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643: Damned If You Do…

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Prologue

Ira Glass

A couple months ago, Amanda took her buddy Erin to see the rodeo in New York City at Madison Square Garden. Amanda goes nearly every year. Erin had never been. This was the Professional Bull Riders tour. And one of the pleasures of that particular tour is the guy they have as a rodeo clown, Flint Rasmussen.

Amanda

The guy's like a consummate entertainer, like consummate entertainer.

Ira Glass

What do you mean?

Amanda

I mean he commands the crowd.

Ira Glass

That's Amanda. Rasmussen's official title, in fact, is not rodeo clown or barrelman. It's entertainer. And unlike what you may picture in a rodeo clown, he speaks. He does a running patter the whole show, joking with the audience. He works in clown makeup and a cowboy hat, baggy gym shorts, athletic jersey. Her friend Erin totally enjoyed him.

Amanda

He was constantly finding people in the crowd who had their cowboy hat on backwards.

Ira Glass

Yes, backwards. These were New Yorkers out for the night in Western gear, having no idea how to do it properly. Flint would have the cameramen pop them onto the JumboTron.

Amanda

I mean it was a great joke, you know. He called them Woody, like the Toy Story character.

Ira Glass

That's so cold.

Amanda

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Rasmussen's also an amazing dancer and great physical mimic. He can move like Michael Jackson or Elvis or, for laughs, a piece of bacon on the griddle. He dances with people in the audience. And in that show at Madison Square Garden, there came this moment. He was out in the audience, moving up the aisles. Here's Erin.

Erin

He was dancing with people in the crowd, interacting with them. And a girl in her mid-20s came down to dance. And he visibly got uncomfortable, and started backing off, and asked the arena if she was too young and if this was appropriate for him to be dancing with her.

Ira Glass

And what does the arena say?

Erin

The arena is fine. The girl on the JumboTron visually gives consent, verbally gives consent, said, yes, yes, yes, yes. She was ushering him closer. As he was backing away, she was like, no, you can come closer. And he shakes his head and walks away, while she's still egging him on. But he does not want to cross a line.

Ira Glass

And remember please, this is a man in clown makeup and a cowboy hat. Erin was like, wait. Has #MeToo made it to clowns?

Erin

I turned over and looked at my friends. And I was like, you would not have seen this a year ago.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Erin

This is an amazing experience to see how the world is changing right in front of your eyes.

Ira Glass

Now remember her friend Amanda had seen Flint Rasmussen many times before at Madison Square Garden. And she told me, yeah, in the past, he would dance with a young woman as comedy.

Amanda

Yeah. Like very big, very exaggerated, very physical, slightly inept.

Ira Glass

But in general, his shtick with women was fake flirting.

Amanda

Fake flirting, yeah, in very cartoonish, over the top.

Ira Glass

And was it--

Amanda

Playful.

Ira Glass

Playful.

And she says never threatening, never, ever creepy.

Amanda

And he's really floppy. And, you know, he's this middle-aged, corny guy wearing gym shorts.

Ira Glass

But this was his first show in New York since #MeToo, the first show of this year's tour. And once Erin pointed out to Amanda how weird that moment was with the woman in the aisle, they both were like, maybe he's still finding his way. Maybe he's trying to figure out how a man in clown makeup navigates this new #MeToo world.

And they both started watching for other moments. And sure enough, at one point, Flint greeted some celebrities in the audience-- Miss USA and some other pageant winners, Miss Delaware and Miss New Jersey. Again, here's Erin.

Erin

And the JumboTron went to them. And the rodeo clown asked Madison Square Garden, should I go visit them? Should I go see them? And the JumboTron followed him. And he was photobombing them almost behind them. While the JumboTron was on the girls, he was kind of poking his head in between them with his hands up. But his hands were very visible.

It just felt like a physical manifestation of, I'm not crossing any lines. And I want everyone to see. I feel like in the past, he'd probably put his arms around them. You know, he would engage with them. They're beautiful ladies. But instead, he did not touch them. He asked the crowd, what should I do?

Ira Glass

He asked them, what should I do? And it was like a real question?

Erin

It seemed like a real question.

Ira Glass

So was it an anguished, what do I do?

Erin

It was more perplexed.

Ira Glass

Like, what do I do?

Erin

Yeah. Like, what do I do? Like all of his usual shticks, something that he's done forever and ever, rodeo pageant queens, how he'd interact with beautiful women, how he would interact for all the years that he's been doing this up until this point no longer is valid.

Ira Glass

It seemed like this veteran showman was caught in this "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. There were beauty queens at the show. And it's his job. He had to do something with them.

If he would do the old fake flirting shtick, maybe that wasn't gonna play so well that particular month, when middle-aged men were losing their careers for unwanted advances on young women. But saying, what do I do? That didn't seem like a great alternative either.

Erin

It was more awkward than I expected and slightly uncomfortable.

Flint Rasmussen

I don't know what to do right now. I remember saying that.

Ira Glass

I reached Flint Rasmussen when he was off the road and back in his home state, Montana. He does a lot of shows, but Madison Square Garden's a big deal. And so--

Flint Rasmussen

I remember the moment I stopped and said, I'm not really sure what I can do here. And I kind of put my hands up like, hi, you guys. And maybe it's not something I should say in a microphone. But I felt like I had a pretty good rapport with the crowd at that point, and they'd get what I was saying.

Ira Glass

He told me that, sure, that moment might've looked awkward to somebody in the audience. But he swears he was playing it for awkwardness intentionally. He thought it would play funnier. And he said the adjustments that he made in his performance that night in New York City were not really very big.

He's never been the kind of rodeo clown who would mack on women onstage. He's careful to be respectful. When he dances with any woman in the show, he says, it's just not entertaining if there's any whiff that he might be hitting on her.

Flint Rasmussen

And if someone in their 20s comes down and sees what I'm doing, I don't wanna be that creepy guy dancing with the 20-year-old girl.

Ira Glass

It was the perception of the woman who'd seen you before. She felt like in the past, you wouldn't have asked the crowd, what should I do? You know--

Flint Rasmussen

Yeah, probably. I may not have said that, honestly. I don't know. I would've maybe said, hey, let's get a picture, and put my arms around them possibly, which I still will eventually do and still maybe should have.

But I think any performer, if it's not on your mind, you have not turned on the television. You are not with it. It is in the back of your mind.

Ira Glass

To hear Flint tell it, all this is no big deal. Change is happening in the culture. He noticed, took it in, and then revised how he acted onstage by turning all this into shtick. If only things were always so simple.

Today in our program, we have stories of people who end up in situations where it is not clear at all how to proceed. And they really do feel like every option leaves them in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" kind of place. And then, they have to figure out a path forward.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: The Borrowers

Ira Glass

Act One, The Borrowers. So this is sort of an impossible choice that some refugees are going to have to make. And this is something new in the last year or two.

And it's happening at one of the biggest and oldest refugee camps in the world, this camp called Dadaab, this vast sprawl of makeshift housing that's way out in the hot, arid plains of Kenya. Just under a quarter million people live there. Most of them fled civil war and famine just across the border in Somalia.

You should probably know we're in the middle of the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The Trump administration has pretty much stopped resettling refugees from this camp and from lots of places to here in the United States, even people with life-threatening illnesses. But the US does give food. There's bipartisan consensus in Congress on this. We are the biggest donor by far to this camp and in general around the world.

No other country is even close, though in recent years other countries have cut back. And food supplies are just not keeping pace with the number of people who need food, which brings us to the impossible choice that refugees are having to make at this camp in Kenya. It begins with food. Reporter Kevin Sieff, who until recently was The Washington Post bureau chief in Nairobi, explains.

Kevin Sieff

Over the last couple of years, the food situation here went from bad to worse. The UN used to consistently provide enough food at the camp for three meals each day-- things like rice, vegetable oil, wheat flour. A lot of people told me they went from three meals a day to just one.

Recently, the UN has increased rations. But the situation's still pretty dire. For a bunch of bureaucratic reasons, a lot of the food that the UN gets from the US is sorghum. I didn't know what it is. And it turns out neither do the people in Dadaab.

It's a kind of cereal that they have no idea how to cook and that they don't like. People usually barter it away. Hadija Ahmed, 58 years old, a single mom with three kids in the camp, she remembers when the rations were cut two years ago.

Hadija Ahmed

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Interpreter

We used to get milk, rice, wheat flour, cooking oil, even canned tuna. But now, we don't know what's happened.

Kevin Sieff

Hadija's kids started complaining that they were hungry. She's used to figuring things out. So to fill the gaps, she started going to a tiny shop in the camp. Lots of people do this. The markets are run mostly by other refugees and stocked with produce from outside the camp. Hadija asked the shopkeeper if she could take a little rice and milk on credit, thinking, I'll be able to pay this back. She also bought medicine and school uniforms. And her debt kept growing. The Kenyan government doesn't allow refugees to work outside the camp. And then after two years, this past December, the store owner had enough and cut her off.

Hadija Ahmed

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Interpreter

So he closed the accounts, like, this is the end of it. I went back home. I cried. My mind was full of, you know, troubles and stress. And I did not talk to the kids for a day or two.

Kevin Sieff

Hadija is in debt for an impossible sum here-- $350. And now her creditor was hounding her to come up with the money.

Hadija Ahmed

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Interpreter

He keeps on asking me, why don't you pay my debt? Do you want to run away with my debt? Are you refusing to pay my debt? Busting my brains, how nagging it is.

Kevin Sieff

The guy who owns the shop is named Abdi Nor. Hadija says he came by her house with a Kenyan police officer and threatened to arrest her. She knew it could get even worse than that. People are often beaten up or killed over personal disputes.

There was only one solution left. The UN does have a program that will give you money, more money than most of the refugees here have ever seen. But it comes with a crazy catch. You have to return home to the country you fled. Refugees in Dadaab can get about $150 per person upfront if they agree to go back to Somalia.

I know how that sounds. They'll leave a relatively safe place and move back to the same war zone that they ran from. Posters all over the camp advertise this program. In one, a woman stands in a field with a bag on her back and a baby on her chest. It says, return is my choice. Hadija decided to do it.

Hadija Ahmed

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Interpreter

All avenues are closed for me. There's not any other alternative. I have to go because of the debt.

Kevin Sieff

She was returning to a failed state, a place she hadn't been to since 1998. The morning she was leaving for Mogadishu, I met up with her and her kids at a transit center. They were surrounded by suitcases and big plastic bags with other families who were waiting to board planes and buses back to Somalia.

Hadija Ahmed

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Interpreter

This morning.

Kevin Sieff

Hadija's saying, I'm sad this morning. Her son and daughter are 19 and 17. She raised them in the camp alone. Her husband died years ago. They have no memories of Mogadishu. They don't want to go back.

Hadija Ahmed

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Interpreter

But I'm just stopping myself from crying. The kids get scared. I'm afraid they might sneak away and run away when they see me crying like this because they think I'm taking them to a bad place.

Kevin Sieff

She was so worried about them running off that the night before, she slept between the two of them. Nobody was getting any real sleep, though. Her son Ahmed was a few months away from graduating high school. Now, he was dropping out and going to a place where boys his age were kidnapped by insurgents. This is Ahmed.

Ahmed

Last night up to now, I have not slept.

Kevin Sieff

You didn't sleep at all last night?

Ahmed

Yeah. I was just-- I was awake, chatting with my friends, saying them goodbye. I was thinking about making new friends. It's hard to make a new friend, you know. I'm thinking about what will happen. My life is going to be dangerous because I'm going somewhere which is dangerous. And I can't trust that I can live there a long time.

Kevin Sieff

Do you know why your mom's making this decision?

Ahmed

Yeah. I know very well. The main reason that she's going back is for us. If we were not there, she will not borrow any debt.

Kevin Sieff

It's $350, basically.

Ahmed

Yeah, $350.

Kevin Sieff

And that money is changing your life.

Ahmed

Yeah. I'm changing my life because of that money. If there was not that money, I will stay here.

Kevin Sieff

Ahmed kept telling me how guilty he felt. He said Hadija was a good mom. When he asked for shoes, she bought them. When he was hungry, she fed him.

He never thought about how she was paying for everything. He was a kid. But now he thinks maybe they wouldn't be going back to Somalia if he hadn't asked for so much.

I'd met creditors like the one who loaned money to Hadija. They were pretty menacing guys, gangster types with dark sunglasses and jewelry, relentless in their attempts to get their money back. At one point, after talking to Hadija for a while, I was off talking to my interpreter. And he said, hey, you know her creditor, the store owner, he's here with her.

And I looked over. And there he was, this guy Abdi Nor. He'd snuck into the transit center. He wanted to make sure she was leaving so he'd get all of his money back. He had no sunglasses, no jewelry. He was carrying a brown notebook with an itemized bill for Hadija.

Kevin Sieff

What's in the notebook?

Abdi Nor

Like this is rice, 6,508 shillings. For sugar, 5,500. And this is 4,900 in cash.

Kevin Sieff

She borrowed cash?

Abdi Nor

Yeah.

Kevin Sieff

Total, there are about, let's see, about 15 lines with a big line under all of that that says 35,000 shillings, or $350.

But as I spent more time with them, I realized Abdi wasn't some kind of mob boss trying to shake people down for money. He's a 23-year-old guy who still looks like a kid-- soft-spoken, a failing attempt at a mustache, sitting quietly on the ground next to Hadija. It turns out they live in the same block in the camp, and he's friends with her kids. They actually have a real relationship. That's why Abdi Nor let her take out groceries on credit from his tiny sheet metal stall in one of Dadaab's busy markets.

Abdi Nor

She comes to me every day while she's crying. She's saying, I don't have food for my children. I have felt very emotional because I don't want to see her children suffering. And I know her. I can't see her dying. I know her situation. So I've just allowed her to take that money from me. And the money that I have given to Hadija, that's a lot of money, almost half of my yearly earning.

Kevin Sieff

Half of your yearly earning.

Abdi Nor

Yeah.

Kevin Sieff

Hadija's debt, $350, that's the most credit Abdi Nor has ever lent out to any of his customers. Most of them are running smaller tabs with him-- $16 there, another $40 here. It adds up.

In total, Abdi Nor is in way more debt than Hadija-- about $1,500 to the big shops outside of the camp, mostly other Somalis living in Kenya. It scares him, the hole he's dug for himself. He says he had no choice but to cut Hadija off.

Kevin Sieff

So when you were asking for your money, you could see that it was stressing her out.

Abdi Nor

Yeah. And I also feel sorry for her. But I don't have any other option. I need my money. I have a small shop. I'm about to close that shop because of this debt.

Kevin Sieff

Do you think the police would have arrested her eventually if she had stayed?

Abdi Nor

Yeah. I think they will have come for her. Because they may also come for me. I think I may be forced to go back to Somalia because I am facing the problems they are facing also.

Kevin Sieff

I mean are you going to be in the same situation as she is? The only way to pay that debt is the same--?

Abdi Nor

It's the same way. I don't have another option.

Kevin Sieff

People all over the world risk their lives in boats and with smugglers to try to get refugee status. But you can give up refugee status too. There's a name for the process-- deregistration. I followed Hadija and her family through the process. They're taken from table to table to sign forms and to give their fingerprints-- a conveyor belt of bureaucracies.

Kevin Sieff

OK. So now Hadija's coming.

Deregistration Officer

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Kevin Sieff

Her fingerprints are being taken now.

Deregistration Officer

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

[TAPPING]

Kevin Sieff

He's applying the ink on the machine.

Hadija Ahmed

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Interpreter

Now I'm about to surrender my refugee status on this table.

Kevin Sieff

One of the deregistration officers then says this is the last process.

Deregistration Officer

This is the last process.

Kevin Sieff

So are they surrendering their refugee status? Is that what's happening?

Deregistration Officer

They are surrendering their refugee status here. We are taking the fingerprint of the left thumb to show that this person has left the country to his own country.

Kevin Sieff

So after this, they are no longer refugees. They are Somalis.

Deregistration Officer

They are not refugees. Right now, they are Somali citizens, not Kenyan refugees.

Kevin Sieff

It's a big moment.

It's hard to explain the magnitude of what Hadija is giving up. She was a part of a tiny fraction of refugees who had been singled out by the UN a few years ago for possible resettlement in the United States. She says she'd already done a couple of interviews. Now, she's pulling herself out of the pipeline.

And if Hadija decided she wanted to come back from Somalia again, she would no longer be considered a refugee. It would be harder to get food and shelter and to get her kids back in school at the camp. As I watch Hadija go through this, so many of the UN and Kenyan government workers who are shuffling Hadija and all these refugees through the process tell me how terrible they feel and what a bad idea they think it is for people to go back to Somalia.

Worker

For the refugees now life has become some more hard. People are expecting to get resettlement. And resettlement now is-- Trump has refused them to go back. So I think some of them, they have lost hope of seeing this come. We are feeling of guilt of doing this, but because--

Kevin Sieff

You feel guilty doing it.

Worker

Yes. We feel guilty because we don't want these people to go back. We want them to stay.

Kevin Sieff

Some refugees who've returned to Mogadishu have died in terrorist attacks. Others have already come back to Dadaab. And they've tried to warn people like Hadija that it's too dangerous. I talked to top UN officials about this, about refugees using repatriation money to pay off their debt.

They say they're aware that it's a problem facing some people. They dispute that it's widespread. And they aren't ready to change the program. They say there's a need for a program like this.

Some refugees don't want to live at Dadaab anymore. They need the repatriation money to restart their lives in Somalia. The real problem here, the UN said, is that it's caught in its own impossible position. It's just not getting enough foreign aid to buy food.

Later, we all got on a pink bus with yellow stars on the windows and took the bumpy road out to the airstrip. The airstrip is an exclamation mark of asphalt, the only paved thing for miles, surrounded by an endless plain of lava-red sand. I've been reporting at this camp over the last few years.

And I've come to think of this strip as the capital of the camp, the departure point for its luckiest and unluckiest residents. I got used to meeting families clutching their winter coats in the 100-degree heat with paperwork that named their future homes in places like Seattle and Minneapolis. Now, with refugee resettlement stalled under President Trump, those flights have pretty much stopped.

Instead, the planes are headed for Somalia. When Hadija and her family arrived at the airfield, she and other refugees dragged all their belongings off the bus-- suitcases, along with mattresses, Qurans, pots and pans. A few minutes later, a UN official sitting under a white tent calls out her name.

They're in line. They're getting their money now. She's putting her fingerprints down under her name.

Her two kids are then called over.

Un Official

Kids, come over here.

Kevin Sieff

And now it's her daughter's turn. She's putting her fingerprints down. OK. So there's a line of people. And there's a man with a pile of white envelopes. Each of them has a name on it. He takes the cash out of the envelope-- $100 bills-- and counts them in front of them.

Un Official

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Kevin Sieff

I see he counted $450. And he's handing it now to Hadija.

They're giving her the repatriation money right here in cash, four 100s and a 50 in US bills. That's the total for her and her son and her daughter-- $150 per person.

So now Hadija's walking away. She's got the envelope with the money. And we just need to follow them.

Ahmed

Let's go. We give out the money, the debt, that's what my mom said.

Kevin Sieff

She immediately starts walking towards Abdi Nor, who somehow made it onto the airstrip. She's taking the money out. She just handed it to Abdi Nor in the white envelope.

She did this right in front of UN officials, officials who are here to oversee this process that the UN calls voluntary repatriation. Around 100 feet away, a bunch of other refugees are also paying their creditors, slipping bills through the barbed wire fence at the edge of the airfield. Everywhere I look, people were settling their debts. For the moment, Hadija stood alone.

Kevin Sieff

So you had-- in your hand, you held the money for 30 seconds. And then you had to give it away.

Hadija Ahmed

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Interpreter

Yes. Because this money I've ate long before.

Kevin Sieff

This money she ate.

Interpreter

Yeah. And why I'm leaving is because of giving it out.

Kevin Sieff

She had $100 left. She gave $50 of it to an older son who's staying behind in the camp. He was afraid to go. Hadija and her kids huddled around him.

Kevin Sieff

They're saying goodbye to the other son. They're hugging.

Son

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Hadija Ahmed

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Interpreter

We are leaving now. I am leaving my son. And I am leaving you guys to say bye.

Kevin Sieff

OK.

Interpreter

They are being told to queue and go to the field.

Kevin Sieff

OK. All right. OK.

Interpreter

Now they're queuing for the flight.

Kevin Sieff

OK. They just called her name. She walks up the steps. All right. They're pulling up the steps. Wheels up. It's flying out over the airfield, over the camp, over the shrubs. And in about five minutes, they'll probably be in Somalia.

Abdi Nor looked on as Hadija and her kids, his friends, flew away. I went to meet him and asked how he was feeling.

Abdi Nor

I felt happy to get my money back, but I also felt sorry for her.

Kevin Sieff

The only other person who paid him off like this and flew to Mogadishu was another mom who went back with her daughter. Not long after they got there, a gigantic truck bomb went off in the city, killing more than 500 people, including her daughter. It was one of the deadliest terrorist attacks anywhere since 9/11.

Abdi Nor

After the bomb blast, I felt very emotional because I think she didn't deserve.

Kevin Sieff

I've followed returnees back to Mogadishu. I've seen the massive, impoverished displacement camps where they end up, many of them partially controlled by Islamist extremists. They're way bleaker than Dadaab.

Kevin Sieff

So when do you think you have to make your own decision?

Abdi Nor

I don't have a deadline. But I think it's not far. It's not far. I'm thinking about it right now. It may be next month or--

Kevin Sieff

Really? You might have to go back pretty soon?

Abdi Nor

Yes. I think so.

Kevin Sieff

And today, I mean you saw the plane leave. That's the same plane that you would take if you went back.

Abdi Nor

Yes. That's the exact same plane that I will go.

Kevin Sieff

Dadaab was never the world's most hopeful place. But for so long, there was at least the possibility of escape. From across the camp, you used to be able to see the flights overhead, full of lucky people on their way to America.

Ira Glass

Kevin Sieff, he's a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post. Thanks to his interpreter in Kenya, Abdi Hussein. The United Nations World Food Programme needs $8 million a month in donations to support all the refugees in Kenya. They never, ever get that much.

If you personally would like to help and get at least a bit more food in there, they do take donations from people, not just from governments. Go to wfp.org. Again, that's like World Food Programme, wfp.org.

Coming up, a parent desperate to help her kid has only one option through a perverse loophole in the law. But does she dare to use it? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: We Must Destroy This Family in Order to Save It

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Damned If You Do, stories of people faced with options where all the options are bad. We've arrived at act two of our program. Act Two, We Must Destroy This Family in Order to Save It.

So Eileen and her 19-year-old son Noah, they are not agreeing about some of the big issues, like for instance death as it occurs in Star Wars movies.

Eileen

We don't even know that he's dead.

Noah

Wait. Luke?

Eileen

We don't know that he's dead. They say that all the time.

Noah

When a Jedi evaporates, it's the same thing that happened with Yoda. Their physical body's gone, but their Jedi spirit's around. I mean jeez. You're from--

Eileen

What do I know? I'm just a mom.

Noah

Yeah. You're just a mom. Come back to me when you know what you're talking about.

Ira Glass

They live in the Chicago suburbs, have two dogs, go on vacations to Florida, get along well enough, as you can hear. But it took a while to get there. In fact, as a parent, Eileen had to deal with the kinds of decisions that other parents fear that they're going to have to make. And this story is about this one moment in Noah's life when Eileen faced the toughest of those decisions. Shannon Heffernan tells the story.

Shannon Heffernan

Noah's problem started when he was little. He'd throw fits, like not standard kid fits-- shrieking, kicking, completely uncontrollable for hours.

Eileen

He would run from one end to the other down this hallway. And he would literally bounce himself off a wall. Like he needed that pressure on him to stop his impulses.

Shannon Heffernan

His diagnoses started when he was around five-- ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, mood disorder. He'd pull out his own hair, so he had bald patches on his head. But Eileen's a nurse, has a calm, can-do attitude in emergency situations. Blood and guts is a matter of routine.

So she found solutions, like pillow therapy. She'd put a pillow over Noah and lay on top of him. The pressure calmed him. By the time he was in kindergarten, doctors had put him on a bunch of different meds. Noah asked why he had to take them. Eileen was like, no problem. And she explained.

Eileen

I sat down with a piece of paper and crayons or markers or something. And I said, look, this is what a normal brain looks like. See how all the pathways connect? Your brain tried to form right, but your brain is kind of like a bowl of spaghetti. Sometimes the connections are there.

And sometimes there's a blockage, and then it had to grow a different way. So when you're having issues, your brain is trying to make it go through here. And then it gets blocked. And that's why you have to take medication.

Shannon Heffernan

Still, they constantly had to change his meds. Sometimes, it seemed like nothing worked. As Noah got bigger, his outbursts got scarier. When he was about 10 at an Easter brunch, Noah showed up in the doorway with a carving knife and said he was going to stab himself.

When Noah's family couldn't get the knife away from him, they called 911. The cops got the knife away, and the paramedics took him to the emergency room. Eileen started finding knives hidden under the couch. She worried what Noah might do to himself.

She also worried about her daughter Bridget. She's seven years younger than Noah. In middle school, Noah would go into these rages, throw things, shove furniture. He never hurt her, but it was scary. Eileen would tell Bridget--

Eileen

Go in the car and lock the door. Because I knew I could still see her. She was safer in the car. He couldn't get in the car. And then I would go in the car as well at some point. And then he'd be outside the car screaming and yelling and pounding on the car.

Shannon Heffernan

Noah's 19 now. The explosions were as frightening to him as they were to the people around him.

Noah

It was scary. It was very scary. Because it's the type of thing where you have a random burst of uncontrollable actions.

Shannon Heffernan

When he began to calm down, it was like waking up from a nightmare.

Noah

And when you awake, it's like you're scared of what you just did. So it was this type of thing where, when I awoke from it, I saw there was things broken on the wall. There was a lot of knives thrown everywhere, things broken, things on the floor.

Sometimes it would be so intense that I'm not conscious of what I was doing. It was a thing where like it ate at me, really, because day in and day out, I always thought to myself, oh my god. What if I really hurt someone? And I don't know what I'm going to do.

Shannon Heffernan

Eileen met Noah before she was actually his mom. She was a neonatal nurse working the night shift. He was a preemie, only 1 pound, 7 ounces. He had drugs in his system from his birth mom. She disappeared on him, left him at the hospital.

Child welfare workers said he'd be hard to find a home for because he was so medically fragile. They said he would probably end up in a special kind of nursing home for babies. And that broke Eileen's heart. And so she decided to adopt him.

She was single. She didn't have a lot of money. And she knew Noah needed lots of help. But she thought, I've always wanted to be a mother. I'm a nurse. Who better than me? She borrowed a car seat and crib from a friend, filled out all the necessary paperwork with DCFS, the Department of Children and Family Services, and took Noah home.

When he was a baby, Eileen brought him everywhere with her. He was easy. But as he got older and started having these meltdowns, she says her friends and family stopped inviting them over. She calls mental illness a no casserole disease.

Eileen

If your kid has cancer, people show up on your doorstep with casseroles. If your kid is hospitalized with mental health, everybody runs away.

Shannon Heffernan

From the time he was five, Noah sometimes wound up in the hospital for psychiatric care, sometimes for weeks at a time. Remember, Noah had been abandoned by his biological parents as a newborn. So Eileen always reassured him that she wasn't going to leave him there.

Eileen

Yeah. I always would promise him, yes, I'm coming back. I promise I will not leave you. I've said that his whole life, that I'm not going anywhere. You're stuck with me.

Shannon Heffernan

By the time Noah reached high school, Eileen estimates he'd been hospitalized 30 times. She says police and paramedics knew them by name. That's how much she called 911. Noah's doctor started saying they had to stop dealing with his illness in crisis mode. He should go to residential care, a facility, get 24-hour supervision, live there for months at a time.

Social workers said the same thing. The kind of intensive services Noah needed if he wanted to stay at home, they were too expensive for Eileen, for most people. But Eileen wasn't sure about residential. She couldn't stand the idea of Noah being in an institution. But she worried if she didn't do something soon, he'd end up in juvie, or he would hurt himself.

Eileen

Because he had said multiple times that that's what he was thinking about. And I never really believed him. But I didn't want to be that parent who people would say on the news-- they'd be sitting at home and going, well, how did she not see the signs? My god, he was in the hospital 30 different times. How did she not know? I wasn't going to be that person that didn't try every single thing they could. Better off that he's mad at me than he's no longer here.

Noah

Well, I was more than mad. I was beyond mad. For a time, I hated-- I hated everybody for a time. But looking back, I mean I did do some very bad things, some of the stuff I told you about. But I'm not going to say it on live radio because I don't want to be perceived as a monster. But I mean, yeah, I did very, very stupid things.

Shannon Heffernan

Eileen started calling around to residential homes. But none of them had an open bed for a kid on public aid, which was Noah's situation. She considered paying for a residential place on her own. But when she did the math, it came out to about $100,000 for six months. There was no way she could afford it.

So Eileen worked her way up the chain of command, hoping someone could find a facility the state would pay for. She called social workers, state representatives. She says she even got the governor on the phone.

Eileen

I talked to the governor myself. He got on the phone and said, hi, this is me. I had literally three minutes with him.

Shannon Heffernan

That didn't really lead anywhere. She felt like she hit a wall. And then she heard about another option, a radical one, a last resort. Eileen talked to a mom who had been in a similar situation to hers, Toni Hoy.

And what Toni had done to get her kid treatment was give up custody of him, hand him over to the state. Once the state takes custody of a child, they have to provide mental health care. It's a perverse legal loophole that exists in a bunch of states. It's called a psychiatric lockout. It's meant to ensure that kids who are abandoned by their parents end up with the care that they need.

But instead, desperate parents like Eileen are using it as a last-ditch effort of making sure their kids get treatment. It's called a lockout because it's as if the kid has been locked out of their house. Some child welfare workers even tell parents to do it. It's called lockout coaching.

The way it would work is the next time Noah was hospitalized, Eileen would refuse to pick him up and bring him home. Eventually, the state would take custody of him and pay for him to live in a residential facility. And that was it. Technically, it was easy. Emotionally, of course, it was much harder.

Shannon Heffernan

Was there any part of you just that had an emotional reaction to the idea of giving up custody, that that just felt--?

Eileen

Ugh. Absolutely. Because I'd been fighting for him my whole life. And I promised him, I will never, ever, ever, ever give you away-- ever.

Shannon Heffernan

Toni actually advised Eileen against it. She had done it and regretted it. Eileen felt like she was stuck between two terrible options-- give up custody and get Noah into residential care or keep custody and try to deal with the threadbare services they had now, which felt like failing Noah, endangering him even.

Eileen

You don't sleep. You don't-- you just try to think, OK. Is this my only choice? What could be the worst that could happen? Could it be any worse than what you're living right now?

Shannon Heffernan

Eileen was on the fence, so she didn't mention it to Noah. She didn't want to create more stress for him if it wasn't going to happen. Then, when he was 14, Noah had two back-to-back episodes. The first one landed him in the hospital for five days. The second one started after he'd only been home for a few hours.

Eileen and Noah got in a fight over the car keys. Eileen says she doesn't think Noah was trying to hurt her, but the struggle got physical. And she got scared. It was one of those times Bridget wound up hiding in the car. Eileen called 911, and the paramedics took Noah back to the hospital.

Eileen

I knew I couldn't bring him back home. Poor Bridget, you know. I mean you look at your other child, and they have to lock themselves in a car. And it's not like I'm choosing one child over the other. But when you have two kids, you have to make them both safe.

Shannon Heffernan

And that was when she decided to do the lockout. She thought she'd only lose custody temporarily, only while Noah needed residential treatment. So the whole thing would be short-term. What she didn't fully grasp at the time was that some parents go years without seeing their kid when they do a lockout. Some parents lose custody of their kids permanently.

So Noah went back to the hospital. And after his allotted number of days in treatment, when his caseworker told Eileen he was ready to go home--

Eileen

I said, I'm not coming to get him. What do you mean you're not coming to get him? I'm not coming to get him. He needs to go to residential.

Shannon Heffernan

The hospital called again and again. And every time, she'd say the same thing. I won't come to get my son.

Eileen

And then the guy from billing would call and say, you have to come get him. Every day that you don't come get him, it's going to cost you thousands of dollars, whatever the price was. I said, I'm not coming to get him. So I think after two days or something of refusal to come get him, they said, well, we're going to have to call DCFS. I said, OK, go ahead.

Noah

Somewhere about the seventh or eighth day, and I'm wondering, why the hell am I still here? Why-- why aren't they going anywhere? So I called her. And then she explained it to me.

Shannon Heffernan

And what was your reaction? What did you think when you heard that?

Noah

Oh, I was mad. I was mad. I was sad, hurt, betrayed, a lot of emotions going through my head. And at that point, I just called her out on her name. And I said, I don't want you a part of my life. And I said, if you don't care enough about me to keep me and to push through everything, then I don't know why you ever adopted me.

Eileen

He's like, but you said you would never do this to me. You said you would never give me away. Oh, yeah, it's heartwrenching. He's believing that I am sick of this and that I want him gone.

Shannon Heffernan

So how did you explain it to him? Like what did you say?

Eileen

I would just keep saying, you are my son. You are always my son. I love you. I loved you from the day you were born. I will love you to the day I die and then beyond. We're doing this because you know you need to be in residential treatment.

Shannon Heffernan

She tried to convince him that she wasn't really giving up custody. It was just a formality, just some words they had to use so the state could come and give him treatment.

Eileen

Trying to convince him that this was really in his best interest.

Shannon Heffernan

And was he convinced?

Eileen

I think sometimes, and sometimes not.

Shannon Heffernan

And were you convinced?

Eileen

No, not always.

Shannon Heffernan

And when your mom said, hey, we are doing this to get you treatment, did you believe her?

Noah

Not really, no. No. I didn't believe her, no. I honestly felt like that she-- I felt like it was her plan all along to give up on me. That's how emotionally stressed I was. I thought that this was your plan. 14 years, and then you're just going to give up on me. That's how I felt. Then I didn't talk to her really for the next 30, 40 days.

Shannon Heffernan

Did you feel guilty at that moment?

Eileen

Oh, yeah. Because you go through-- even though I tried everything for so many years and been through so much, what could I have done differently? If I had done this differently way back, would that have changed the chain of events? Yeah. You go through all of that in your mind.

Shannon Heffernan

For weeks, Noah sat in the hospital, and Eileen didn't visit him. Because she worried if she showed up, the state would force her to take him home. And the whole plan would fail. It was hard not to see him.

But Eileen channeled her energies into finding a residential treatment facility for him. Some of them had terrible reputations. They seemed more like prisons. But she found a place outside Chicago called Allendale. It looked nice.

She called and made sure they had an open bed. DCFS agreed to send him there. And after spending about a month in the hospital, Noah was transferred to Allendale. Eileen had wanted to drive him to Allendale herself.

But DCFS wouldn't let her. The state was now his custodial parent. So she drove up on her own. Now that he was there, she could visit him again.

Eileen

I brought up his things. I brought up sheets, and blankets, and things to try and make his room feel more homey. I just wanted to be there to support him and to show him that this is not what I want to do. I'm doing this so that you can get in there. I wasn't going to abandon him.

Shannon Heffernan

To Eileen, Allendale looked like a summer camp.

Eileen

There's a beautiful lake there. And there's lots of green, lots of grass, baseball fields, a farm area. I said, Noah, it looks really pretty. It looks OK.

I kind of took a relaxing breath and thought, OK. We were on the right track. I felt like we finally got what he needed and that this was an OK decision.

Shannon Heffernan

As painful as it was to make that trade, to give up custody of her 14-year-old son in return for treatment, in that moment, it felt like it was worth it. The relief didn't last long. A couple weeks after he arrived there, Eileen got a call from DCFS saying that she needed to come to court, that she could be charged with neglect.

Eileen didn't know that. A lawyer told me this is a pretty common tactic to try to scare the parents into ending the lockout. And it did scare her. She tried to explain to them.

Eileen

I said, well, I don't abuse him. What? You know, I went through the whole thing about I've been taking care of him for all this time. There's no abuse. There's no neglect.

I was told that if I did this lockout, this was the only way for me to get him into this program. I didn't just do this because I don't want him. I'm there all the time.

Shannon Heffernan

The first time Eileen appeared in court, the judge told her to get an attorney. He told her this was serious. Not only could she permanently lose custody of Noah, she could lose Bridget too-- and her nursing license.

Shannon Heffernan

You leave those court doors. What happens?

Eileen

Just I went in the bathroom. You know, you just go in a stall, and you just try to get yourself together enough to make it to the car. And then I get in the car, and I already start-- I'm sitting in a parking lot making phone calls, saying, oh my god. What could I do now?

Shannon Heffernan

She called Toni, the woman who had explained lockouts to her in the first place. And Toni put her in touch with an attorney who had worked on other cases like Eileen's, kind of a superstar in this world. The lawyer was able to get Eileen custody of Noah again, while getting the state to still pay for Allendale-- which is a way better outcome than many parents got and way better than the choices Eileen had at the beginning.

In 2015, not long after Noah went to Allendale, Illinois implemented a new law that was supposed to keep lockouts from happening. But it hasn't really worked. In 2016, DCFS got 173 psychiatric lockout calls.

This whole thing could probably be avoided if we did what basically everyone-- DCFS workers, mental health policy wonks, activists-- say we need to do-- provide kids like Noah with services in the home, the earlier the better. It would be expensive. But then, at least in most cases, we could avoid this whole weird thing of lockouts and sending kids to live in institutions.

Noah had a terrible experience at Allendale. He was there for over two years. He hated it.

Noah

It was beyond hate. I mean honestly, there were so many things wrong there. I was there when a staff murdered a kid.

Shannon Heffernan

This incident Noah's talking about, a kid died after being restrained by a staff member in a chokehold. The man was charged with involuntary manslaughter, not murder, and eventually pled to the lesser charge of obstruction of justice. Allendale, by the way, says they put procedures in place to make sure this kind of thing never happens again. Eileen says it's only in the last few months that her relationship with Noah has recovered. Now, they give each other crap in a loving way.

Noah

Now, most of the time, you are right. Most of the time, you are right. But--

Eileen

I have two witnesses to that.

Shannon Heffernan

It's on the record.

Eileen

And it's on tape.

Noah

But for the times that you are wrong, I wait for it.

Shannon Heffernan

Eileen says she and Noah have had hundreds of conversations about the lockout and about Allendale. Sometimes he's still angry at Eileen. He says he wouldn't make the same choice she did.

But then again, he's not sure exactly what he'd do differently. He gets it was hard. If 19-year-old him could talk to 14-year-old him, he'd try to explain that.

Noah

I would say, look, peanut, don't give your mom trouble. Don't give your mom trouble about this. I would say, look, your mom really did the best that she could.

Shannon Heffernan

I asked Eileen if she'd do something different now. She says sure, but she doesn't know what either. She can't see a different turn she'd make. The thing about living in a broken system is you make broken choices.

Ira Glass

Shannon Heffernan, she's a reporter at our home station, WBEZ Chicago.

Act Three: Amricani

Ira Glass

Act Three, Amricani. So a bunch of us heard this story, and we just really liked it. And like everything else in today's program, it's about somebody in an impossible situation. Sharif Youssef put this together.

He now makes radio for a living. But this is actually the very first radio story he ever attempted. He did this back when he was in college. Here he is.

Sharif Youssef

When I was five, my whole life changed. My mother lost her battle with cancer. We had no money. So Dad and I moved back to Alexandria-- Egypt, not Virginia. I had lived in Egypt as a toddler. I knew I had once called it home. I just didn't have any memories of that home.

We couldn't afford the private American school, so I went to an Egyptian one. It was my first day in the first grade. I was six now. My Arabic was limited to yes, no, apple, and toilet-- which is toilet, so it doesn't really count. I was terrified.

When we arrived at the school's front gate, Dad gave me a hug and told me it would all be all right. I desperately wanted to believe him. I walked toward the mass of kids running around the yard and looked back over my shoulder. He was the only parent at the gate. He waved and gave me a thumbs up. I waved back and turned before he could see the tears roll down my face.

That morning, like every morning, we gathered to sing the national anthem. I didn't know the words. But the tune was catchy enough.

[ARABIC SINGING]

I could feel my classmates pointing and laughing behind my back, whispering, [SPEAKING ARABIC] In class, we sat three to a desk as the teacher went through her lesson. Two kids to my left were talking. The teacher, Miss Mona I think her name was, turned from the board and called them to the front.

They went and instinctively, if reluctantly, put a hand out in front of them. Miss Mona grabbed a ruler from her desk and brought it down on each hand. At this point, I distinctly remember thinking, oh, [BLEEP]-- or whatever the six-year-old equivalent is.

Fast forward a couple months, I was picking up the language quickly. I think I was doing better in Arabic than most of my classmates, actually. I was even getting used to the kids being hit, though it never failed to grate on my nerves to see it happen.

In my religion class one day, the teacher asked us all to show him the questions we were supposed to do for homework. He didn't assign us any questions. "Everyone stand," he said, as he picked up the ruler lying on his desk. We did.

He wound his way through the aisles, starting on the left side. I was on the right. "Show me." He stopped to read. "Good." Wait. How the hell did that kid know we were supposed to do these questions? Did I miss him saying it? Or was he just some sort of overachiever?

"Show me." "I didn't do it," replied another kid. My palms were sweating. Maybe I could show him an old assignment, and he wouldn't notice the difference. He was already in my aisle. Maybe I could pretend I was sick. No, everyone would just make fun of me.

Getting closer, right behind me. He stood in front of me, his dark eyes darting between my face and my notebook. "I didn't know we were supposed to." [SPEAKING ARABIC] he said. "Give me your hand."

Tears were already falling onto my notebook, blurring the blue and red lines of the painfully blank page. But before he brought the ruler down on my pale, pudgy hand, I saw something soften in his eyes. It wasn't quite empathy, or even sympathy. It was pity.

He looked at me and brought the ruler down with about a tenth of the force that he did for everyone else. I sat down, shaking, not sure if the glares I was getting from classmates were real or imagined. I rubbed my hand to numb what little physical pain was there. But that didn't help how I was feeling on the inside. [SPEAKING ARABIC] Very, very [SPEAKING ARABIC]

Ira Glass

Sharif Youssef, he's the technical producer at the great podcast 99% Invisible.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Lilly Sullivan. The people who put our program together include Elna Baker, Elise Bergerson, Dana Chivvis, Emily Condon, Stephanie Foo, Michelle Harris, Kimberly Henderson, Chana Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Miki Meek, Alvin Melathe, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Diane Wu. Our senior producer is Brian Reed. Our managing editor is Susan Burton.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to every show we've made, more than 600 episodes, for free. And as of this week, you can also find us on Instagram. Yes, we really jumped on that bandwagon.

We waited eight years to see if it would catch on. Our username there is the same as on Twitter, @ThisAmerLife. Just search us, OK? You'll find us there.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's cofounder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he saw a puppet show this week. He said the puppeteer was definitely substandard.

Erin

His hands were very visible.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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