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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

'They Told Me They Knew What Was Best for Him': Stories From Inside the Child Welfare System

Illustration by Angelica Alzona/GMG.
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In collaboration with Rise magazine, Jezebel is publishing a series of articles written by parents affected by the child welfare system. This post, the fourth in the series, features narratives by Deborah McCabe and Adisha Garner, two parents who were unable to reunite with their children. 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.

Deborah McCabe’s son entered foster care because she was incarcerated. Hoping that she could maintain contact with her son despite her long sentence, Deborah signed a “conditional surrender,” which gave her the right to visits after he was adopted. However, the adoptive family soon cut off contact. Deborah’s story is not unique; in 1997, the Federal Government passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), requiring foster care agencies to initiate court proceedings to terminate parental rights in most cases when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. This timeline is especially short for incarcerated parents, putting them at increased risk of losing their children forever.

I came to court that morning with my heart and my mind racing in time with one another. I was handcuffed as we traveled from the bowels of Bronx criminal court, arriving at a phone booth-sized room where I was told to wait for my lawyer.

It was the day for me to sign those papers. My son was eight then. For the first three years of his life, he had slept in my bed, curled up beside me. When I got locked up, my devastation at having to leave him was palpable to anyone I came in contact with. I could not speak his name without feeling a gut wrenching pain. Even to this day, almost 12 years later, I must mentally detach myself to cope with the pain of his absence in my life.

Five years into my sentence, I had to go to court to surrender my rights so he could be adopted. I still had years to go and there was no one else to take him. Besides, I felt it would have been selfish to fight. He was with a family that loved him. I grew up in foster care and know how rare that can be.

An Unbreakable Bond

When I was first incarcerated, his adoptive parents had reminded me of the unbreakable bond my son and I shared. I warned them that I wouldn’t be home for a very long time. I told them to keep my son away from me. After all, he was only three. I thought his memory of me would fade and his life might even turn out normal. Despite my protests, they allowed me to talk on the phone with my son weekly and brought him to visit often.

Our visits during those initial years were painful but wondrous. When he saw me walk through the visiting room door, he would fly across the room and leap into my arms. His face would light up and he would shower my face with kisses and wipe away my tears with his little hands. Each time it seemed as if he had grown a little bit, or changed in some small, almost imperceptible way. I still remember the sound of his voice when “mommy” changed to “mom.”

Close Enough to Cry

He and I participated in the Summer Program and Family Reunion Program (FRP) at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. God, how I lived for those visits. With the Summer Program, he came to the facility every day for five days. During those days, our relationship blossomed into something truly untouchable.

With FRP, we were able to spend two days and nights in a trailer within the bounds of the facility. We were a real family again. One day a basketball bounced and knocked out his naturally loosened two front teeth. Another time I held his scrawny 6-year-old body in my arms and sang to him. He watched me sing so intently, staring up at me as if I was the sun, moon and stars all rolled in one.

It was at the end of one of those trailer visits that I finally got a glimpse of all the pain my baby felt. I asked him if he was ready to go and he actually stopped being strong for me and cried. I had not seen him cry until then, almost three years after my incarceration.

Missing Visits

But as he grew older, things between his foster family and me began to change. What once seemed an ideal relationship between a mother and surrogate mother slowly turned sour. I felt like his foster mother became jealous of our relationship.

My son began missing every other visit. They made the excuse that my son was impressionable and they didn’t want him to visit prison. Then they told me that he had school or appointments. They didn’t send him even when I arranged transportation.

On more than one occasion, his foster mother told me that he got depressed after visits and acted out by being disrespectful or breaking his possessions. Those were little signs, she told me, that “maybe the visits aren’t such a good idea.” I felt that if he were allowed to see me more often, then it would not be so devastating to say goodbye. They told me they knew what was best for him and I was being selfish.

A Promise of Contact

In 2001, there was an order from the court for me to attend a hearing that would determine whether I would retain my rights to my son. By then, the law had changed. Children couldn’t stay in care for years and years. A federal law called ASFA had been passed, saying that you can’t have a child in placement for more than 15 out of 22 months.

I had no family that could take my son out of the system. My choices were: fight and have my rights terminated, or sign a post-adoption contact agreement and pray they’d keep bringing him to visit. I chose to sign. During the adoption proceeding, we agreed that he would visit me seven times a year. Three visits were supposed to be trailer visits, plus I’d get phone calls, pictures, and letters.

The lawyer made it sound so simple. She quickly handed me the papers to sign. What I didn’t know was that his family would soon disregard the promises they made in court, and at that time, post-adoption contact agreements were not legally binding in New York.

No Longer a Mother

I tried my best to hold my emotions in check that day, but I could feel the weight of what I was about to do bearing down on me. When I finally walked out those courtroom doors, my eyes were blinded by tears. I turned to say, “Maybe I’m not sure, maybe I’m making a mistake.” My lawyer was already gone. I felt like nothing, as if I allowed them to take away my reason for breathing. I was no longer a mother, because I no longer had the legal right to claim my own child. I was just a criminal now.

Shortly after the hearing, I realized what a mistake I had made. My son’s family stood me up for the next two visits that we had arranged. They also stopped calling. I contacted the lawyer about undoing the adoption, but she told me it was too late. She said it was up to the adoptive parents to arrange visits and that she was sorry they hadn’t brought my son.

“Yeah, I’m sorry too,” I said.


I was devastated. Visits with my son were what I looked forward to, what I lived for. How could I give up being his mommy? I became so depressed that I had to go on anti-depressants just to get myself out of bed in the morning.

I have had two visits since I signed the adoption papers five years ago. I have spoken to my son only five times on the phone. His family put a block on the phone so it couldn’t accept collect calls. I offered to pay for calls but his adoptive mother wouldn’t allow me to do so.

His adoptive father told me once that I shouldn’t complain because I wouldn’t be able to be his mother again until my release. Once they sent a letter telling me I was lucky that they didn’t send him back. I remember being in foster care and being “sent back” and I hope he never knows what that feels like.

The last time I saw my son was in 2003. He was nine years old. Two weeks ago he turned 14.

Still Trying

I call my son once a month. My advocate is able to place the call for me. It is rare for the woman who answers not to hang up when she hears my voice on the other end. If I am blessed to reach my son by phone, my advocate allows me extra time because she knows I only get to parent him for an about an hour each year.

I used to write him but he said he never got one letter. I used to send him things for his birthday but the store would refund my money after they sent it back. I have two pictures of my son, taken after the two trailers we had together. His smile is big and bright. The happiness he experienced just being with me shows.

I keep a journal for him. I have made him a scrapbook. And I am faithful in disappointing myself monthly with my phone calls. I hope he feels my love.

Does He Know Love?

When I do talk to my son on the phone, I tell him to be respectful and grateful to all the people who love him.

The last time I spoke to him was more than a year ago. He was turning 13. In the first few minutes of our conversation he sounded apprehensive. I reminded him that I love him and that we may not have the opportunity to speak or see each other for a while.

Adisha’s children were placed in foster care with her aunt. In most states, Adisha’s rights would have been permanently terminated and her children would have been adopted. A new program in New York State—KinGap—has given her children a stable home without severing the parent-child relationship. KinGap recognizes that parents who cannot raise their children full-time can still play an important role in the children’s lives.

On April 8, 2008 I went to court for a removal of the kids. My kids were 7, 6 and 2. That was basically the worst day of my life.

When I first had my kids I was living with my mother. Then, when my youngest was born, I went to the shelter with her father. We got an apartment together. But then he went to jail. It was hard for me without any support. I guess I was not ready to be a single mother.

My kids came into care for emotional neglect and lack of me doing laundry, cleaning my house and taking my kids to school on time. I wasn’t going to bed early and putting my partying to the side for my kids.

Feeling Hopeless

Three months after my kids went into care, I was evicted from my apartment. It was so stressful that I developed a mild stroke.

I also started doing a lot of drinking and that’s never a good thing. It was because I was starting to believe that I had no reason to live anymore. I had already lost my kids.

I Always Felt Alone

I myself grew up without my mother. I was with my grandmother since I was 3 weeks old. My grandmother raised me like my uncles and aunts were my siblings. All my life I called my mother by her name and my grandmother “Mommy.” I wasn’t being disrespectful. As a child, you call it like you see it.

It was a little hard for me, though, because I believe that every child belongs with their mother. My grandmother made sure to never tell me anything bad about my mother, but I knew she was out there doing drugs. Growing up seeing your mother and just walking past her feels really crazy, thinking whether this person you see every day knows you are her child. I always felt like I was alone.

Taking Steps

Four months after my children were removed from my home, my aunt and her husband agreed to take my kids so I was able to get unsupervised visits in their home. I was able to see my kids throughout the week as well as on the weekend. Two years ago, they moved upstate, but I still visit every weekend.

Over the years I did a lot to get my kids home. I had to take mental health therapy every week, parenting classes, anger management, support group. For whatever reason, I needed meds. I even did extra services just because I want to. I really wanted my kids back home so my life could be complete again.

I learned a lot in parenting class. I learned about having patience and talking more than yelling. I also learned that life is a cycle. You have to break the chain if you want your kids to be better than you. I really want that for my kids.

Now, six years later, my kids are still a major part of my life even though they’re still in foster care. Every Saturday, I get up at 4:30 am and leave my house at 5:30 am to go upstate for my weekend visit. I like to get the 7:15 bus. I get back on the 4:45 bus back to New York. I continue to call my kids often.

Not Enough

During weekend visits, my kids and I play, talk, smile, do homework, eat and laugh together. Still, I feel like the visits are not enough. I only see them for a few hours once a week. God forbid I get sick and can’t go see them, I feel worse.

Still, since the visits are at my aunt’s house, and my kids don’t come to visit me, I can’t take them places and be on my own with them. I feel like a visitor, not their mother.

Then, last week, my case planner and the law guardian told me that my kids don’t want to come home. They didn’t give too many details. My case planner just said that she spoke to my kids and they stated that they don’t want to be with me.

In the meeting, I just sat there. I left the meeting feeling like I did everything for nothing.


Since then, I have felt very confused about the whole situation. Part of me wants to curse out the case planner. Part of me wants to give up on my kids and stop fighting. Part of me wants to fight harder and do anything it takes to get them back home. I just don’t know what do anymore.

In the days right after my conversation with the case planner, I felt so hurt and angry. I had always thought my kids wanted to come home. They tell me yes. But I had to question whether they do. I said to myself, “I really don’t know what I did to my kids to make them feel like this about me.”

At the same time, I know that I’m not ready to have my kids back right now because I don’t have my life together. I live with my cousin, and it’s not a place where my kids can live with me.

I know that my aunt can provide for my kids better than me right now. And my kid are happy there. I started telling myself, “That’s all that matters to me.” I even started thinking that, if they want to stay with my aunt, I could move closer to them. If that’s what would make them happy, then that’s what I’d be willing to do.

Proud of My Kids

I’m proud of my kids and I truly want what’s best for them.

My oldest child is now 13 and this little boy is every bit of me. He loves to laugh and joke just like me. He always gets good grades in school. I must say, although he plays all day at home, his school work is on point.

My youngest son is 12. He acts like me, too. He is such a loving child. Every time I’m upstate with them, he always wants hugs and kisses all day and that makes me feel good. They’ve been away from me for six years and they still love me. He’s also a good kid in school. He made it on the honor roll three months straight! I’m very proud of him.

My daughter is the baby. At eight, she acts like a little old lady and has a mind of her own. She’s is in Girl Scouts and she is the leader of her own self. She don’t follow anyone, and I pray every day that she stays that way.

Agreeing to Guardianship

On Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015 I had a Family Team Conference to talk about “KinGap,” a way of doing guardianship in New York State. Under KinGap, a foster parent who is a family member can become the guardian. But unlike adoption, guardianship doesn’t require that a parent lose her rights.

When the case planner first offered KinGap, I did not want to take it. I thought it was like signing over my rights to my aunt. I did not want to lose my rights as my children’s mother.

But then the parent advocate at my agency explained it to me better.

I felt more comfortable with KinGap when I understood that my rights would not be terminated. My aunt would just have guardianship. My kids could stay with my aunt and go to school, and I could still visit them and they could visit me. My aunt and uncle and I even agreed that I could have my kids on weekends, birthdays and every holiday. At that point, I agreed to sign the papers.

Still Their Mother

I am very excited that my case is finally about to close and ACS will be out of my life forever. Still, the hardest part is feeling like I let my kids down. I know that I’m not going to stop fighting for my kids whether they want to come home or not.

I am very worried about whether my aunt and uncle will really let my kids and me visit like they said. Last weekend, they were supposed to bring my kids to a family party, and they didn’t arrive until the last half hour. I was so disappointed.

My hope is that, after my aunt has guardianship, I can see my children more. I want my kids to stay with me so I can get to know them more.

I only want what’s best for my kids. My doors will always be open for my kids when they ready to return home. I’m glad that, even though my kids have been in foster care, they still call me “Mommy” and know that I’m their mother.

These essays were previously published by Rise magazine. Republished with permission.