I never want another parent or child to feel like I did facing the child welfare system—alone and powerless.
I was 5 years old when I was removed from my mother. My mother was at times loving, but God rest her soul, suffered from schizophrenia.
After that, I was placed with my grandmother, but my grandmother was not a loving person—no hugs or kisses. I never really understood that.
When she gave us up, my sister and I went into foster care. If we stayed in one place more than six months, it was a lot. I constantly thought, “What is going to happen to us now? Where are we going this time? Will my mother ever get better to take us back?”
ACS came into my life again when I was 25 years old and married, with three children. I was trying to have the family that I always longed for. But my husband started drinking and drugging. At those times, the cops had to come to the house because of his rage.
Eventually, ACS told me if I didn’t keep my children safe from him, they would remove my children from me. I asked them, “Can I stay in my apartment with my kids? Can you remove him?” But they said no, it was best to go to a domestic violence shelter.
Sitting in the meeting, I thought, “Oh my god. I’m back in my past but this time I’m a mother with three children, having to packing up all of our belongings and go to an unfamiliar place.” Living under surveillance, with our lives in their hands. That was the hardest thing to do.
My children and I found so many paths to healing. At a domestic violence shelter, I learned the cycle of a DV relationship. My children and I went to therapy. I did workshops that helped me get my self-esteem back, first starting with minor goals: To look at the mirror and say to myself: “I’m worth living,” to be surrounded by positive people who could guide me in the right direction, to love myself.
I started volunteering at my children’s school. I would go into the classroom as a parent teacher’s helper. The kids would always address me by my last name: “Ms Fortunato!” I got a kick out of that. It gave me a sense of pride, a good feeling. My greatest joy was seeing my kids in school. They were proud to see me, and would say, “That’s my mommy!”
But even after I had moved my family to shelter and did all of these services to keep my family safe, child welfare stayed involved in my life for a year. They would come any time, unannounced. I hated it. It didn’t feel like an auntie was coming around to see how we were doing, it felt like a parole officer knocking on our door. It also felt unjust, like I was paying for a crime that I didn’t commit.
I know from my work that many people in the child welfare system want to help parents, while many parents feel the system only separates families and makes parents feel powerless, punished and judged.
For three years I was a parent advocate, I attended meetings where the decision was made whether to remove a child from home. I saw my role as a mediator, to help the professionals put themselves in the parents’ shoes and feel their struggles. And to help the parents feel that they are not alone. When parents speak up for themselves, everyone can find a better solution that can keep the family together.
Not long ago I was sitting in a conference with a mother facing allegations of neglect. She came in with a serious, intense face. She started out speaking up with strong feeling but she got frustrated and walked out.
I went out to find her. I gently tapped her on the shoulder, and with a sincere voice I told her, “I really understand that this is hard. I know they’re presenting it like you’re not a good mother but you are not a bad person. It’s really important that we come back to the table to prove that you are doing your very best in raising your children. I’m here at your side to go through this process together.” She was able to come back, and her children were not removed.
Now I’m a parent leader at Rise. I started by writing my story. Then, in public speaking class, I learned how to project my voice and make my message heard.
At Rise, I present to hundreds of caseworkers, attorneys and judges. Our presentations help professionals understand how to set parents up for success and treat parents with humanity, dignity and respect.
I thank God for giving me the opportunity of a second chance. I’ve taken back the power over my life and my family’s well being.
We need to give a second chance to parents. It’s up to all of us to stretch out our hands and lift them up. We can tell them, “I got you. It’s OK. I believe you can do this” so they can find the power within themselves to fight to keep their families together.
After work at Rise, I often ride my bike home. There is a hill, long and steep, that I must ride up on. There was a time when I didn’t believe I could reach my goals of making a better life for myself and my family but I have! My life is still a big hill but I’m riding to encourage other families to know that they too can ride and rise!