever-present” with our families. “That is what they will remember. Slow down and be in the moment.” Tameka thinks about Leon every day and credits him for teaching her so much about herself. “He reminded me why I came to this job.” He “reminded all of us why we do what we do.”
Leon’s family knew Tameka’s connection. They still call her, including his grandmother, who outreached the day before the interview. “They want to know how I am doing,” she said. The parents also maintained contact and provide updates on their lives. “I love them,” she said. “I know deep down they loved their son. They were doing the best they could.”
At one point, they asked her to adopt their little boy.
Leon’s family put his ashes in a heart necklace for Tameka. When she is ready to take them, she will.
Leon is home.
His permanent home.