Out in Front–When my family was investigated, I was terrified but I took charge

Jeanette Vega and her son at the Child Welfare Organizing Project in harlem, New York on Friday, August 19, 2016.

It was August 2, 2010, 10:30 p.m. It was hot and my two children were dirty and sweaty from playing outside.

I was running their bath when the doorbell rang. My 10-year-old son ran to the door, then quickly ran back to the bathroom. “Mommy! Mommy! Child protective services is at the door.”

“That isn’t even funny to joke about,” I said. “No, Mom, really, they are,” 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.”


One of the investigators leaned against my refrigerator, rolling her eyes and sucking her teeth. She was probably tired and didn’t like my cigarette smoke. But I felt insulted, like she thought she could act however she wanted in my home.

The other was polite, but even after I told her that I didn’t beat my son, she asked, “What do you beat him with?”

I said, “Watch how you speak because I know my rights.” I’m sure my attitude didn’t help. But I was afraid that if I acted soft, they’d eat me alive.


I told the investigators the truth: My 10-year-old and I had conflicts, and I’d hit him maybe 10 times in his life, but it was a slap on the arm or the butt with an open hand, not a closed fist.

But when the investigators questioned my son in the bathroom, he said I regularly beat him with a shoe. Months later, my son told me he said that because he thought he might get to live with his grandma, who treated him like a prince. At that moment, though, I was confused, beyond furious and really scared.

One 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 one investigator approached my 2-year-old, he yelled, “No! Don’t touch! Mommy!” Then he ran to me for protection. The investigators were in my home for 2 ½ hours. Underneath my toughness I felt like the weakest person on earth.


For a few years, I had been battling my older son. He is a good brother and a compassionate kid. But when he was about 6, he started acting out in school, and lying, too.

When I was growing up, my parents’ discipline was harsh. Late at night, my brother and I would lie in bed counting the shots in our neighborhood. My parents wanted better for us, so if we came out of line, there were serious consequences.

When my children were young, I didn’t adopt that harsh discipline. I tried to understand my children’s perspectives. I thought maybe my son was acting out because after his brother was born, he was no longer the center of attention. I tried to give him extra attention, but nothing seemed to work.

Eventually, his 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 physical discipline. But the attitude: This is what you wear, eat, do, and if you mess up, you will be punished. Instead of helping, my son just became resentful.


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 for me. I took him to be evaluated and he was diagnosed with ADHD. I wondered if I had done something wrong that caused him to have ADHD and I hoped that once he 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, CPS came to my door.


That night, my children were not removed, but I felt terrified—and shocked. For more than 10 years, my job had been to help people set up daycare centers and make sure they knew how to protect children. I wasn’t an unsafe mom.

After the investigators left, I sat in the bath and sobbed. Then my anger overcame me and I yelled 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 kept his head down. After I sent him to bed, I 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 and lay with him in his toddler bed. He held on to 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.


The next day, I began to take control.

First, I went to my son’s summer camp to tell the director and 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 the job. She also asked me whether I beat my son. But somehow Ms. Veloz asked the same questions in a less accusatory way, like we were having a conversation.

She also checked my son’s back. Then she told me a scary thing—that the first investigator had written down that my son had bruises on his back. She said, “There are no bruises. I don’t know why the report says there are.” My son had been sweaty and dirty, and under the dim bathroom light, his skin might have looked discolored. But I also think the investigator was looking for bruises. I was very relieved that Ms. Veloz wrote down the truth.

I decided to make it my mission to show her 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 helped that she saw the efforts I’d made for my son.

When Ms. Veloz “strongly suggested” I take parenting and anger management classes, I found a class myself. Those classes helped me make something positive out of a really terrible situation.


Every week I would test out the “hocus pocus” we learned in class to see if it really worked. My mother always told me that if you give a child choices, you’re setting yourself up for headaches. But I started giving my son simple choices about his clothes, food and activities. My son even complimented me one day, saying, “Wow, Mom. Those classes must be really working.”

I also learned to explain “consequences” instead of punishing my child. While I was taking the class, my son 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 class. Since my son’s lies contributed to the investigation, 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 most was writing my son a letter telling him how much he means to me. It was difficult because I was still so angry, but it forced me to remember all his positive qualities.


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 ripped the envelope open. 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 who were supportive.

Even so, the two-month investigation took a terrible toll. I fell asleep every night crying. My younger son even started biting and screaming. I think he could sense how out of control our family was, and that made him act out.

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.


respect that child protective workers have a very hard job to do. Like police, they don’t know what kinds of situations they are walking into, and sometimes they walk into bad ones.

But I think many families would be better served if parents were approached in a way that was respectful—the way Ms. Veloz approached me. During investigations, it’s hard not to feel like a criminal, even when you’re just a parent who’s struggling.