“Becky” self-identified as a white female in her early 30s, with four children living in the Northeast U.S. Her children were placed in a variety of living situations (kinship, guardianship, foster family, and adoption) before her parental rights were terminated a year and a half after her children entered care.

The family income level was below $20,000 a year, and she did what she could to make ends meet by babysitting for friends. When her youngest were school-aged, she hoped to go to school to get her daycare license. She needed public assistance too, as her childcare work and child support were not enough to cover their needs. When things got tough, she took initiative to place her children with family members until she could get back on her feet again. It seems to have backfired.

“When CPS took my children I had them placed at a family member’s home because my grandparents had died within ten months of each other. I was my brother’s kinship care: he came and moved in with us and he was already in and out of juvenile detention before my grandparents died. He got worse when he moved in with me. I was working at a hotel and I lost my job because he skipped school was going out drinking and always acting a fool. So I had to have him arrested because he stole my money for rent and lights and they got disconnected. I was told, but not served, with an eviction and I tried to get help through a once-a-year program through DHHS emergency fund and got in writing that I was denied due to the landlord wanted me out because my brother destroyed his property. So the city wouldn’t help me either, so I called CPS to help the children, and I went to an appointment to Salvation Army and then went to get my oldest from a sleepover. CPS followed me and handed me a report they had gotten to sere me before they even investigated. I told CPS if they didn’t want my children with my family that I would stay in a hotel or motel and that wasn’t good enough in their eyes and the report was mostly anonymous calls that were all lies and false reports from my cousin’s ex-girlfriend. She made these calls because when she threw out my cousin, I let him stay with me for a few nights.

My whole apartment [all their personal items and property] were dumped into a dumpster and I was never served with an eviction. I lost all my belongings except what I had put in a storage unit. My children were not staying in my home. At the time they removed my kids, they said I had no plan in effect to keep them safe and out of harm, but yet I did place them with family 9 months 2weeks. I was served by my social worker a TPR after they had told me that when I had my youngest daughter my children would start to come home. And they lied because my youngest daughter wanted my girls. Their grandmother created tons of lies and fed them to CPS all the time and I even could refute the lies, but it didn’t matter. CPS said I stabbed my son and he was sexually abused, but never brought him to a clinic to be seen. My oldest was never allowed to go home for home visits and I was only to see him once a month and CPS told me I couldn’t tell him I was doing what needed to be done. I wasn’t allowed to reassure my children I was doing everything to get them home. CPS even said they set up transportation and didn’t, so I missed visits and they didn’t update the referrals to RTP but told me they did. I wasn’t in the log to be picked up time and time again. They tried to set me up to fail. I even had to walk over five miles to see my children. My lawyer didn’t do jack crap to help my family. I was told several times to stop sending him things to help my case. He would defend me his way or I was out of a lawyer. He did such a crappy job he did nothing I asked. When I was served the TPR, I asked him to file a motion or affidavit to the court to return my children, that the problems and concerns CPS had were being taken care of. He told me there was nothing he could do. It was CPS who would put my kids home if they felt it was okay for them to go back home. Yet my daughter’s grandparent told me and my brother, bragging how they could start a fire with their whirlpool and it would look like faulty wiring and I told CPS. This was after they never told me and I found out by the news and almost had a heart attack, yet they could stay with my girls in a hotel, but I couldn’t. CPS told me, ‘Yeah, I could let you, but I needed your children in care to make you see I was serious and you shouldn’t have your children. You’re a horrible parent.’ And a covering judge on my case asked me how I seen me as a mother. I said no mother is great and perfect, but I try to be the best mom I can be for my children. And he looked at me and told me, ‘Well, I am telling you that you don’t deserve your children. You are one of the worst parents I had in here in my courtroom.’ I said, ‘How can you say that? You don’t know my story or case?’ He stated he knew enough. Yet I am not a drug addict, nor do I abuse my children. I spanked my son 5 times, all for the same thing: running through my home out the door and swinging himself on a railing 2 stories up. I could see him slipping and falling to the pavement, so I spanked him once for every time he did it, until he realized more he did it, he would get a spanking, in the corner, and loss of toys and tv time. And I never had to spank him again after that. I never, nor has anyone ever touched my children in anger or sexually. I’d kill someone if they had ever done this my children.

[In the following, important section, it was unclear to me what exactly happened. She seemed to have told her story using a mobile phone, and as a result, used little punctuation or capitalization. It has been easy up to this point to translate, but the following section will be translated verbatim, as I am uncertain of her intended meaning and it is a critical section of the story.]

I know all to well what being sexually molested and raped as and adult and had my oldest daughter but it was her fault he sperm donor raped me and that’s solely what they took her for and said I had no attachments to any of my children

[Then it becomes clearer again.] This was after they told me I can’t reassure my children or talk about my home or what I did there for them—like painting new everything, all utilities included in rent. And when I broke their rules because I knew I felt it in my heart they were going to do and say all they could to keep my babies at the time of my trial. I had 42 witnesses for my side. CPS and the court didn’t want to hear all of them. They didn’t want to be on this case for more than two weeks. I complied. My own evidence for the court was denied except my home pictures and my kids’ pictures. CPS and foster kinship daughter’s grandmother lied on the stand. Her husband has bipolar and CPS got me diagnosed with it as well.

But my kids couldn’t be with me due to CPS said to my oldest son I was crazy and poor and not able to be the mother he and his brother and sister needed me to be. This was at my daughter’s birthday! CPS convinced my oldest son I didn’t want him. I was to do once-a-week counseling and phone calls with my oldest son with his therapist never happened. I went to see her with him. Once they wanted my son to tell me how he feels. He said, ‘I am not telling my mother lies.’ So his therapist said he didn’t want to go home because I yelled at him, took his toys when he was bad, and he didn’t want to hurt me. But I needed to let him know he could love his foster mother and family. But yet that foster family didn’t keep him. He kept saying, ‘Mommy, when can we go home? I don’t want to be without you no more.’ CPS allowed my children to be scared. I wasn’t allowed to console them. My girls were always dirty at 9am visits. I got my youngest removed from grandmother and placed back with me. Grandmother was to get me for visits some time and would no call no show. And I got blamed for everything wrong.

I wasn’t in front of the judge within 72 hours of my children’s removal. It was a week or so later and I was told to have my lawyer get the case dismissed as evidence they were using was old, and a case they opened and closed with no finding of abuse or neglect. I strongly believe if I never took in my brother, I never would have lost my children. I was told by CPS I needed to take accountability for the action of my brother. Yet, I took every step to keep them safe.

My case is very complex. [The] CPS [worker] told me they held my family in their hands, and they will do whatever needed to be done to make their case and for my children to never be home with me again, that she never should have closed my last case and she should have done then what she will do now—to take my children. [She said] I was a low-life, stupid, never going to make anything of myself for me or my children and they were clearly better off without me.

[Having my children placed in foster care was not in their best interest] because I had them with family. Although I seen why CPS thought they needed to remove my children, but within 7 months after I had lost all, I regained it. And they should have been put back home, but CPS insisted I was more crazy than what I had told them and provided them with in the shrink reports.”

CPS and the other professionals were not on Becky’s side either. “From day one their minds were made up and they knew that if they didn’t keep them and I got them back. … I would have had my family watch my kids and work 40-90 hours a week to do and get all my children needed and when you receive state assistance you become an easy target to get your child/children taken by CPS. Our voices were not heard. What we wanted didn’t matter. CPS did everything they could to fabricate lies and falsify evidence to the judge. I told him that and I told him I can be my children’s mother. I was able to raise my children while he slept and rolled his eyes while people were testifying for me and my children. Yet not once did she ever go to my home to see my changes. She went on CPS and Casey Family Services’. I was given a hand-written notice I didn’t have custody of my youngest stuck to my door. Her grandmother told her son to leave because CPS was coming to take her. I held them out for 45 minutes and was told by chief of police that they didn’t need a warrant to kick in my door, and if they took that route I would be slammed to the ground handcuffed and arrested for not following the law.”

 

Insights:

First, some things need to be acknowledged about Becky’s case. This items were counted against her: her home was determined unfit, and then she went through a period of legal homelessness, there was apparently violence and other potential trouble when her brother was in the home (who was placed there by the state, presumably, after his stint in juvenile detention); then, later there were allegations and possibly a formal diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the question of whether the spankings were abuse, and finally the questions looming over the unclear explanation of something with her daughter and a rape (but perhaps not the daughter’s rape, but Becky’s?).

It sounds like that at a prior time there had been a CPS case opened against her—probably with charges of neglect that were related to poverty. Then, the incidents with her brother and the loss of her apartment and all their things brought CPS back into their lives. Becky may have even sought their help. Instead, what she got was a whole lot of trouble.

Now, even if we assume the worse in this case, it brings a few questions to bear. First, should a mental health diagnosis, if treated and managed, like bipolar disorder, be grounds for child removal? Second, what were Becky’s rights regarding her uncooperative lawyer? Clearly she did not know or exercise them, but was bullied by her lawyer instead. Third, why wouldn’t the court hear her evidence? Isn’t that her right to present it, and isn’t the court obligated to hear it? Fourth, is it possible that the cousin’s ex-girlfriend, the grandmother, and the CPS workers all played a (dishonest) part in the outcome? What if even only one of them lied and their testimony counted for much? Fifth, if poverty was Becky’s greatest crime, should she have lost custody of her children?

I’m going to momentarily set aside the questions about the sexual abuse, because certainly if her daughter was abused, this is an open and shut case. But since there is a lack of understanding about what happened and who was victimized, let us set aside that point.

One of the things that is best highlighted in Becky’s story is the perpetual cycle of poverty and how being poor itself becomes a crime. The themes are present: her brother’s criminal troubles and potential violence (certainly vandalism was reported), her inability to pay both rent and electric when he took a sum that most Americans probably have at hand in their checking or savings accounts often, her attempts to do what she thoughts was right that ended in frustration and confusion, and perhaps most telling: her inability to fight back against being silenced in court and by CPS workers. I believe that even if every terrible allegation against Becky was correct, shouldn’t she have the right of power to defend herself? It is a point of the legal system that confuses me: in order to be sent to jail, a trial by jury of peers is a right. But when the loss of one’s children is it hand, there is no system to ensure justice prevails, to protect the rights of the accused. It seems to me more may be at stake. A person can often go to jail and serve their sentence and return to family (depending on the crime, of course). Their lives are certainly changes, but that most fundamental right to family remains. But when this right is threatened, there is no legal protection for the accused. Our current system of lawyers to defend families seems not to work if so many have such poor representation and there is no one with whom they can report abuses (and those lawyers are paid by the court trying the accused!). Of course, if the police told her that no warrant was needed, that was certainly a lie and violation of her rights. Many, though certainly not all, judges become so familiar with the tune of why children are taken that the cases run together and one poor parents seems much the same as the last one, or the next one. Not all the evidence is heard. How might a parent be allowed to defend herself, without wasting court resources? And finally, do some CPS workers abuse their power and falsify reports? What would motivate this behavior if so?