March 26, 2019 was a day I’ll never forget.
Early that morning, I got a phone call from my sister that our mom was put on life support. Her multiple sclerosis and diabetes had taken a turn for the worst and now it was only a matter of days until she would no longer be with us.
I was a block away at Montefiore Children’s Hospital dealing with another emergency. My 6-month-old son Miles was going to get X-rays done. A CT scan had showed he possibly had a fractured wrist.
The day before, my husband was holding Miles. Miles had knocked his head on his father’s head, bruising his eye. When we went to a pediatrician visit for his weight monitoring, she saw the bruise and sent us right to the ER in an ambulette.
As the nurse put in my son’s little IV, Miles was crying. My heart broke because I couldn’t hold and protect him. He looked so frail in his hospital bed.
Now, I couldn’t accompany him to his X-ray or visit my mother. Instead, I had to meet with an abuse doctor and Special Victims Unit detectives.
The doctor had a warm and inviting air. She asked: “Are you overwhelmed? Have you ever been to therapy? How did these injuries happen?”
I answered honestly: “Yes, I am overwhelmed. My mom has been suffering with her illness since I was a child. My son is having a hard time taking his bottle and isn’t gaining much weight. He’s been diagnosed with failure to thrive. We go to his pediatrician every week. I am feeling low.” I also told her: “I went to therapy a few years ago when I was going through a difficult time and suffering from a severe depressive episode.”
The doctor said she would present this information to ACS. I felt there was a mutual understanding that the injury was not intentional. I was relieved someone would communicate my side to ACS.
HEARTBROKEN AND CONFUSED
When the CT scan came back, it confirmed that Miles had a potential fracture in his wrist as well as a broken leg. I felt heartbroken and confused.
I had noticed that his leg was up and wasn’t bending and planned to share my concerns at the next doctor visit, but I never thought my baby’s leg was broken! His leg wasn’t disfigured. It was a little swollen. He never cried. He still smiled at me and was so very lovable. But hearing the news I felt guilty and wasn’t even sure why.
There are so many new rules to follow when handling infants—the art of swaddling, precautions for SIDS, they need to be in their own cribs. We never would hurt our baby intentionally but somewhere along the lines, we messed up.
THE JOY WE NEEDED
Nothing with Miles’ health had been simple. Before Miles, I had never been pregnant before and was beginning to feel as if I couldn’t have children, since my husband and I were in our 30s. Our son was and is this light of joy we both needed and wanted in our lives.
Miles spent his first week in the NICU. Every day, I visited him. Even when the nurses told me to rest, I couldn’t. I felt terrible leaving him for just one second.
When we brought him home, we fed him every three hours, waking up to give him his bottle. I Googled everything from the color his poop should be to what to look out for if he had a cold. Reading about SIDS scared the mess out of me! I would jolt awake at all hours of the night to make sure he was OK. My husband would check on him, too. He was so precious and fragile to us.
His first months were also stressful for our family. During this time, my mother’s health was deteriorating. She was in and out of the hospital, suffered a heart attack and went into cardiac arrest twice. Our family was preparing for the worst.
My husband and I were also fighting over our living situation. His mother had died two years before, and he had a strained relationship with his family. We lived with his brother and nephew, and tension in the apartment was thick. I hated being in that environment with my son. Sometimes I went to my grandmother’s house for the weekend to get away.
For a while, my son also cried for me anytime his father held him. This deeply hurt my husband. He didn’t understand that while he was working, I was always with the baby.
On top of that, Miles was not gaining weight and I did not feel good about the doctors treating him. When we tried a pediatrician down the corner from where we lived, I felt judged the second I walked in. I was treated as just another Black girl walking in to cause problems. Once after a visit his pediatrician rudely said, “We’re short on rooms. Do you mind hurrying up so I can get to other patients?” I switched to someone else after that.
Then I was disappointed again – she was the one who reported me to ACS. The pediatrician said that whenever a child is injured, mandated reporters must report it to protect children, but it didn’t feel right that my child had to be protected from me.
A week after the X-ray, we had a Child Safety Conference with ACS. Everything neutral was made into a negative.
The abuse doctor told ACS that I was emotional, suffered from major depression and was overwhelmed and must have taken that out on my son. She also reported that we changed pediatricians and missed an appointment. To them, this somehow indicated abuse, even though she also said my son’s injuries could have been intentional or unintentional.
Another report had been made against me by someone at the hospital (who was a mandated reporter but didn’t work there). She overheard me chatting with a friend about my case, took my words out of context and twisted their meaning completely.
ACS also found a case against me from many years prior. My little sister and I were fighting (as siblings do) and I pulled her hair. She confided in a school counselor who reported the incident to ACS.
Everything I was going through with my mom being in the hospital was overlooked and my words were manipulated. I felt confused, angry and hurt.
ACS decided to go to court to try to remove Miles from our care. I had never before felt like the world was against me, but now I felt prosecuted, like I was unworthy to have my child. I asked myself, “If I were a different skin color, would I be judged so ruthlessly?”
Around the same time, there was a story in the news about a white actress, Jenny Mollen. She had dropped her son and he fractured his skull. She talked openly about how hard it was for her as a mother and that she was so thankful for the hospital staff. They didn’t question her motives.
Our babies were both hurt unintentionally – but we were treated very differently.
The only luck I had was that someone precious to me worked in the hospital Miles was in. She was in my Buddhist practice and she referred me to The Bronx Defenders to get a lawyer and parent advocate.
Before I had an advocate, I was never warned by hospital staff or ACS that anything I said to ACS would be used against me. I was never advised that I didn’t have to tell ACS anything. Parents should have a right to know that. When arrested, people are told their rights. I wasn’t in handcuffs but losing your child is just as bad – and the threat of losing Miles was real.
My parent advocate was amazing. Prior to the Child Safety Conference (CSC) meeting, she listened and educated me on what was to come.
Afterward, my parent advocate reminded me that I am a good mom and an awesome person. It was nice to hear that from someone who saw my love for Miles — especially since other people were portraying me as a terrible parent.
With everything looking terrible, I relied heavily on faith. I’m Buddhist. We chant to tap into our innate Buddha nature and reveal the Buddha in others. My husband and I chanted every day. It relaxed us and gave me strength to not curse anyone out.
THE INTERROGATION CONTINUED
My son was in the hospital for three weeks. He had a broken leg and had to get a feeding tube because the doctors couldn’t get him to eat.
I’d been telling his doctor for weeks that I struggled to get him to eat. He was small and fragile. He could have been hurt very easily by anything.
Despite the doctors having the very same issues I had, the interrogation continued. While I was visiting Miles, the abuse doctor came into our room and said, “We have to get down to what really happenedto your baby.” I smiled, told her she would have to speak to my parent advocate and talked about the power of Buddhism. She left looking confused.
TWO SIDES OF THE COURT HOUSE
My mother passed away April 4. We had to go to court three days later.
Going to family court feels like you are a hated criminal marching to the guillotine. You’re ashamed and your mistakes are made public.
In the courthouse, I noticed a separation when you enter. Lawyers, judges, clerks and ACS staff walk in on one side. A LOT of white people were entering on that side.
The other side is for the general public. It had so many Black and brown faces.
You could even see a difference between the Black and brown faces that walked in each entrance – differences in their facial expressions and the way they dressed and were groomed. Why were only a certain type of people going in and out of the court doors? I realized not only was racism a factor in all of this, but classism, as well.
In court, ACS pushed to remove our son and for a judgment of abuse. I had to testify for days while mourning my mom. I was questioned about the way I held my baby. In a flash, I went from being a caring mother to a child abuser.
My lawyers advised me not to show anger, but how can any mother sit back while someone tries to take their child? I just lost my mother — I was not going to lose my kid.
The ACS lawyer even mentioned that I needed anger management. Was I not supposed to be angry? Society has this unspoken rule, if you’re a Black woman, you can never be angry. If you’re white and angry, you are having a bad day or are going through something. If I, as a Black woman, get angry, I must just be angry at heart.
My lawyer explained that I didn’t need anger management.
OUR FAMILY SEPARATED
On the fourth and last day of the trial, another lawyer filled in for my son’s lawyer. She told the judge I was a very engaged mother and that their lawyers wanted to settle.
Miles went into my grandmother’s care. I was able to live with them but had to be supervised. My husband had to stay at our apartment. I was relieved I could live with Miles, but our family was separated. It was bittersweet.
Finally, after four grueling months, Miles was released back into our care, but we still had the issue of our “judgment” – our record. They took away the abuse judgment, but ACS wanted a neglect judgment instead.
I was the only one who refused. My husband just wanted it to be over, but I couldn’t accept something that wasn’t true.
My lawyers fought for me. A few weeks later it was settled. They judged neglect, with a suspension — but I was still on the State Central Register (SCR).
LIFE NOW – AND HARMS THAT LINGERED
After six months of services, our case was closed. Eventually, my SCR record was sealed and amended. I am so thankful for my Buddhist practice and The Bronx Defenders. They were protective, they fought for me, they empathized with me.
Miles is now 2 years old. He is tall for his age, growinq quickly and super smart! He’s a joyful toddler. He loves reading books and is obsessed with dinosaurs. He carries his blanket or his Elmo everywhere — it’s so cute! However, if he falls while playing, I get really fearful. I still worry about his eating, and taking him to doctors appointments creates a lot of anxiety for me.
I’m still living with my grandmother. It took a while before ACS allowed my husband to move in with us. During our case, my husband had a falling out with his family and lost the apartment. I was scared that, because our family was ripped apart by the system, he might become homeless.
Everything was so stressful. We were in therapy and I developed a lot of health issues. Even my heartbeat was off and I had to get a Z patch to monitor it.
FIGHTING FOR CHANGE
I read the news story about the white actress Jenny Mollen a few days after our trial. I wondered if ACS went to the hospital while she was there with her son. Doctors did not assume she abused her child. Her words were not twisted and used against her. In fact, she wrote about her woes and received so much sympathy. I did not. I couldn’t focus only on how devastating it was for my child to be hurt and to lose my mother. I also had to worry about ACS.
Hospitals are racist and classist. Even before this, I had been asked to drug test while pregnant because I went to the hospital for sciatic pain. Most mandated reporters don’t look like me. Doctors follow their training to detect abuse, but it’s biased and needs to change. From the moment I met my son’s pediatrician, I felt her prejudice. People on Medicaid don’t get equal treatment – we are always investigated and interrogated.
Before this happened, I believed in the system — but ACS robbed me of enjoying my first year with my son. A system that tears families apart does not serve them. If more people were aware of the trauma that ACS inflicts on families rather than the “child saving” they portray, I think change would be inevitable.
As a Parent Leader at Rise, I’m now working to spread awareness and create parent- and community-led solutions. I’m part of the Rise parent-led organizing team researching how the family regulation system harms parents, what resources communities already have, and what people’s community care networks look like. I’m also part of Rise’s workgroup developing a model for peer support so that parents have relationships, tools and resources to thrive in their communities without system interference.
I want this harmful system abolished — and I want there to be more support for those of us who aren’t treated like Jennie Mollen.