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Afraid to Speak Up
I needed my lawyer to advocate for me.

  Nancy Colon
Nancy Colon
Nancy's story was reprinted in the Michigan Child Law Journal. Nancy is a parent advocate at the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy.

From the first day that the child welfare system came into my life, I felt confused, afraid to ask for help and alone, with no one to guide or support me. My case began five years ago. I got a call from Child Protective Services (CPS) in Detroit, asking me to come to a Team Decision Making (TDM) meeting and to bring my five kids with me.

At the meeting, the CPS workers told me that my husband had been accused of child abuse and charged with battery for abusing me. This meeting was to determine whether I’d be charged with failing to protect my children because my husband harmed my children and my children witnessed domestic violence.

Sitting at the table with the CPS worker, her supervisor and a meeting facilitator, I felt very intimidated. I had no lawyer or advocate to explain what was going on.

Punished for Telling

I was interviewed for two long hours about my life history, my kids and my marriage. I felt like I was on trial. I believed that the meeting was my only opportunity to get away from my husband’s abuse, so I told the workers everything that had been going on
in our family for the past two years.

I explained that I didn’t leave my husband despite his violence because I had no family support and nowhere to run. Besides, abuse was normal in my life as a child. I witnessed abuse and more abuse. I was always told, “Cover up the bruises and keep walking,
and don’t tell anyone.”

I thought that my husband would end up in jail and my life with my children would return to normal. But I think being honest only made my situation worse. The workers saw my weakness as neglect. In the end, they charged me with “failure to protect” and placed my children in foster care.

I Lost Everything

After the meeting, my children were separated from me and from one another and placed in four different foster homes. I tried my best to make my children feel comfortable, but I will never forget the moment that I had to tell my oldest, “You have to stay with the nice lady and Mommy has to go somewhere else.”

It was two weeks before her 6th birthday. I was not sure when I would see her again. My daughter was terrified. She begged me not to go. But she already knew the reason why. She asked, “Is it because I told the lady that came to my school about Daddy?”

CPS told me I had to move to a shelter immediately. I didn’t have a chance to get any of my belongings. I also had to call my boss and tell him that I was quitting so that my husband couldn’t find me at work.

The worker drove me to my new home, a shelter in a city an hour away. All of the shelters in Detroit were full and the worker felt that it was best for me to be as far from my abuser as possible. There had recently been a few deaths related to domestic violence. I think the worker feared that my husband would hurt me and didn’t want her name on the 5 o’clock news.

All a Blur

My first night at the shelter I felt like a little kid hiding in the closet again. It was scary for me to see so many ladies with bruises and broken bones. I went to my bunk bed and cried until I had no more tears. In one day I had lost everything that mattered to me—my children, my job as a supervisor, my home and my dignity.

The CPS workers had told me that the shelter would help me find housing and employment and start a new life. But at the shelter, they just told me I had 30 days. I felt lost.

The first court hearing was a blur. I met my attorney a few minutes before it started. He told me that the best thing to do was to admit to all the allegations. He said this would help me get the kids back sooner. So I did that, but later I came to believe that it only hurt my case.

After three weeks, the CPS worker gave me a copy of my treatment plan and asked me to sign it. It said I had to go to parenting classes, therapy and family therapy and find employment and housing. I didn’t have an opportunity to give any input on what I thought might help my family or to go over it with my attorney.

Determined to Reunite

At the TDM, the workers had told me that I would be able to receive services if I left everything behind and started a new life. But it was difficult finding services in a new place where I couldn’t even find the McDonald’s. I started by looking in the yellow pages and calling different shelters and community agencies, but since I was from Detroit, everyone kept saying, “You’re not a resident so we can’t help.”

I was too afraid of messing up my case to contact my attorney or worker and ask for help. As time went by, I moved from shelter to shelter, trying to find work and start working on my treatment plan.

After a few months, I decided that it was impossible for me to start from scratch and I moved in with a friend in Detroit. I knew that returning to my community would be the only way that I would have a chance of completing my service plan. I knew what agencies to go to for help, and I knew that my church, school and former employer would support me.

For the first time in months, I felt that I could breathe a little bit more easily. I started working on my service plan right away. I went to my old job and explained what had happened and begged for a job. I also obtained a part-time position as a housekeeper, enrolled in a G.E.D program, and enrolled in therapy at a community mental health program.

I was so afraid of what my CPS worker would say once she found out that I had moved back to Detroit. I thought she would take it as a challenge and I would never see my kids again. But to my surprise, she was OK with it and even gave me a referral to a parenting class.

Afraid to Speak Up

Once I found a job and a house and was getting therapy and taking parenting classes, I thought my kids would come home. At every court date, I expected my children to be released to me. Finally I asked my attorney why they were still in foster care and he explained that I had to complete my treatment plan before the court would consider reunification.

My attorney was friendly and nice, and I thought he was a good lawyer because he took the time to answer some of my calls and meet with me before each hearing. But now I see that he did not help me understand my situation. I never knew what to expect from the next court hearing or why we kept returning to court. He also did not challenge the court or the child welfare agency in any way.

At times I wanted to speak up in court. My children told me that they were being abused in foster care, and I wanted the agency to move them to a new foster home. I believed that should have been a priority. But I didn’t dare to ask too many questions. I didn’t want to make my case more complicated and I was intimidated by the referee. My lawyer seemed intimidated, too. He stayed quiet in court.

Together Again

After my children had been in care for 16 months, I completed my service plan. At around the same time, I was assigned a new worker who became my advocate. She had my children placed in a new foster home with foster parents that fell in love with my family and wanted to see us together again. They supported us emotionally, became my advocates and spent extra time with us as a family.

Finally, my children came home. We were so happy and grateful to be together again. Now my kids are doing great. One daughter is planning a trip to Nicaragua to help build a school. Another is part of a college preparatory program. My boys are doing well in school and talk all the time about how they want to become police officers. And my little one—well, that child thinks she runs the house.

Even so, I believe my children should not have had to go through a painful year of separation. My attorney could have been much more aggressive in pushing the court to return my children to me. Or, if I’d had an attorney at the Team Decision-Making meeting, I could have gotten preventive services instead of having my children removed.

Guiding Others

After I reunified with my children, I was able to become a Parent Partner, providing other parents with what I needed when my children were in the system: emotional support, resources and guidance. Now that I work with other parents, I’m sometimes thankful for my attorney, even though I believe he could have done so much more to communicate with me and teach me my rights.

One mom I worked with had an attorney who talked down to her. In the waiting room at the courthouse, he made comments about how bad she smelled and asked, “Do you even know how to read?” He humiliated her. Amazingly, he didn’t think there was anything wrong with his behavior. He seemed surprised when the parent asked for a new attorney.

Another parent had an attorney who never believed anything she said. !is mother’s children were placed in kinship care and the aunt wanted to adopt the children, so every time we went to court, the aunt had a horror story to tell about the mother. The attorney would not ask if the horror stories were true. She’d just say, “Why would you do that? You’re not getting your daughters back.” That mom almost had her rights terminated until she asked to have a new attorney assigned to her case.

The Extra Mile

I’ve also seen the kind of progress parents can make with a strong attorney. One dad had an attorney who went the extra mile for him. She made sure that the father understood the court process and his rights and that services were provided to him in Spanish.

The attorney always called the father a few days before the court hearing to review his progress and ask if he had questions. She arrived early to court and case conferences so she could sit with the parent and provide support and guidance. After court, she explained what steps to take next and encouraged him to call her if he had questions or concerns. It was a wonderful experience to see how this attorney advocated for her client.

Proud to Help Parents

Now I am a Parent Advocate at the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy. Our mission is to keep kids out of foster care and reduce the number of children that are in care by providing legal assistance, support and resources to families.

Each family has a team – an attorney a social worker and myself, the parent advocate, Together we work with families to solve legal issues that put their children at risk of entering foster care or staying in the system. We help parents identify their needs, set goals and find support in their communities.

I am proud to sit with the parents and provide emotional support. I share my story and encourage parents to get help and to advocate for themselves so they don’t end up in the position I was in. I hope that with my help, they are not afraid to speak up.

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