'It Won't Happen Again'
I’d like to share my story. It’s not easy for me because I hold my privacy to me like a shield. But what I’m telling is from my heart.
Nine years ago, I lost my older two children to foster care. It took three years for them to come back home. We’re still recovering from the pain of that time.
Letting Go of my Anchor
By early 1992 I had left my husband, my first abuser. I let go of my anchor and sent him on his way to give other women hell. After all the chaos and embarrassment my husband had caused me, I didn’t miss him.
But God had blessed me with a son and a daughter and it wasn’t easy taking care of two small children alone. Eventually I moved, found childcare and started looking for a job with the help of America Works, a program that prepares young people for work. In 1994 I was hired on a trial basis at a cancer research firm. They liked my hard work and kept me.
Soon I was making good money and had worked my way up to lab technician. I was successful, yet I was not happy. I just did not feel right. I was short-tempered and angry and cried a lot. I didn’t know what was wrong with me.
I Just Did Not Feel Right
I had wonderful support at my job. One nice man suggested that I see a therapist. I didn’t listen. I felt I was too strong for that nonsense. Yet I felt myself getting weaker and weaker and crying more and more.
Then things got worse for me at home. The Catholic school my children attended told me my son could not continue on to first grade because he didn’t listen and disappeared out of class.
I switched both kids to public school, but their new school was deplorable. The teachers didn’t care, and my son was often beat up by a bully with yellow eyes. I rushed to the school from work one day only to be told by the teacher that my son was “around here somewhere.” Well, I found him walking down the street, away from the school. At 6 years old! I lost it.
Of course, I was soon having lots of problems at work. I was late almost every day, and I had to leave early to pick up my children since there was no after-school program. Finally, I asked my job to lay me off.
I Broke Down
Once I stopped working, I became so depressed that some days I wouldn’t bother taking my kids to school. I just wanted to keep them home with me where I knew they were safe and taken care of. I was overwhelmed and needed help.
I talked to a social worker at the school and told her, “I can’t take it anymore.” She didn’t ask me what I was talking about, but did take it upon herself to call the abuse hotline and report educational neglect.
An ACS (child welfare) caseworker began coming to my home. She had a very nasty attitude, and I responded to her in the same nasty way.
A worker from a family support program (called “preventive services”) began visiting, too. She approached me tentatively, in a nice way, but I felt she did not know how to help me. I really did not trust preventive services or know what they were about.
I Barely Kept Living
Eventually, I broke down. One day, after another horrible visit from the demon worker, I called her and asked her to take my children to my sister’s house. I thought I was doing the right thing by placing them in foster care.
My son suffered for my mistakes. My daughter suffered for my mistakes. And I suffered, too. I feel I will never forgive myself for giving up.
After my kids went into care, I just barely kept living. The first month was terrible, because the worker put them with a stranger instead of with my sister, until a judge ordered them moved. I was so scared and angry when I didn’t know where my children were.
For a short time, I was hospitalized to deal with my depression. Then I went to support programs and worked so I’d have money to give my sister for my kids. I only had two good reasons—my two kids—to keep trying.
Afraid to Fail Again
My children were with my sister for three years. My sister was wonderful. She did above and beyond what a sister or aunt should do. She loved my children. She had her own son, and she treated all three like they were one big happy family.
When I visited my sister’s house, I was able to witness the attention she lavished on them. Her caring for my children and me was amazing. I am truly lucky and blessed.
But the separation took its toll. As time passed I became afraid to get my children back, afraid to fail again. Seeing what my sister could provide made me fear that I would mess up my children’s lives if I took them back. I lived in a dump. The apartment was nasty, the landlord was a slumlord.
My sister and her husband did not live in the ghetto. They lived in a nice neighborhood with better stores nearby, better schools, better everything. I had high hopes for my children, and still do. I wanted my children to experience the good side of life. I did not want them to become totally ghettofied.
I knew my children needed my love and my parenting, and I knew they had more in my house than I ever had growing up. But I believed my children were happy and might think, “Then Mommy came and messed everything up once again.”
Life felt like one big messy hell for me. It was easier, and somehow felt right, to give up and let someone else do the work of raising them. But my heart sure felt empty.
A Wake-up Call
My sister woke me up. One day she said to me, “It doesn’t seem like you want them back.” My new worker helped, too. She explained what steps to take to get my children home. Without her, I believe my case could’ve dragged on forever.
Soon I went to court and I filed a document asking the system to release my children to me. Finally, my children came home.
After such a long absence, though, it took a long time for my children and me to get back in the groove. My kids acted like I was no longer the parent, Aunt Gina was. I felt like they were thinking, ‘Mommy showed how weak she could be.’
My children definitely resented me and the slum they had come home to, and showed it in many ways: lots of arguments, disrespect and shouting that “You should have left us at Aunt Gina’s!” Plus a whole lot of pretending that they did not hear me or my rules.
Tensions Running High
Thank God, about a year later we moved into a much nicer apartment where my children each got their own rooms. The move eased the tension some, but Mommy still didn’t get respect from her children.
And when my son and daughter visited Aunt Gina on the weekends, forget about it. When they came home on Sunday nights, the anger on their faces was chilling. I’d get angry, too, and just say, “Yeah, y’all home now, so go unpack and get ready for school tomorrow.”
“Yeah, whatever!” they’d say, slamming their doors. Sometimes I would hear one or the other muttering to themselves, “I wish I could have stayed at Aunt Gina’s!”
The Support We Needed
Luckily, I was required to go to a preventive agency when my kids returned home, and the agency we were sent to was very good. My worker was nice and understanding, and she really helped me with my son.
When she left after two years, I found a new worker at another agency who started us on family therapy. I was hooked. Every week we went to her office to talk with her as a family. My favorite part was a game where we all had to say words that expressed how we were feeling at that moment, and how we felt about each other.
I found out a lot. My children were fearful and disappointed in me. I had seemed so strong to them that it had been shocking to watch me fall so hard. They were bitter and scared that I might fall once again. They wanted to stay with Aunt Gina because she showed strength consistently and they could trust her.
Hearing My Children’s Pain
How my children felt was very important to me, but at home all I heard was their anger. In therapy, I was able to hear them express their fears and frustration, and what they wanted from me. I realized that my children had cause for concern, and their fear wasn’t just that I would fail in the future, but that our family would not recover from the past. They were asking, “Where do we go from here?”
I was determined to put their fears to rest by telling them and showing them that Mommy would never give up on herself again. I also realized that we may not be able to get those three years back, but we can move forward and make new memories, happier memories.
Family therapy has helped. Our worker encouraged us to keep building our trust in each other. She’d say, “Change can be a good thing. It helps you grow as a family.”
As my children saw my persistence in listening to them and in rebuilding our family, it was easier for them to begin to trust me. I felt better, too, as my strength and resolve returned. I told myself, “I refuse to give up again.”
I Won’t Give up Again
I don’t know how completely my children trust me now, but we are more comfortable with each other and we have come a long way. Despite the obstacles that still insist on blocking our paths, we are struggling through together, as a family.
It would have been easy, in the face of their hostility, to just quit, throwing my hands up and saying, “Y’all don’t need me.” But that wasn’t true. They needed me to be their advocate, to talk to them, and most of all, to be their caring mother.
For a long time, I didn’t think that I deserved my children, but now I know that no one else can be a better mother to them.
Now, when my children return from visiting Aunt Gina, they come home saying, “Hi, Mom.” I say, “Hello” with a smile. I’m happy to see them, and I see in their faces now that they are happy to be back. These days, when they go to their rooms, they no longer slam the doors.
Reprinted with permission from Rise, a magazine by and for parents involved in the child welfare system. www.risemagazine.org.