When I first moved from Argentina to New York, I found the city older and dirtier than I’d expected. But soon the city showed me its good side. I appreciated how easy it was to make friends, and my job was challenging. Although my English was much less than enough for the good of my career, I was determined to continue dreaming and addressing every obstacle with faith in myself.
After a year, I also met a boyfriend. Soon we were planning a family.
My marriage lasted less than two years. The domestic violence started once our baby was born.
To strangers, my husband appeared calm and compassionate. He was well-educated. He wore a suit much of the time. When anything went wrong in his life, he always blamed others. He could be very persuasive.
But when we were alone it was different. He didn’t hit me. But he belittled and physically intimidated me. One time he flipped the dining table because I was late for dinner. He locked me inside the apartment to stop me from buying presents for my family. He yelled in my face at the same time that he placed his body on top of me without touching me. He pinched my side to stop me from having a conversation with my family on Skype. He destroyed my social security card, diplomas and bank statements, which showed that I could support myself in this country.
When we visited Argentina, he put my baby under cold water to stop me from having dinner with my family. Because I was with family, I felt safe enough to call the police.
Back in this country, I didn’t see any way to escape. I went to a hotel to get away from him, but he called the police saying I had disappeared with the baby and he was worried. When the police found us and I explained the situation, they encouraged me to get an order of protection. Then my husband filed for divorce one week before my right to be in this country no longer depended on him.
I wanted to ask for a divorce on grounds of domestic violence, but my lawyer told me that if I lost, I could be deported without my child, so I agreed to a no-fault divorce. After a year, our divorce was finalized. We were given joint legal custody. My ex had visits one evening a week and every other weekend.
But just when I thought my life might begin to be normal again, my ex made two false allegations of child neglect against me. ACS didn’t believe the allegations but the investigations turned my life upside down. Seven years later, he was behind two more reports. This time he was more convincing and more destructive.
REPORTS 1 AND 2
He made the first report in 2010. I was at work when I received a phone call from a child protective investigator. “You need to come immediately to the preschool because we received a report that a man is sexually abusing your child at your home,” she said.
I answered, “I’m sure that never happened because I never left my daughter with anyone by herself at home.” I said I would pick my daughter up at regular dismissal. Then I called my daughter’s teacher. She promised she would not let the investigator take my daughter.
When I arrived after work, the investigator was still there. She had waited for four hours. My daughter’s father was by her side.
At her office, she told me off the record that my daughter’s father had made the call. I explained that he had made a false allegation to control me. She apologized and said that these things happen all the time.
She also said that no matter how many times he called, ACS would need to investigate and I would need to comply. I asked if they received the same allegation ten times would they stop the reporter. She said no.
So I followed all their instructions. For months I didn’t go to work once a week in order to take my daughter to a psychologist who was an hour away by public transportation. I left my job early every two weeks to receive CPS investigators at my home. My daughter, who was 3, was so nervous being interrogated so many times that she started behaving irregularly. One of the investigators suspected that I was violent to my daughter because my daughter hit me on one occasion. In fact she was just upset by the investigator’s presence.
At work, I was so nervous that I couldn’t concentrate. Plus, my boss was losing patience with my absences. Eventually, I lost my job.
STRESS AND DEPRESSION
Because of all the stress, I started seeing a therapist who specialized in domestic violence. She diagnosed me with depression. I was depressed because I knew my ex was going to keep calling in reports against me.
Then in August 2010 I found out that a second report had been made against me, also alleging that someone was sexually abusing our daughter. After that, I felt I had no choice but to go to court to try to get an order of protection to stop my ex from making harassing reports.
Although the second report was also unfounded, in court, the forensic psychologist, to whom my defense team paid thousands of dollars, concluded that he could not decide who was telling the truth. My daughter’s lawyer sympathized with my ex. Worst of all, my court-appointed attorney believed my ex’s story that I was harassing him with family court. Eventually, he resigned and I was left without a lawyer.
After a year and a half, I had a panic attack right before a court hearing and decided to drop my case. There was no help in court.
For the next seven years, my ex left me alone. He had visits with my daughter, but I hardly saw him.
During those years, my daughter and I were very close. We had some conflicts because her room was always a mess but we also went everywhere together. We enjoyed visiting museums and had long conversations about science and the arts.
In elementary school, she started having some behavioral difficulties, so I transferred her to an arts school where she was happier. She loved music. She was so excited the time I bought tickets to the Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center.
Even though my ex-and I had joint legal custody, I made all the decisions about our daughter’s life. He did not participate and was not interested.
But according to our divorce settlement, he was supposed to help pick schools for our daughter. So in 2017, when my daughter was applying to middle schools, I started having more contact with him.
Almost immediately, he started making and unmaking every decision and blaming me for his indecisiveness. He was unemployed at that time and had nothing to do but disrupt our lives.
Then he told the school that I was fighting him and that seeing us fight was making my child depressed. He even gave a copy of our divorce settlement to the parent coordinator. The school began to believe that I was mentally unstable.
At the time, my daughter was fighting with her dad a lot. During one fight, she told me later, her dad destroyed her cell phone and told her not to tell anyone. The school noticed that she seemed unhappy and in May 2017, the school called ACS alleging that I was mentally ill and was making my daughter depressed.
One night when I got home from work at 9 p.m., the time my ex dropped my daughter off after visits, the investigator was waiting with my daughter and my ex. I yelled at the investigator because I knew that my ex was again trying to persuade ACS that I was an unfit mother and that ACS was still listening after my ex had made two false allegations. I yelled because after so many years we were still in the same situation.
I yelled at my daughter, too. I was very upset and filled with fear and trauma. I was angry that ACS was so unprofessional and judgmental. Of course, my yelling only confirmed for the investigator that the allegations of mental illness were true.
Right after that, I called the DV social worker I had worked with the first time. I knew that we were starting all over and that I would need support.
After a few days, another investigator was sent to speak to me. Although I apologized for my earlier behavior, it made no difference. He actually said, “You are mentally ill. You have to understand.” He got angry because I didn’t doubt my mental health.
I explained that there had been domestic violence in my marriage but he qualified it as “mild” and requested that I forgive, forget and talk with my abuser. He said it was important for me to learn to communicate with my ex for the sake of our daughter.
I agreed to meet at his office to improve communication skills with my ex. I was afraid that if I didn’t agree, I might lose my child.
When I arrived at the meeting, my ex was sitting across the table showing his usual public controlled calmness and educated manners. Inside me were 10 years of piled-up frustration with the whole system. The room was too small to contain my emotions.
The investigator explained how to engage in active listening. I was exhausted after a full workday and could not reproduce each of my ex’s words. My ex kept telling the CPS worker that I was kind of stupid, which he said to me every day during our marriage. The investigator said, “She probably has developmental disabilities.”
I tried to be calm, but my ex kept provoking me. My daughter had recently told me that he had been trying to convince her not to go on a school overnight trip because a classmate or a teacher could sexually abuse her. Eventually, I yelled at him that he should not frighten our daughter about sexual abuse. After that, my mouth became a volcano, spitting the most painful abuses he had perpetrated against my daughter over the years.
If the investigator had any doubt about my mental health, at that point it was clear as water. He told my ex to go home. My ex left the room and then came back and offered to take me home in his car. The investigator thought he was definitely a gentleman.
After that, the investigator told me that I had been interrupting my ex constantly. To teach me how bad it felt to be yelled at, he started yelling in my ear. He asked me, “How does it feel having somebody yelling at you.”
I responded, “It reminds me of almost every day when I was married.”
After a few months, I received a letter stating that my case had been indicated for mental illness. CPS never had me evaluated by a mental health professional.
After that meeting, the investigator and his supervisor suggested I start therapy to improve my communication with my ex with the therapist that my ex had hired a year earlier in order to improve his relationship with our daughter. I wanted to keep my child so again I agreed.
Eventually, I lost my patience in the therapy and said what I believed was really behind my ex’s allegations. I said, “What is happening here is that he is unemployed and needs to get custody so that he does not need to pay child support. He will even request me to pay it to him.”
At that point in the circus, the therapist asked me and my ex to leave the room so she could talk in private with my daughter. When we reentered the room the therapist said that my daughter had admitted that she thought about death. She said my daughter was suicidal and needed to be away from me to be safe.
With the air of a judge, she “mandated” that I give my child to my ex.
Later, when I asked my daughter if she thought about death she told me, “Yes, philosophically, sometimes I think about death and sometimes I feel scared of the people I love dying.”
Instead of giving my daughter to her father, I grabbed my daughter’s hand and rushed out of the clinic.
Then in August 2017, when my daughter was visiting her father for two weeks, my ex’s therapist made a report against me.
Soon I was called in to a high-risk meeting at ACS. I knew that I could lose custody of my daughter. I felt terrified.
At the meeting were the same investigator, a parent advocate and the CPS supervisor.
I brought my DV social worker. When we arrived, she gave the supervisor a letter complaining that the investigator had never followed survivors-of-domestic-violence protocol. I believe that letter and her presence made all the difference. I think ACS was suddenly scared that they could get in trouble for how they handled my case.
We waited outside for two hours for the meeting to begin. Then somebody announced, “The meeting is lowered from high risk to regular family preventive.” In the meeting, the supervisor apologized twice for her now mute worker and that the domestic violence had not been taken into account. She said they had considered it mild.
My social worker explained that domestic violence is not mild or strong and nobody who is a survivor should be put in the same room as her perpetrator.
Then they told me for the first time that the new allegation was that I had made my daughter feel guilty for a serious bike accident I had in the beginning of the summer. Shortly after my daughter came home from her visit with her father, she’d cried and cried while she told me that her father had been insisting that I made her feel guilty for the accident.
The allegation was vague and ridiculous, and the only mental health professional who had “evaluated” me was the therapist my ex had hired. Still, ACS informed me that the case had already been indicated.
When I asked for documentation that ACS had admitted to errors in handling my case, and that my case was no longer high risk, the supervisor apologized for not being able to print the documents. We had to leave the building without any proof.
STILL BEING CONTROLLED
Shortly after that, I went to a doctor who diagnosed me with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was traumatized by almost losing my daughter. I was in treatment for one year.
My daughter continues to see her father once during the week and every other weekend. Currently, I am trying to have my two most recent cases sealed but the state has not responded to my lawyer’s request to send the case file from the second investigation. We have been waiting for four months.
ACS has a preventive worker visit me and my daughter once a week. Just having her there feels like a continuation of CPS. But I have decided to continue meeting with her because I want to have someone who can vouch for how I care for my daughter in case my ex decides to call again.
The stress of the investigation combined with my bike accident again cost me my job. I am trying to find a job with less responsibility so I can focus on recovering my self-esteem.
Recently, my daughter has been getting in some trouble in school, so I took her to a neuropsychologist who diagnosed her with Asperger’s. But my ex, whose insurance she is now on, claimed his insurance wouldn’t cover her treatment with that particular doctor. Instead, he has her only seeing the same therapist who made allegations against me.
My daughter tells me she won’t talk to that therapist openly, because she believes the therapist shares everything she says with her father.
Sometimes my daughter mentions that she’s worried that ACS might get involved again. If they do, she knows that her statements have no importance compared to her father’s. She knows that I am powerless to defend her.
I would like to keep advocating for my daughter in school but nowadays I am scared of talking to teachers. I do not share with my daughter any aspect of my work or personal life because I am afraid her dad will get the information from her, twist it and use it against me.
I am concerned about how my ex treats my daughter. Recently my daughter called and put me on speaker while she was fighting with her father. But I feel there’s nothing I can do. I know that nobody would believe me or protect my daughter if I called to report emotional abuse.
THE SYSTEM: ABUSERS’ PUPPET
The child welfare system needs to have a policy to fight false allegations, and their workers need to be trained to detect them. Right now, false reports are simply tools for perpetrators to continue controlling their victims even when those victims have succeeded in going on with their lives. ACS becomes puppets of our abusers and our children suffer.
Even if a report is unfounded, we are trapped, because just the fact that a call was made makes us look suspicious. Having two indicated cases means my future employers may see that I was declared a child abuser. Even my future grandchildren could be affected, because if my daughter ever has a case, the fact that she was involved with ACS as a child will be considered a risk factor for her as a parent.
Most of all, it’s terrifying to think how close I came to losing my child based on coercion, manipulation and, of course, a man wearing a suit.