In collaboration with Rise magazine, Jezebel is publishing a series of articles written by parents affected by the child welfare system. This post, the second in the series, features narratives by Antoinette Robinson and Jeffrey Mays, two parents who felt unjustly treated by the Family Court process.
Antoinette Robinson lost her two children to foster care for more than a year on a charge of child neglect. Like many parents facing allegations in overcrowded family courts, Antoinette was urged to plead guilty to a neglect charge that she felt was unfounded in order to speed up her children’s return. It didn’t work, and the neglect conviction stained Antoinette’s record; parents with neglect records can be excluded from working in child care and with the elderly.
I was raised to have pride in who I am and stand up for what I believe. Standing up in court to admit that I neglected my children, I felt like everything I knew to be true and right was thrown out the window.
As the judge looked at me and said, “I strongly suggest you plead guilty,” I broke down and cried.
My lawyer put her head down and told me, “I will do what you want but she’s going to find you guilty. She’s already got her mind made up.”
I looked up at the “In God We Trust” written on the wall and wondered what God would take away my children. I just kept reminding myself that the system could not take what God had given me.
Partying to Forget
In 2008, my boyfriend Vito died suddenly. For two years after he died, I’d cook dinner and clean my apartment after my kids went off to school, and I’d spend time with them and make sure they did their homework when they came home. But a lot of times I was just going through the motions. Inside I was grieving.
On Fridays I would drop the kids off at my mom’s (my biological grandmother but my mom because she raised me) and go out partying. I wanted to have a good time and escape my grief. I knew my children loved me; I wanted to find a man to love me.
My mother loves my children and they love her. But while I’m a neat freak, my mother’s apartment is dirty. An anonymous caller reported me for leaving my children there, and after ACS saw the conditions in her home—the mess, the garbage, the flies (my mother’s apartment is right above the trash in her building)—they said the fact that I’d left my children there made me an improper caregiver, and they took my children from me. Having my children removed was the most painful experience of my life.
Scolded by the Judge
I think part of the reason my children were taken when parents in way worse situations than mine keep theirs is that I’d had several ACS investigations in the past. Most of them were harassment calls, though once a nurse in the hospital called because she didn’t like how Vito was reprimanding the kids and once the school called because I refused to put my son on medication for ADHD. The investigations stayed on my record and when ACS came to investigate again, it didn’t look good.
By my second time in court, I also learned that the judge I had had a reputation for being tough. She expected parents to be accountable for their actions and address the issues that had brought them to her court.
She told me I should be ashamed of myself for leaving my children in my mother’s home.
Afraid to Fight
In court, I had two choices: Make a submission, allowing the court to find me guilty of neglect, or take my case to trial. My lawyer said that if I took the case to trial, it could drag on and on with my kids in care. My lawyer made me feel that if I wanted my children home quickly, I didn’t have much choice but to submit. Still, making the submission was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.
My lawyer said, “My client’s ready.”
The judge said, “What is your plea?”
Tears rolled down my face as I made my submission. My legs were weak. I thought I was going to faint. I felt drained, like the system had broken me.
After I made my submission, the judge said something like: “Do you understand what you are saying? Is anyone forcing you to say these things?”
It felt so crazy, like a rapist was forcing me to say that I’d wanted it.
Still, after I said that I’d made the submission willingly, the judge looked at me and offered me more visits with my children, almost as if to say, here’s a reward for what you just did, accepting your responsibility.
A String of Obstacles
Soon after that second court date, the foster mother of my two younger children said my youngest was acting out in ways that were sexually inappropriate, and the court ordered psychological testing of me and my children.
The psychologist who tested my daughter didn’t find anything sexually inappropriate about her behavior. But when they tested me, I hid my grief and the fact that I’d been partying because I didn’t know what they might use against me. What the psychologist wrote down in her report was that I lacked understanding of why my children had been taken.
By then, I’d also lost my housing, and the judge had discovered that I’ve received SSI since I was 8 years old, when my grandmother sent me to residential treatment because she was having a hard time raising me. This made the judge question my competence to raise my children. After that my case dragged on for a year and a half before my children were returned home.
I don’t know what would have happened if I had taken my case to trial. Maybe my kids would have been in care even longer. But from where I stand now, I wish I had never said I was guilty. At least I wish my lawyer and I had had more time to discuss what my submission might mean to my children and me.
Having that guilty plea on my record feels horrible. The worst part is that people don’t get to see exactly what I did or didn’t do, just that I have a record for being “neglectful.”
I still have a lot of anger at my lawyer. She may have thought she was looking out for me, but it feels to me like she sold me out.
Maybe one day I will be able to look back and see things in a different light, but right now all I feel is incredibly bitter.
Jeffrey Mays is a father who lost his three children for 18 months as he and his wife struggled with drug addiction. Fathers are frequently treated as invisible or unwelcome in child welfare cases. Mays writes about being excluded from reuniting with his family based on unjust stereotypes about men of color.
Child welfare came into my life in 2000. At the time, I was married with three children, ages 14, 11 and a newborn. I was also an addict.
I used anything that got me high: glue, coke, heroin, valium. I started getting high to belong with the bad guys in the neighborhood and I continued for 35 years.
Because of my drug use, I could not hold a job for long and at times I was an embarrassment to my children. One day I had to go to the school and the principal said I smelled like wine. I made a scene and called her all kinds of “bitches” and “hoes.”
I couldn’t always provide for my children adequately, either. When my kids were taken into care, they were staying at my brother-in-law’s because we had no gas or electricity.
An Addict and a Father
Despite my drug use, I took my role as a father seriously. So many black men are in prison, or don’t have a job and can’t pay child support, or have baby mama drama. They may want to be in their kids’ lives but because of all of the obstacles, they just move on. My own father never left us, though. He told me a real man takes care of his family.
I made sure I was an important part of my children’s lives. When my kids needed someone to talk to, they would come to me and we would take a walk. They knew they could tell me anything.
The problem was the child welfare system didn’t see me that way.
Child protection took our children when our last baby was born positive tox. The night my kids were taken was the worst night of my life. My oldest child just started running. I told her: “Be strong. I am going to get you back. I love you.” I felt terrible that I had let her down.
After that, I entered rehab on my own. I knew I had to do this for my children. But when the social worker came to the house, the first thing out of her mouth was, “Who are you?”
I told her, “I am the children’s father and this is my wife.”
She asked, “What are you doing here?”
I said, “I live here.”
After that, she ignored me and went on to talk to my wife. My wife was addicted, too, and the social worker said they would help her get into inpatient treatment. The case plan didn’t involve any kind of services for me.
Maybe the social worker assumed I would never get sober because my wife told her that I had been in and out of treatment for 35 years. But in my mind she saw me as just another deadbeat black dad, rather than seeing me for who I was: an addict, yes, but also someone my wife and children looked to for love and support.
I Didn’t Belong
After my wife went into treatment, the only way I found out about my children’s case was from my wife’s drug counselor. (I wasn’t allowed to visit my wife while she focused on recovery.)
I would show up to appointments and the workers, lawyers and judges would ask me how I found out about them. They never told me that I couldn’t participate, or that I couldn’t see my kids. Still, the message seemed clear: I didn’t belong.
I felt such mixed feelings during those months: mad, sad, wanting to die. A lot of times I wanted to give up. But I asked God to help me and I kept going to the rehab program I had found for myself.
Every time I showed up to visits or appointments, I’d bring a clean urine. At first that didn’t seem to make any difference. But I kept coming. After eight months, they finally started including me in the case plan.
Over time, I saw the ways I hadn’t provided my children with security. When we had meetings to attend, the kids would always take it on themselves to remind us. It seemed like they were the parents and we were the children.
My wife and I tried to make things better by buying our children’s love or letting them do whatever they wanted. But over time we realized we needed to be stronger so they could be free to be kids. After 18 months, our children came home to both their parents.
Fathers’ Love Is Important
Part of me can understand why some caseworkers overlook black dads. For many reasons, a lot of black men aren’t there for their kids, and some fathers are a part of the problem.
Still, as a parent partner in the system today, I see that too often the first question caseworkers ask is: “Are you sure you’re the father?” Or, “Are you late on child support?” The message they seem to be sending is: “Your love is not important to your children’s well-being.”
Today, my oldest child is 28 with two children, in school to earn her associate’s degree. My middle child is 25 and a manager at the fast food restaurant where she started working in high school. My son is 14 and a Boy Scout. And I am someone my family is proud of and other parents in the system turn to for support.
It would have been a terrible loss for me not to have been around to see my children grow up, telling them to never give up. It would have been a terrible loss for them, too.