Book extract: Closer Than You Know by Brad Parks

The US author introduces the first chapter of his new book, in which Melanie, having survived the upheaval of foster care, faces renewed turmoil when she to goes collect her son from childcare

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“I’m a parent, so I’ve made the joke,” says author Brad Parks. “If you’re a parent, you probably have too: You’ve made some benign mistake – let the baby’s diaper get ripe, forgot to pack fruit in your daughter’s lunch, let your son go off to school with ripped pants—and now child protective services is going to come take your kid away.

“For Melanie Barrick, the protagonist of Closer Than You Know, it’s no joke. She’s a working mother whose baby has been ripped away from her by child protective services… and no one will even tell her why.

“The book is based on my own experiences as a newspaper reporter in Newark, New Jersey, a crime-plagued American city where ‘the system’—as everyone refers to social services—is a huge presence in the lives of poor families.

“In Melanie’s case, someone has turned the system against her. And unless she can figure out who, she’ll lose her baby forever.”

ONE

He was dressed in his best suit, the one he usually reserved for funerals. She wore pearls. It made her feel more maternal.

Arm in arm, they walked up a concrete path toward Shenandoah Valley Social Services, whose offices filled a cheerless metal- sided building. There was no landscaping, no ornamentation, no attempt to make the environs more inviting. As an agency of county govern¬ment, Social Services had neither the budget nor the inclination for such gilding. Its clientele was not there by choice.

The man paused at the front door.

“Remember: We’re perfect,” he said to his wife.

“The perfect couple,” she replied.

He pushed through the door, and they traveled down a stark cinder¬block hallway toward the main waiting area. A sign read NOTICE: NO WEAPONS.

The room they soon entered was ringed with blue imitation- leather chairs and stern warnings against food- stamp fraud. A smattering of people, all of them luckless enough to be born into multigenerational poverty, looked up and stared. Men in suits and women in pearls were not a common sight here.

Ignoring them, the man and woman crossed the room and an¬nounced themselves to a receptionist who was bunkered behind a thick chunk of clear plastic. This could be a tough business: The administering of benefits; the denying of requests; the dispensing of abused and neglected children, taking them from one family and bestowing them on another. There had been incidents.

After a minute or so, the man and woman were greeted by the family services specialist who had been assigned to them, a woman with a tight ponytail and square- framed glasses who received them warmly, by name, with hugs and smiles.

It was all so different from when they had first met her, about three months earlier, when it had been nothing but dry handshakes and justifiable suspicion. Families like this didn’t just stumble into Shenandoah Valley Social Services and volunteer to become foster parents. Families like this— who had resources, connections, and that air that suggested they weren’t accustomed to waiting for the things they wanted— either went with private adoption agencies or traveled abroad to acquire their babies: eastern Europe if they wanted a white one; Africa, Asia, or South America if they didn’t care.

Seriously? the family services specialist wanted to ask them. What are you doing here?

But then she started talking with them, and they won her over. They told her about the failed efforts to get pregnant, then about the tests that revealed they would never be able to have children of their own.

They still wanted a family, though, and they had decided to adopt locally. Why go overseas when there were children in need, right here in their own community? They were just looking for a vessel to re¬ceive their love.

The family services specialist tried to explain to them there were no guarantees with this route. It might be months or years before a baby became available. Even then, they might foster the infant for a time and then have to turn it back over to its birth mother. Adoption was always a last resort. Social Services’ goal— to say nothing of Vir¬ginia statutes— prioritized reunifying children with their biological families.

The woman chewed her fingernails when she heard this. The man seemed undeterred.

After that initial interview had come the parent orientation meeting, then the training sessions. They had taken notes, asked questions, and generally acted like they were trying to graduate at the top of the class.

Their home study, in which every aspect of their residence was inspected, had been flawless, from the child safety locks all the way up to the smoke detectors.

And the nursery? Immaculate. A crib that exceeded every standard. Diapers squared in neat piles. The walls freshly covered in blue paint. “Blue?” the family services specialist had asked. “What if it’s a girl?” “I have a hunch,” the man said.

They flew through the criminal background check. Their paystubs showed ample income. Their bank statements swelled with reserve funds.

Home insurance, check. Car insurance, check. Life insurance, check. Their physician had verified that both the would-be mother and father were in excellent health. Their references gushed with praise.

In her thirteen years on the job, the family services specialist had interacted with hundreds of families. Even the best, most loving, most well meaning among them had issues.
This one didn’t. She had never met two people more ready for a child.

They were the perfect couple. Shenandoah Valley Social Services did not officially rank potential foster families, but was there any question about who would be number one on the list if a baby became available?

Even now here they were, turned out like they were attending an important public ceremony when really they were just going back to a shabby, windowless office to accept a piece of paper. It was their certificate, indicating they had completed the necessary steps to become approved foster-care providers.

They beamed as they received it. They were official.

More hugs. More smiles. The receptionist came out of the bunker to take pictures. It was that kind of occasion for this couple.

Then they departed.

“What if we did this all for nothing?” the woman asked as she walked out of the building.

“We didn’t,” the man assured her.

“You really think it’s going to happen?”

He leaned in close.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll have a baby in no time.”

Closer Than You Know by Brad Parks is out on 15 March (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

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