Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

'When My Son Was Taken, I Felt Like a Failure': Stories From Inside the Child Welfare System

Illustration by Angelica Alzona/GMG.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In collaboration with Rise magazine, Jezebel is publishing a series of articles written by parents affected by the child welfare system. This post, the last in the series, is written by Piazadora Footman, who lost her son for three years after she was arrested for buying drugs. 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.

Five years later, Pia has radically changed her life but still fears that any wrong move will lead to a knock on the door. In poor communities, investigations by the “parent police” feel as frequent and expected as stop-and-frisk. Even innocent actions—like a slip on the ice and tipped-over stroller—can lead to an investigation.

It seems like I’ve been afraid of child protective services all of my life.

Growing up in the projects, we called CPS the “Parent Police,” and it was normal for the girls I knew to lose custody of their children because they were smoking weed, drinking or hanging out late. Many of my friends still don’t have custody of their children.

I grew up in foster care, and I lost my own son for three years. He was one and I was 23 when he was removed because I was using drugs.

At the time, I was depressed about not being a good enough mother. I didn’t know what to do when my son would get into so much stuff or when he was so clingy when I tried to cook or bathe. I’d tell guys that liked me to take me food shopping so I could feed my son. But when food ran low and no money was near, I felt like a bad mom.

When my son was taken, I felt like a failure. I cried out of fear, knowing that no one would love him like I did.

Investigated for Lies

But I also live in fear because I’ve been investigated for lies.

Once, when my son was small, we went outside, and in front of the shelter we lived in, I slipped on ice and his stroller and I fell over. (Luckily he didn’t fall out.)

For no apparent reason, the guards called CPS on me. When the investigator arrived, she said: “We got a call that you threw your baby’s stroller over and that your baby puts stuff from the floor in his mouth.”

I told the investigators, “My son can’t pick nothing up. He’s only three months old. He can’t even crawl.”

The investigator said, “I’ve seen enough,” and left. Still, it was scary to know that at any time anyone can call with lies.

Innocent and Petrified

Then, a couple of years ago, I was having conflicts with my son’s school because they weren’t giving him the services he needed. One night, my son and daughter wound up writing all over each other with a red marker. When I noticed, I washed it but it didn’t all come off.

The next day my son’s school saw the marks, thought it was bruising, spoke to my son and called child protection. That night, investigators came knocking on my door.

I tried to act light-hearted. I told the investigator, “He doesn’t go to sleep easily. If you wake him, you’re going to have to put him back to sleep.” But actually I was petrified. I knew she’d see he wasn’t bruised but was afraid she might accuse me of neglect for not watching my children while they were playing. I was relieved that my case was closed, unfounded.

Always on Alert

It’s been six years since my son came home. He and my younger daughter and I live in a nice 3-bedroom. When I look at my family, I think we should have nothing to fear. Our walls are filled with my children’s drawings, school work and learning posters. We do arts and crafts, go on picnics, and are more happy than frustrated daily.

Still, if my children get hurt in the park or act up in school, I feel like CPS is going to knock.

One day last year, we woke up late, with no time for breakfast. I was scared that the school would say I let my children go hungry.

At the bus stop, I told them sternly, “Don’t y’all tell no one at school that y’all ain’t have breakfast, OK?”

My son said, “Ma, we don’t ever be hungry.” We laughed and I hugged them. I didn’t want them to know I was scared. But for the next two days I worried.

Parenting With Fear

The worst part is that my fear turns me into a helicopter mom. I’m always hovering over my children and making sure they follow the rules. Part of me is proud that they speak well and don’t curse.

But I also think I’m not allowing them to be themselves, or to be enough like other kids. In my building there’s a 9-year-old who goes across the street to the park by himself. A few months ago, he knocked for my son, who was 10, to go with him. I almost passed out. “No,” I said, without even thinking, for fear I would be charged with lack of supervision.

Still, I don’t want my children to turn into hermits. So I decided that when my son turned 11 I’d let him go to the store by himself, and I have. I fear that if I don’t give him a little more independence, he’ll turn into someone who can’t survive life ’cause he never lived it.

This essay was previously published by Rise magazine. Republished with permission.