The tragic death of Zymere Perkins, a child who died at the hands of abusive parents even though the city’s child welfare agency had repeatedly investigated his family, made headlines in New York City publications for months this past fall. In their coverage, many outlets focused on a familiar narrative of monstrous parents and failing caseworkers, in stories that advanced the notion that the child welfare system had become too hesitant to remove children from their homes. Ultimately, the city’s child welfare commissioner resigned.
But recent reporting has captured the opposite reality—that child welfare investigations and removals are a constant, terrifying presence in the lives of poor parents. Citywide, one in five children comes to the attention of the child welfare system. The majority of investigations are concentrated in just eight neighborhoods. Most allegations are not abuse but neglect, often driven by the stressors of poverty, not the character of the parent. And the negative press may have heightened disparate treatment of poor families; in the first quarter of 2017, after the coverage of Zymere Perkins’ death, requests for removals by the agency were up significantly over the same time last year.
Just as the criminal justice system disproportionately affects minorities, so, too, is child welfare a system known for its disproportionate surveillance and separation of families of color. Black children are more likely to enter and stay in foster care compared to white children, even when the allegations against their caregivers are the same. Nationwide, black, Latino and Native American children are overrepresented in the system.
In collaboration with Rise, a magazine devoted to telling the stories of parents who have been involved with the child welfare system, Jezebel is publishing a five-part series of articles written by some of those parents over the past several years. Getting to the stories of families under investigation illuminates the generational trauma of family separation in this country. As Rise contributor Piazadora Footman has written, “It seems like I’ve been afraid of child protective services all of my life.” For poor women and children of color, child welfare is perhaps the most pressing invisible civil rights issue of our time.
The first post in this series features narratives by Nancy Colon and Jeanette Vega, two mothers who successfully regained custody of their children who had been placed in foster care and went on to advocate for other child welfare-affected parents.
Nancy Colon lost her children for 18 months after her 6-year-old daughter told a school social worker “about daddy.” Nancy was the victim of domestic violence, and abuse charges in Criminal Court against a perpetrator can, in some cases, lead to neglect charges in Family Court against the victim for “failure to protect,” even when the children have not been physically harmed and family support services are available. In Nancy’s case, poor legal representation contributed to her separation from her children. Nancy is now an advocate for parents at an innovative legal services provider.
From the first day that the child welfare system came into my life, I felt confused, afraid to ask for help and alone, with no one to guide or support me. My case began five years ago. I got a call from Child Protective Services (CPS) in Detroit, asking me to come to a Team Decision Making meeting and to bring my five kids with me.
At the meeting, the CPS workers told me that my husband had been accused of child abuse and charged with battery for abusing me. This meeting was to determine whether I’d failed to protect my children because their father had harmed them and they had witnessed domestic violence. Sitting at the table with the CPS worker, her supervisor and a meeting facilitator, I felt very intimidated. I had no lawyer or advocate to explain what was going on.
Punished for Telling
I was interviewed for two long hours about my life history, my kids and my marriage. I felt like I was on trial. I believed that the meeting was my only opportunity to get away from my husband’s abuse, so I told the workers everything that had been going on in our family for the past two years.
I explained that I didn’t leave my husband despite his violence because I had no family support and nowhere to run. Besides, abuse was normal in my childhood. I witnessed abuse and more abuse. I was always told, “Cover up the bruises and keep walking, and don’t tell anyone.”
I thought that my husband would end up in jail and my life with my children would return to normal. But I think being honest only made my situation worse. In the end, they charged me with “failure to protect” and placed my children in foster care.
I Lost Everything
After the meeting, my children were separated from me and from one another and placed in four different foster homes. I tried my best to make my children feel comfortable, but I will never forget the moment that I had to tell my oldest, “You have to stay with the nice lady and Mommy has to go somewhere else.” It was two weeks before her 6th birthday. She begged me not to go. But she already knew the reason why. She asked, “Is it because I told the lady that came to my school about Daddy?”
CPS told me I had to move to a shelter immediately. I also had to call my boss and tell him that I was quitting so that my husband couldn’t find me at work. The worker drove me to my new home, a shelter in a city an hour away.
All a Blur
My first night at the shelter I felt like a little kid hiding in the closet again. In one day I had lost everything that mattered to me—my children, my job as a supervisor, my home and my dignity.
The first court hearing was a blur. I met my attorney a few minutes before it started. He told me that the best thing to do was to admit to all the allegations. He said this would help me get the kids back sooner. So I did that, but later I came to believe that it only hurt my case.
After three weeks, the CPS worker gave me a copy of my treatment plan and asked me to sign it. It said I had to go to parenting classes, therapy and family therapy and find employment and housing.
Determined to Reunite
But it was difficult finding services in a new place where I couldn’t even find the McDonald’s. Everyone kept saying, “You’re not a resident so we can’t help.” I was too afraid of messing up my case to contact my attorney or worker and ask for help.
After a few months, I decided that it was impossible for me to start from scratch and I moved in with a friend in Detroit. I went to my old job and explained what had happened and begged for a job. I also obtained a part-time position as a housekeeper, enrolled in a G.E.D program, and enrolled in therapy at a community mental health program.
I was so afraid of what my CPS worker would say once she found out that I had moved back to Detroit. I thought she would take it as a challenge and I would never see my kids again. But to my surprise, she was OK with it and even gave me a referral to a parenting class.
Afraid to Speak Up
After that, I thought my kids would come home. At every court date, I expected my children to be released to me. Finally I asked my attorney why they were still in foster care and he explained that I had to complete my treatment plan before the court would consider reunification.
My attorney was friendly and nice, and I thought he was a good lawyer because he took the time to answer some of my calls and meet with me before each hearing. But now I see that he did not help me understand my situation. I never knew what to expect from the next court hearing or why we kept returning to court. He also did not challenge the court or the child welfare agency in any way.
At times I wanted to speak up in court. My children told me that they were being abused in foster care, and I wanted the agency to move them to a new foster home. But I didn’t dare to ask too many questions. I didn’t want to make my case more complicated and I was intimidated by the referee, which is like a judge. My lawyer seemed intimidated, too. He stayed quiet in court.
After my children had been in care for 16 months, I completed my service plan. At around the same time, I was assigned a new worker who became my advocate. She had my children placed with new foster parents that fell in love with my family and wanted to see us together again. Finally, my children came home. We were so happy to be together again.
Now my kids are doing great. One daughter is planning a trip to Nicaragua to help build a school. Another is part of a college preparatory program. My boys are doing well in school and talk all the time about how they want to become police officers. And my little one—well, that child thinks she runs the house.
Even so, I believe my children should not have had to go through a painful year of separation. My attorney could have been much more aggressive in pushing the court to return my children to me. Or, if I’d had an attorney at the Team Decision-Making meeting, I could have gotten preventive services instead of having my children removed.
After I reunified with my children, I was able to become a Parent Partner, providing other parents with emotional support, resources and guidance. Now that I work with other parents, I’m sometimes thankful for my attorney, even though I believe he could have done so much more to communicate with me and teach me my rights.
One mom I worked with had an attorney who talked down to her. In the waiting room at the courthouse, he made comments about how bad she smelled and asked, “Do you even know how to read?” He seemed surprised when the parent asked for a new attorney.
Another parent had an attorney who never believed anything she said. This mother’s children were placed in kinship care and the aunt wanted to adopt the children, so every time we went to court, the aunt had a horror story to tell about the mother. The attorney would not ask if the horror stories were true. She’d just say, “Why would you do that? You’re not getting your daughters back.” That mom almost had her rights terminated until she asked to have a new attorney assigned to her case.
The Extra Mile
I’ve also seen the kind of progress parents can make with a strong attorney. One dad had an attorney who made sure that the father understood his rights and that services were provided to him in Spanish.
The attorney always called the father a few days before the court hearing to review his progress and ask if he had questions. After court, she explained what steps to take next and encouraged him to call her if he had questions or concerns. It was wonderful to see how this attorney advocated for her client.
Proud to Help Parents
Now I am a Parent Advocate at the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy. Our mission is to reduce the number of children in foster care by providing legal assistance, support and resources to families.
Each family has a team—an attorney, a social worker and myself, the parent advocate. Together we help parents identify their needs, set goals and find support in their communities. We work with families to solve legal issues that put their children at risk of entering foster care or staying in the system. I see the difference it can make when families have a strong legal team in their corner. Children really do come home faster when families get the help they need.
At 19, Jeanette Vega lost her first son to the child welfare system for three years because she hit him with a belt. She is now the mother of four sons and an advocate for parents in New York City. Jeanette’s story highlights a central injustice of the field: the trauma of removing children from their families can do more harm than an infraction perceived by Child Protective Services.
When I was 19, and my son was 2, I lost my son to the child welfare system for three years because I hit him with a belt.
I was raised that if you get out of line, you get hit. Mom and Grandma would hit us with a belt or throw slippers at us, the old school Puerto Rican way. When I moved to Philly, Step-dad was worse. He was the throw-you-down-the-stairs, you-gonna-respect-my-rules, don’t play type of Dad.
I said I wasn’t going to hit my child, but I also thought my baby was going to be softer, calmer. Ever since he was 1 year old, he was an all-over-the place, running around, never sitting still type of kid. I was always watching him and wondering, “What’s next? What now?”
One night while I was in the shower, he climbed out of his crib and went out to the sidewalk all by himself. When I saw that he was missing and found him playing outside, I was shocked and scared and I hit him. The next day he was removed and I was arrested.
I was treated as a criminal. I wasn’t given a chance to explain myself. I wasn’t asked: What happened? I was just thrown behind bars. I felt like I was seen as a monster.
It took me three years to get my son back home. I got a new caseworker every five or six months. My attitude was: “You don’t have kids and you want to tell me what to do with me and mine?”
To be honest, my reactions were harsh and even scary at times. When my son came to a visit with a cut on his face, I attacked his foster mother and threatened her. I did not know how to control my feelings, my rage toward the system. I was sent to anger management three times.
It took me years to realize that the workers saw me as someone who would try to fix any situation with hitting, and my actions hurt my case. But at 19 years old, I didn’t see that.
I wish that the caseworkers could’ve seen me as a naïve young mother who was raised in a neighborhood and family where, if you get tough, you get put in your place.
I didn’t feel that the workers were telling me what to do in order to help me. I felt that they were testing me and wanted me to fail, and that I needed to show them how tough I could be.
The workers had so much power over me, and I was in so much pain. I really needed them to explain things to me in a reasonable way. Instead, they were quick to judge and took the worst out of me.
Eight years after my son came home, I started working as a parent advocate at a foster care agency.
At the agency, I was often frustrated. When I tried to speak to caseworker about a parent, I sometimes felt like they didn’t care about learning more about the parents they were supposed to be helping. I felt that workers didn’t get it—the anguish, the frustration that comes with parenting.
Yes, I worked with a few families that lost their rights for not complying and I got it. But in other cases I saw parents fighting tooth and nail and the agency seemed to run them ragged—adding services, moving visits backward. I saw that parents felt that, even when they were complying, they faced a judgment and struggle that made them want to quit.
Then I worked with a parent who brought it home to me just how scary it is being the one making the decision about families.
When I met Ms. P, I invited her into my support group. She was shy but she saw the other parents open up and she did also. The charge in her case was excessive corporal punishment. Her baby had a dislocated arm.
I decided to help her get her babies home because I felt like, “Who I am I to judge her? I made the same mistake with my own son.”
During visits, I could also see the bond, the love between her and her girls. She hugged them and played with them. The girls would ask her, “When can we go home?”
I was so happy to be part of the reason her girls got trial discharged to her. I had helped her stay focused and complete services. When workers would say, “Can Ms. P handle her boyfriend’s twin 5-year-old girls and the baby—and she’s pregnant?” I insisted on her reunifying and she also assured the workers she’d be OK with the girls.
Then, shortly after the kids went home on trial discharge, Ms P called me to say the baby got hurt.
When I saw the baby in the hospital crib, it was a sad thing to see. She had bandages on her inner thighs and could barely move. Ms. P had a story about how her daughter was injured, but when the doctor came out, he said it couldn’t be true.
As she was being arrested, I left the hospital.
I walked out crying and angry, thinking, “A sweet little baby girl with broken bones?” I asked myself, “Where did I go wrong? Did I push so hard as an advocate that I would help parents reunify at any cost?”
I went to my supervisor after I came back from the hospital. I was very emotional. My supervisor was understanding and compassionate.
I lost a lot of sleep over that case. I thought back to when I hit my son and asked myself hard questions: “Was ACS right to take my child? Could I have lost my cool even worse if no one had stepped in?” I also had to really think about the fear that caseworkers feel of making a mistake or bad judgment call on sending kids home. The job is not an easy job.
After that case, I had to work even harder to stay objective and open-minded as an advocate. I couldn’t be too friendly with parents, but I also couldn’t close myself off. Parents get enough of that.
I had to remind myself that, ultimately, what helped me get my son home from foster care was having people who believed in me the way I believed in Ms. P. My son’s second foster mother, Gladys, thought that my son and I belonged together. Though the agency didn’t give us more visits together, Gladys made it happen!
After school, I would often walk home with them, help my son with homework, eat dinner with their family, and even put him to bed. Gladys took a risk for my son and me, and it paid off. What would have happened if she didn’t?
Now he’s 18 and my husband and I have three more boys. We have never had child welfare involved in our life again.
When you get into this work, you always have a bias in one direction or the other. Most caseworkers and judges are likely to have a bias against parents. Our image of parents in child welfare is that they’re monsters.
Someone like me may be biased in the opposite direction. When I saw Ms. P, I saw myself—someone who just needed a second chance.
Still, I wouldn’t want to come into every case expecting a Ms. P—and that is what a lot of professionals do. There are just as many mothers out there like me. It’s not as obvious when kids are hurt by staying in foster care, but I know that being apart from me for three years hurt my son.
I know in your work, you’ll be looking for Ms. P. I hope you’ll keep as sharp an eye out for parents like me.