I came to court that morning with my heart and my mind racing in time with one another. I was handcuffed as we traveled from the bowels of Bronx criminal court, arriving at a phone booth-sized room where I was told to wait for my lawyer.
It was the day for me to sign those papers. My son, Justin, was 8 then. For the first three years of his life, Justin had slept in my bed, curled up beside me. When I got locked up, my devastation at having to leave him was palpable to anyone I came in contact with. I could not speak his name without feeling a gut wrenching pain. Even to this day, almost 12 years later, I must mentally detach myself to cope with the pain of his absence in my life.
Five years into my sentence, I had to go to court to surrender my rights so Justin could be adopted. I still had years to go and there was no one else to take him. Besides, I felt it would have been selfish to fight. He was with a family that loved him. I grew up in foster care and know how rare that can be.
An Unbreakable Bond
When I was first incarcerated, Justin’s adoptive parents had reminded me of the unbreakable bond my son and I shared. I warned them that I wouldn’t be home for a very long time. I told them to keep my son away from me. After all, he was only 3. I thought his memory of me would fade and his life might even turn out normal. Despite my protests, they allowed me to talk on the phone with Justin weekly and brought him to visit often.
Our visits during those initial years were painful but wondrous. When he saw me walk through the visiting room door, Justin would fly across the room and leap into my arms. His face would light up and he would shower my face with kisses and wipe away my tears with his little hands. Each time it seemed as if he had grown a little bit, or changed in some small, almost imperceptible way. I still remember the sound of his voice when “mommy” changed to “mom.”
Close Enough to Cry
Justin and I participated in the Summer Program and Family Reunion Program (FRP) at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. God, how I lived for those visits. With the Summer Program, Justin came to the facility every day for five days. During those days, our relationship blossomed into something truly untouchable.
With FRP, we were able to spend two days and nights in a trailer within the bounds of the facility. We were a real family again. One day a basketball bounced and knocked out his naturally loosened two front teeth. Another time I held his scrawny 6-year-old body in my arms and sang to him. He watched me sing so intently, staring up at me as if I was the sun, moon and stars all rolled in one.
It was at the end of one of those trailer visits that I finally got a glimpse of all the pain my baby felt. I asked him if he was ready to go and he actually stopped being strong for me and cried. I had not seen him cry until then, almost three years after my incarceration.
But as Justin grew older, things between his foster family and me began to change. What once seemed an ideal relationship between a mother and surrogate mother slowly turned sour. I felt like his foster mother became jealous of our relationship.
Justin began missing every other visit. They made the excuse that Justin was impressionable and they didn’t want him to visit prison. Then they told me that Justin had school or appointments. They didn’t send him even when I arranged transportation.
On more than one occasion, Justin’s foster mother told me that Justin got depressed after visits and acted out by being disrespectful or breaking his possessions. Those were little signs, she told me, that “maybe the visits aren’t such a good idea.” I felt that if he were allowed to see me more often, then it would not be so devastating to say goodbye. They told me they knew what was best for him and I was being selfish.
A Promise of Contact
In 2001, there was an order from the court for me to attend a hear- ing that would determine whether I would retain my rights to my son. By then, the law had changed. Children couldn’t stay in care for years and years. A federal law called ASFA had been passed, saying that you can’t have a child in placement for more than 15 out of 22 months.
I had no family that could take Justin out of the system. My choices were: fight and have my rights terminated, or sign a post-adoption contact agreement and pray they’d keep bringing him to visit. I chose to sign. During the adoption proceeding, we agreed that he would visit me seven times a year. Three visits were supposed to be trailer visits, plus I’d get phone calls, pictures, and letters.
The lawyer made it sound so simple. She quickly handed me the papers to sign. What I didn’t know was that his family would soon disregard the promises they made in court, and at that time, post-adoption contact agreements were not legally binding in New York.
No Longer a Mother
I tried my best to hold my emotions in check that day, but I could feel the weight of what I was about to do bearing down on me. When I finally walked out those courtroom doors, my eyes were blinded by tears. I turned to say, “Maybe I’m not sure, maybe I’m making a mistake.” My lawyer was already gone. I felt like nothing, as if I allowed them to take away my reason for breathing. I was no longer a mother, because I no longer had the legal right to claim my own child. I was just a criminal now.
Shortly after the hearing, I realized what a mistake I had made. Justin’s family stood me up for the next two visits that we had arranged. They also stopped calling. I contacted the lawyer about undo- ing the adoption, but she told me it was too late. She said it was up to the adoptive parents to arrange visits and that she was sorry they hadn’t brought Justin. “Yeah, I’m sorry too,” I said.
I was devastated. Visits with my son were what I looked forward to, what I lived for. How could I give up being his mommy? I became so depressed that I had to go on anti-depressants just to get myself out of bed in the morning.
I have had two visits since I signed the adoption papers five years ago. I have spoken to my son only five times on the phone. His family put a block on the phone so it couldn’t accept collect calls. I offered to pay for calls but his adoptive mother wouldn’t allow me to do so.
His adoptive father told me once that I shouldn’t complain because I wouldn’t be able to be his mother again until my release. Once they sent a letter telling me I was lucky hat they didn’t send him back. I remember being in foster care and being “sent back” and I hope he never knows what that feels like.
The last time I saw Justin was in 2003. He was 9 years old . Two weeks ago he turned 14.
I call my son once a month. My advocate is able to place the call for me. It is rare for the woman who answers not to hang up when she hears my voice on the other end. If I am blessed to reach my son by phone, my advocate allows me extra time because she knows I only get to parent him for an about an hour each year.
I used to write him but he said he never got one letter. I used to send him things for his birthday but the store would refund my money after they sent it back. I have two pictures of Justin, taken after the two trailers we had together. His smile is big and bright. The happiness he experienced just being with me shows.
I keep a journal for him. I have made him a scrapbook. And I am faithful in disappointing myself monthly with my phone calls. I hope he feels my love.
Does He Know Love?
When I do talk to Justin on the phone, I tell him to be respectful and grateful to all the people who love him.
The last time I spoke to him was more than a year ago. He was turning 13. In the first few minutes of our conversation he sounded apprehensive. I reminded him that I love him and that we may not have the opportunity to speak or see each other for a while.