Susann Anzures, YDI Neutral Corner visitation monitor

Having been with YDI in many capacities for 18 years now, I felt I knew every program in and out- with one program being out of my sight for most of my career- mostly due to the gravity and sensitivity of the service it provides.

The Neutral Corner is exactly that- a neutral ground for parents to have monitored visits with their child in the cases where a conflict exists.  The staff here make sure the child is safe from arguments and disagreements between parents who share custody.  Children are largely referred to the Neutral Corner by the court system.  It is a safe place where parents and children can visit one another without the dark cloud of their combative situations hovering above their heads.

On my quest to discover what many of YDI’s programs do and who our staff members are, I was directed to the Neutral Corner by a friendly and familiar face- Benigno Vasquez, a longtime YDI veteran who has worked with upwards of 8 unique programs within the agency.  With a smile always on his face and a genuine, joking nature, it can be easily misunderstood that this cheerful man is truly one of New Mexico’s best and most effective social workers.  With 25+ years at YDI, Benigno has seen most if not all of the struggles that New Mexican families face in a variety of situations, and hundreds of families can attest to his effectiveness as a social worker and his huge heart.  His modesty and humility will never let you know that, though.

Through the congested courthouse area in Albuquerque’s downtown, I avoid the city’s erratic traffic and oblivious pedestrians to make my way to a familiar location- YDI’s 4th Street Outreach location.  I have worked many years with our Gang Intervention program, but was ironically unaware the Neutral Corner was next door, and I had never visited them.

With my camera and camera bag in tow, I try to open the door, despite the sticker pointing to the buzzer on the door.  This is their magnetic locking system, which is used for accessibility and safety reasons.  This is a stark reality check for me as I am reminded that not every family gets along to the point that they must be physically restricted at times.  I’m buzzed in, and I immediately meet two visitation monitors- Josie B. Melendez and Susann Anzures.  They are both working on paperwork, as each detail of every visit is heavily documented.  They have served 89 children and families so far this year with a small and dedicated staff.

Josie and Susann are both noticeably apprehensive about my presence- understandably so, as we have never met and I arrive in dress clothes with my sleeves rolled up revealing my tattoos, and a camera ready to flash in their faces.  Josie sees the camera first and immediately says “no pictures.”  I try to turn on the charm, saying it’s very important for people to see her face, and I am very good at photography.  “I’m sure you’re good,” she replies, with a deadpan expression.  “But I don’t do pictures.”  I even throw in “my boss really wants me to take pictures!” trying to invoke YDI President/CEO Dr. Gallegos’ name, but Josie is steadfast in her resistance.  I see that I’ve maybe pushed too far and I let it go, setting the camera down for now and opening my notebook.

I get right down to what I’d like to know- why do they do this job?  Why has their path led them to do what is obviously an emotionally draining job?  Josie and Susann exchange looks and both deliver me their answer.  “It’s all about the kids,” Josie says.  “It doesn’t matter why their parents are not together.  It doesn’t matter why they are having a conflict with one another.  None of that is their fault.  A child is a child.  They deserve to see both of their parents.  Their love for their family outweighs anything else.”

“Sometimes it’s as if the children are more adult than the adults,” Susann adds.  “It is so important that the children have contact with both of their parents without feeling like they have to choose.”

It is apparent that both of these ladies have huge hearts.  I keep pushing to hear more about their motivation to do this job.  It seems emotionally draining.

“It’s true,” Susann tells me.  “At the end of the day, when I go home, it’s almost as if I’m numb.  I’m just spent, emotionally and physically.  We’re open every day except Mondays, until 7PM or later.”  Josie chimes in: “a lot of the time we’re the bad guys; we put the limits on what parents can and can’t do.  We get challenged a lot.  Emotions are high.  People get riled up and have no target for their emotion but us; we get lashed out on a lot.”

The Neutral Corner sees a lot of their children grow.  Josie and Susann tell me that they have some clients stay with them until they’re 18.  This is when our conversation turns a corner.  I share about how I can relate to that- I ran an after school program for kids, teaching filmmaking, for 10 years, and many if not all the kids I’ve worked with still stay in touch.  “It’s amazing to see them grow, isn’t it?” I ask both of them.

I feel their guards come down, especially Susann’s.  I’ve found common ground.  This is when I get “buzzed in” to a real, personal conversation with these two ladies.  Susann’s body language relaxes.  She looks at me in the face, with a sad but genuine smile.  “I’ve worked almost everywhere,” she tells me, “I’ve worked at APD, at the jail, in the courts, as a victim advocate, at women’s shelters.”  Her eyes well up with tears. “I’ve seen a lot.  I’ve been through a lot.  I lost my son 11 years ago.  That’s when I started working here; this job helped me work through the grief.  I mean, it’s still there.  I still feel that loss.”

Susann pauses, and steels herself.  We talk about her son a bit, and she tells me about how he left her 3 wonderful grandkids who she gets to see a lot.  “It’s important that families stay together, however we can.  “We get to see visits turn to exchanges; we get to see families progress.  We get to see healing.”

“We want our families to get to the point where they don’t need us any more,” Josie says.  The two women exchange a look that can only be described as one of kinship, one of sisterhood.  That’s when I see why the Neutral Corner succeeds in YDI’s mission of helping families achieve their full potential: these two ladies are in it together.  The whole staff here is in it together.
“We reunite families,” Susann concludes.

“We help make strangers become loved ones.”