I was only 15 when my girlfriend of six months came out pregnant. Soon I found out that she was playing me. I was young and didn’t know what to do, so I left her with the belly.
When the baby was born, my mother took me to the hospital. We both took a good look at the baby and said the same thing, “That’s not my kid!”
The baby’s mother did not allow a blood test, nor did she let me be a part of Jeremy’s life. It hurt me inside to think, “If he is mine, what type of example am I setting?” But she was picking fights with my new girl and acting crazy. It was like a reality show. Then she fled with the baby.
I had no contact with her for more than two years. Then I received a petition from the court stating that I had to appear for a child support hearing. The court date was for my son’s third birthday.
‘You Are the Father’
In court, I got to see them both, mother and son. I still didn’t know if Jeremy was my son, but I was concerned when I saw him. He looked very small for his age and was not walking or talking at the right level.
The judge asked, “What brings you here today?” I asked for a blood test.
Three weeks later came the big day. The judge said, “Carlos R. Boyet, you are the father of Jeremy Rodriguez.” I felt terrible that I had not made an E for effort to see him.
I realize now that I could have asked the judge for visits, but I was unaware of my rights. When we left court, I tried to talk with my son’s mother. “No, stay away from us,” she said. I thought there was nothing I could do.
‘Your Son Is in Care’
One cold October night my cell phone rang with alarming news. A caseworker said, “I am calling you to inform you that your child, Jeremy, will be placed in foster care.”
I took a deep breath in disbelief. Then I asked for my son to be placed in my care. With an attitude, she replied, “You would have to go to family court to be recognized as the child’s father.”
When I hung up I was so upset that I took a long walk to calm down.
Not Getting Anywhere
I was determined to get my son out of foster care, but I did not know my rights. For two years I did not have contact with my son. His caseworker kept changing, and I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was caught up in a world I did not understand.
Finally, I went to court. Instead of being given credit for my persistence in finding my son, or being seen as a potential resource for him, I was investigated.
I submitted to drug tests even though I was not using drugs. I took parenting classes that did nothing to educate me about the special needs of my son, who is developmentally disabled. I was compliant and polite. All through this, I did not have an attorney, because the case was not against me.
Learning My Rights
Finally, I enrolled in a six-month training at the Child Welfare Organizing Project, where I learned my rights. At CWOP, parents learn how to advocate for themselves and for changes in the child welfare system.
I also made progress by working with Jeremy’s foster parent. She gave me her phone number to call her any time. Eventually, I asked if Jeremy could visit me on weekends, because visits at the agency were not helping us bond. It was very difficult to get Jeremy engaged in playing games with me. He would just run around the whole place and pay me no mind.
Without court approval, Jeremy began to stay with me each weekend. I’m not going to lie—at first, it was very difficult. Jeremy was bugged out. He would scratch himself, bite himself, scream at the top of his lungs. There was never a day that Jeremy was having a good day. If I got a peaceful couple of hours, I was grateful for it.
I tried taking Jeremy to the beach; he didn’t like it. I tried Great Adventure; he didn’t like it. I kept asking myself, “What would be nice for Jeremy?” I found out that Jeremy liked videogames, and we played together. He also liked to hang out on the block, listening to music. That’s not my idea of fun, but I was good with it.
What got us through was my commitment. I said to myself, “This is my son. I care about him.” And, “Carlos, this is your job. You have to do this, no matter what.”
Twist of Fate
Despite our growing bond—and the intrusive investigations and meaningless requirements imposed in court—I was no closer to getting my son home.
Then one summer day Jeremy’s foster parent called to inform me that my son was in the hospital. Jeremy had taken Valium and was sick for a week. I was furious.
In court, I was told that the agency would conduct an investigation. I asked if Jeremy could come home with me. They said no, but five weeks later he was temporarily discharged to my care. I was relieved to have him home but felt like the system was saying, “Here, just take him and be quiet about this.”
The Father He Needs
Now I am a parent organizer at CWOP and I work in partnership with Children’s Services to improve how the system treats parents in my community. However, I have to say that there was nothing good about my own experience.
I was stereotyped as a drug user, a deadbeat, a thug. I had to go through obstacles that had nothing to do with my skills as a parent. For instance, I was told to get a higher-paying job, but was not offered any kind of support in doing this. The caseworkers could have taken the time to understand me as an individual. They could have been more resourceful, worked with me and shown me some respect.
These days, Jeremy and I are doing well. At 11, Jeremy is still challenging and difficult. He has not had an easy life. He has behavior issues and learning problems. He struggles in school. But he’s my son, and I’m committed to being the father he needs.