In collaboration with Rise magazine, Jezebel is publishing a series of articles written by parents affected by the child welfare system. This post, the third in the series, features narratives by LaQuana Chapelle and Lashonda Murray, two mothers who themselves grew up in foster care. In New York City, an estimated 25 to 40 percent of mothers with children in foster care grew up in the foster care system; nationwide, 51 percent of children in foster care end up returning home.
LaQuana was separated from her seven-week-old son and her three older children after her seven-week-old was found to have a skull fracture. Although there was no evidence of abuse, LaQuana’s inability to explain what occurred was found to be a sufficient reason to remove all of her children.
In Family Court, no answer is often the wrong answer. LaQuana’s self-advocacy ultimately resulted in a relatively short foster care stay for her children and a legal victory against the City.
When my youngest son was seven weeks old, I noticed a peppermint-sized lump on the right side of his head. There was no bruising, only swelling. I called my mother, frantic. As an infant, my sister had had a lump on her head that turned out to be a tumor.
I took my son to the doctor, and the doctor told me to go to the hospital. He did not appear to be in pain. He was looking around, acting like himself. But I felt like a wreck, lonely, sad and worried.
How Did This Happen?
When he had to be X-rayed, I had to strip my little baby to put him in the cold machine. I wanted to cry. He looked so flustered in his little onesie. By the time it was over, he was all worked up.
The X-ray showed that he had a skull fracture. A big part of me was relieved—it wasn’t a tumor. But how did my baby get a fracture? Would this cause long-term damage? What would happen next?
When I phoned my kids’ godfather, he began cursing me out. “You need to pay attention to what’s going on! Take a break from school! Focus on your kids! You’d better come up with an explanation,” he told me. “This looks very bad.”
My mind bounced all over. I didn’t have a lot of help with my kids and slept very little. Had my older kids hurt him? What had happened?
Around 1 a.m., the first set of CPS workers came to question me. Then they visited my home and gave a good report. The house was a little messy but the kids had plenty of food, toys, clothes and they were fine.
A Worker From Hell
The next day, I met with the hospital social worker, child abuse specialist, a detective, and another CPS worker. This time, the tone was different. The child abuse specialist told me, “You had better find out what happened.” It was painful to have to leave my baby and go with the CPS worker to do another home visit.
At my apartment, the worker made snide remarks about all my belongings (I’m a savvy shopper) and asked how I could afford designer clothes for the baby.
The next step was a visit from the police detective. He made me feel comfortable. He asked me if I fell asleep holding the baby, if I had left the kids unattended with him. He pulled out all the details that led up to the moment I discovered the lump on my son’s head. I said that I accepted full responsibility but did not have an answer.
Later, the worker scolded me for not giving her all the information that I gave the cop. But the cop was better at his job; he helped me think. I thought, “If you were more concerned about the investigation than my Gucci shoes, you could have covered more ground.”
I’ve always been a lioness when it comes to my children. I know what it’s like to feel powerless. After my mother placed me in foster care at age 12, I felt like I had no control over my life.
As a teenager, I promised myself that I would be productive. I believe financial stress is one of the reasons my mother put me in care. My drive propelled me through college and into graduate school, and kept me motivated even when my relationships fell apart and I found myself raising my children mostly alone.
I vowed never to allow my children to go into foster care. That vow was broken on April 26, 2012. CPS decided to take my baby from the hospital, and my three older children. I cried hysterically. I nearly fainted. I didn’t know how to react.
Sad, Empty, Outraged
My children stayed in foster care for seven weeks. In the first month, I spiraled into a deep depression. I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t want to go outside. I just wanted my kids.
Visits were the most tormenting. My older son kept asking why he couldn’t come home.
I was also terrified about the baby, because I truly did not understand what had happened to him. (It wasn’t until weeks later that a friend who had babysat my children stepped forward to confess that he had accidentally dropped him.)
When I wasn’t sad and angry with myself, I was outraged. I wanted to fight, scream, throw a few blows to the face of the worker. But I knew I couldn’t express my depression or anger because the system uses everything against you. Growing up in care gave me an edge; I knew I needed to maintain my composure.
Then, during a visit four weeks after my children were removed, I sang to my boys, and that somehow helped me shake my hopelessness.
That day I took a long look in the mirror and said to my reflection, “They will not win.” I can regain my self. My anger and hurt can fuel me.
I cried one final time. After that, I called my lawyer and requested a 1028 hearing. That’s a chance to present evidence and request that children in foster care immediately return home. By then, my friend had stepped forward and taken responsibility for his actions. The hospital’s senior doctor had written a letter ruling out abuse.
I knew I had a case. I went and got a suit cleaned for court.
After seven weeks, the LaQuana’s children were returned to her. She sued the city child welfare agency for wrongful removal and won a settlement.
Lashonda’s family was investigated when her children’s father became abusive. Her experience in care left her feeling angry and suspicious—she did not believe the system could help—but a non-judgemental caseworker changed her point of view and helped her family heal.
From ages 8 through 18, I was a foster child. I was in so many homes that I can’t remember them all. Some of my foster parents abused their authority. I didn’t know if my real parents loved me. I felt like everyone was against me.
I was 17 and at the hospital for a suicide attempt (my last) when I found out I was pregnant. I felt overwhelmed and so ashamed. I couldn’t take care of myself. How was I going to care for this baby? I had grown up with so much shame that I didn’t know how I could bear any more.
From the beginning, though, I wanted to prove that I could break that rusty chain of dysfunction. Reaching out for help was one way I could do that.
Learning to Nurture
When my first son was born, a worker from a home-visiting program came every two or three days and taught me how to love him. She said, “You can’t just feed him, change him and leave him in his crib. You have to show him affection.” I looked at her like, “What does that mean?” But over time I learned how to cuddle him, and to appreciate the amazing things he would do. I found I could give love to someone who also loved me.
I had two more children. As they got older, I sought out parenting groups and went to therapy. My children looked surprised when I finally started talking and not yelling so much. Over time, I began to actually feel calmer.
But when my children were 8, 3 and 1, their father started drinking, and then a cycle of domestic violence started. He called me names and threatened me. Eventually he assaulted me so seriously I wound up at the hospital.
In all, the violence lasted for about a year. I felt devastated. My childhood had been filled with so much hopelessness that when things started to go wrong again, I didn’t know how to hold on to hope. I started yelling at the kids, saying things like, “You all make me sick. I wish I could run away. Nobody cares about me.”
My kids were also scared for me. They didn’t want to go to school because they thought I wouldn’t be okay. My daughter didn’t even want to nap. My oldest son started acting up and his grades went from B’s and C’s to D’s and F’s. But I was so ashamed that I just put on a happy face for the world so no one would ask any questions.
From Enemy to Support
Then, in June 2012, New Jersey’s Department of Youth and Family Services showed up. As the investigators checked my children in the other room, I felt so vulnerable. After they left, I told my kids, “They’re here to take you away. Never put your trust in the enemy.”
That night in bed, I realized how much I sounded like my parents. I felt like DYFS’ arrival was the ultimate proof that I’d failed to break that chain.
But to my surprise, my caseworker became one of my main supports.
From the beginning, she showed me respect. When she walked into our home, she didn’t turn her nose up at it. Instead, she sat down on our ripped furniture seemingly without any thought. She took time to build a relationship with me. She helped with the practical things, like getting beds for my children. She advised me to go back to therapy. She showed me the good in myself that I just couldn’t see.
She also stuck with me as I struggled to decide what place my children’s father should have in our lives.
After DYFS showed up, my children’s father got locked up for domestic violence. I felt very sad, very lost. Still, I decided he’d hurt me too much and I pressed charges. But when he came out of prison and went into rehab, I knew I wanted to try again.
My caseworker didn’t tell me I was wrong but she gave me straight talk. She said, “He needs to get help or he can’t be here. Put it this way, either you’re going to protect your kids from domestic violence or we will.” I felt that her being blunt was her way of respecting me.
Eventually I saw for myself that his attitude hadn’t changed, and I ended my relationship and got sole custody of my children.
Through it all, the fact that my caseworker stuck by me gave me hope.
Now I am trying to make my children’s lives as positive as possible again. I go to their school events and try to give them the security they didn’t have when I was overwhelmed by domestic violence. Still, sometimes I think my children and I need more support. When your childhood is filled with so much pain, trauma and betrayal, it’s hard to create a family that feels free of those things.
My older son, in particular, seems angry that his life has had pain and not as much fun as other children. He’s in counseling but I wish I had someone to help me help him really address his feelings.
Still, at least I am no longer in a place where I couldn’t give my children love or protect them adequately. I am so thankful to my caseworker for not judging me. Her acceptance helped me believe I could continue to make progress for myself and my family, even if that progress happens slowly.