It was August 2nd, 2010, 10:30 p.m. It was 103 degrees and my two children were dirty and sweaty from playing outside. I was running thewater for their bath when the doorbell rang: “Bling-blang, bling-blang.” My 10-year-old son ran to the door and then quickly ran back to the bathroom. “Mommy! Mommy! ACS is at the door.”
“That isn’t even funny to joke about,” I said.
“No mom, really they are at the door,” he said. My heart pounded.
As I let the two ladies in, I lit a cigarette and asked, “What is the allegation?”
One said, “Discipline. We are investigating how you discipline your children.”
‘Do You Beat Your Son?’
One of the investigators stood in my kitchen, leaning against my refrigerator, rolling her eyes and sucking her teeth. She was probably tired and she didn’t like my cigarette smoke. But I felt insulted, like she thought she could walk into my home and act however she wanted.
The other investigator was polite, but even after I told her that I didn’t beat my son, she asked, “What do you beat him with?”
As she questioned me, I tried to be tough. I said, “Watch how you speak and watch what you say because I know my rights.” I’m sure my attitude didn’t help me. But I was afraid that if I acted soft, they’d eat me alive.
Still, I told the investigator the truth. I told her that my son and I had conflicts, and that I’d hit my son maybe 10 times in his whole life, but that it was a hit on the arm or a slap on the butt with an open hand, not a closed fist.
The investigator asked me if I had any known enemies, like she was trying to find out who might have made the report maliciously. Then she took my 10-year-old into the bathroom to question him and look at his body for bruises. When she came out, she said my son said I regularly beat him with a shoe.
At that moment, I was confused, beyond furious and really scared. Months later, my son told me he had started rumors that I beat him because he thought it might mean he would get the chance to go live with his grandma, who treated him like a prince. But at that moment, all I knew was that he’d put our whole family in jeopardy.
The investigator kept saying, “We’re having conflicting reports here,” and walking in and out of my apartment, saying she needed to call the supervisor. I thought they might take my children and arrest me.
When the investigator approached my 2-year-old, he yelled, “No! Don’t touch! Mommy!” Then he ran to me for protection. The 2 ½ hours that the investigators were in my home felt like an eternity. Underneath my toughness I felt like the weakest person on earth.
For a few years, I had been battling my older son about his behavior. My son is a compassionate kid and a good brother. But when he was about 6, he started acting out all the time in school, and he would tell lies too. He would start with a story and then just run with it.
When I was growing up my parents were harsh because of the neighborhood we lived in. Late at night my brother and I would lie in our beds counting the shots that were fired. My parents wanted better for us, so if we came out of line, there were serious consequences.
When my children were young, I did not adopt the same harsh discipline. I tried to understand my children’s perspectives. I thought maybe my son was acting out because when his brother was born, he was no longer the center of attention. I tried to give him extra attention, but nothing I did seemed to work.
Eventually, my son’s behavior made me think I had been too soft, and I began to go back to some of the ways I was raised. Not the harsh physical discipline. But the attitude: This is what you wear, this is what you eat, this is what you do, and if you mess up, you will be punished. Instead of helping, my son just became more resentful and resistant.
Looking for Miracles
The April before I was investigated, my son asked me to get him help. He said, “Mom, I don’t know why I behave the way I do.”
I felt sad for him and sad for me. I took him to be evaluated and he was diagnosed with ADHD. I felt a lot of guilt. I wondered if I had done something wrong that caused him to have ADHD.
I hoped that once my son started therapy—miraculously—he would be the same child I knew when he was little. But there were no miracles. Then in June, I suddenly lost my job. Life felt very stressful. Not long after that ACS came to my door.
After the investigators left, I kept my emotions in check. I gave my children a bath and I put them to bed. Then I jumped in the bath and listened to the water running.
I felt terrified, and shocked too. For more than 10 years, my job had been to help people set up day care centers and make sure they knew how to protect children. I just couldn’t believe this was happening to me.
I cried. I sobbed. Then my anger overcame me and I started yelling for my older son.
He came into the bathroom half asleep. “Why did you say I beat you? Don’t you know they can take you away?” I screamed. My son was quiet and kept his head down. At that moment I just felt furious at him.
After I sent him to bed, I wrapped myself in a towel, picked up the phone, and sobbed to my girlfriend: “I don’t want to lose my children! I am not a bad mother!”
My younger son was awakened by my cries. I hung up the phone and lay with him in his toddler bed. He held onto me like a baby koala and cried, “Mommy, don’t leave me.” I lay there with my eyes opened, clutching him, listening to the street, wondering the fate of my children.
But the day after the investigation, I began to take control of the situation.
First, I went downstairs to my son’s summer camp to tell the director and the assistant director about the case. I felt so ashamed, but I also felt they needed to hear it from me. The assistant director hugged me and said, “I will pray for you.” That they didn’t judge me meant more to me than anything.
Then I met with my new caseworker, Ms. Veloz, a 10-year veteran of her job. She asked me whether I beat my son, just like the initial investigators did. But somehow Ms. Veloz asked the same questions in a less accusatory way, like we were having a conversation.
Ms. Veloz also re-checked my older son’s back for bruises. Then she told me a scary thing—that the first investigator had written down that my son had bruises.
She said, “There are no bruises on his back. I don’t know why the report says that there are.”
My best guess is that, when the investigator looked at my son under our dim bathroom light, he was sweaty and dirty, and his skin might have looked discolored. But I also think that after my son said I beat him, she was probably looking to find bruises. I was very relieved that Ms. Veloz wrote down the truth.
I decided to make it my mission to show Ms. Veloz how committed a mother I am. I offered to take her to my son’s camp and to my parents’ home. She also spoke with my son’s therapist. I’m sure it was helpful that she could see how much effort I had made to help my son.
When Ms. Veloz “strongly suggested” I take parenting and anger management classes, I agreed. I even found a class myself, researching it on line. Those classes helped me make something positive out of a really terrible situation.
Not a Dictator or a Doormat
My parenting class was Wednesday nights at The Mercy Center in the South Bronx.
In class we learned about dictators, doormats, and active parents. I realized that in the last few years, I had become a dictator, and that my son probably felt unheard and belittled. But learning a new approach to parenting was tough for me.
Every week I would test out what we learned to see if this “hocus pocus” really worked. My mother always told me that if you give a child choices, you are setting yourself up for headaches. But I started giving my son simple choices, about his clothes, his food, his after-school activities. My son even complimented me one day, saying, “Wow, Mom. I see a big change in you. Those classes must be really working.”
Consequences, Not Punishment
I also learned to remove the word “punishment” from my vocabulary. It made sense to me that my son would learn more if I explained why he was getting consequences. When he was careless and broke an expensive toy, I just told him I was not rushing out to buy him a new one instead of punishing him for eternity.
Another time he participated in a study of children with ADHD, and they paid him $200. I took $80 of it to pay for my transportation to and from my parenting skills class. Since my son’s lies contributed to my ACS case, I wanted him to know that there were consequences. He was very upset with me, but giving him consequences helped me stop being so angry at him.
What helped me the most was writing a letter to my son reminding him how much he means to me. I told him how I fell in love with him when he was first born, and how, being my first born, he always was going to have an extra bond with me. That exercise was very difficult because I was still so angry, but it forced me to remember all of my son’s positive qualities.
The Best News
On October 2, I received a letter from ACS. I thought, “What now?”
I climbed the stairs, and with my coat and purse still on, I plopped on the sofa, ripped the envelope open and skimmed the letter. All I remember reading is, “Your case is not indicated,” and “All allegations were unfounded.” I jumped up and down. I called to thank all those that were supportive.
Even so, the two-month investigation took a terrible toll. During that time, I constantly felt angry and terrified. I fell asleep every night crying.
I felt exposed by the investigation, too, as if everything about my family had been made public. When I walked around, I felt that every person who looked at me knew.
I couldn’t look for work either, because in my field I needed to be cleared by the state Central Registry. I felt like my life had been pulled out from under me.
Not surprisingly, both of my children were out of control, too. With my older son, the simplest tasks like bath or homework became an overwhelming debate. My younger son started biting and screaming. I think he could sense how out of control our whole family was, and that made him act out too.
Support Without Fear
My son and I still have our battles, but I believe the anger management and parenting classes have helped, and my son and I are closer than we used to be.
Still, I wish the workers could’ve approached my family more positively when they first knocked on our door. During investigations, it’s hard not to feel like a criminal, even when you’re just a parent who’s struggling.
I respect that child protective workers have a job to do. Just like police, they don’t know what kinds of situations they are walking into, and sometimes they walk into very bad situations. But I also think families would be better served if workers could make that initial interview more like a conversation. I was lucky to have a caseworker that was able to make me feel like she was working with me.