About 10 years ago, I was going through a bad time in my marriage and it came to the point that I just couldn’t take it anymore. One night when my husband abused me I called the police and they took my children and me to the hospital for an exami- nation.
Because of everything going on with my husband, I’d been drinking, and when the Department of Social Services did a quick assessment, they decided to take my three children. They never let me take my kids home from the hospital or even say goodbye.
I Was Lost
I had no relatives in Boston and was totally freaked out so I called my friend Ellen Remmer. I’d been a nanny to her children for seven years, and we were both new mothers at the same time so we bonded and remained good friends.
Ellen came to the hospital, took me home, and went to court with me the next morning. The court placed my children in foster care. I was basically lost.
If it wasn’t for Ellen I don’t know what I would’ve done. She wrote letters and called lawyers while I worried about and advocated for my kids. I asked for visits and started bug- ging the department for counseling for my kids and for myself.
Luckily I had a very green, very sweet social worker, a great advocate in Ellen, and a great relationship with the school, which allowed me to see my kids at school every day.
My kids were returned in 45 days, but the episode had a lasting effect. My whole family went to counseling for years, and I still go. It was trau- matic for all of us.
‘That Was Not Right’
Ellen is very political, and when we talked about it over the years, she would always say, “That was not right.” She was really bothered about it, and we were both con- cerned about what would’ve happened to my family if I hadn’t been lucky to know someone who advocated for me.
Ellen, who works for a foun- dation, started talking with me about ways to support parents. She had visited the Child Welfare Organizing Project in New York City, which runs a support group and parents’ rights training project, and has a handbook explaining parents’ rights in the system.
In Massachusetts we decid- ed to start out on a smaller scale—we’re working on a booklet of information to hand out to parents at the time of their child’s removal. It will be a list of resources they can call and some parents’ sto- ries. We plan to hand out the book- let in court.
The thing is, DSS’ intention is to reunite the family if possible, but the department tends to forget that par- ents need information and support right away. Sometimes it takes weeks between when the department takes your kids and you make contact with your worker. If a parent doesn’t have support or a sense of control dur- ing that time, she looks for what she needs in the bottom of a bottle or whatever vice she knows.
Information and Support
To understand what parents have gone through and what they need, we’ve been working with two orga- nizations in Boston to hold focus groups with parents who have had kids taken away. Parents Helping Parents is a statewide group of par- ent support groups, and the Family Nurturing Center provides family supports.
The biggest thing we hear is that parents don’t know what to do or who to turn to, and their lawyers don’t take the time to sit with them. Parents don’t know if they have a right to visit their kids, or to fight hav- ing them moved from their schools.
Parents tell us, “The social workers want you to sign a service plan, and you don’t understand it but you don’t want to anger them, and you’re not sure what your rights are so you sign.”
The department can be very intimi- dating, and some parents will sign over their lives because they don’t know what they’re doing. We want to be able to hand them a booklet that explains in plain English what their rights and responsibilities are.
‘You Can Do This’
Right now, parents think there’s nowhere they
can call for help. The booklet will let them know about things like the Parental Stress Line—a 24 hour phone line that a parent can call in a crisis—or the organization Parents Helping Parents, which runs support groups for parents all over Massachusetts.
Many parents have no one to pull them up and say, “You can do this. Don’t feel totally lost and withdraw into yourself, waiting for everyone else to take control.” They just need someone—even a booklet—to say, “Don’t freak out, don’t lose it.
Now is the time when you need to get it together.”
For me, it’s been very therapeutic. When I hear other parents’ stories, I’m glad to know there’s something I can contribute, no matter how small, so that the next time this happens to a parent, she knows what to do.