A Hard Decision
I left my son with a family friend in 2007 when I was 20 years old and he was one and a half. I had run away from foster care and had nowhere to live and no money for food. I was also dealing with depression and trauma—and an abusive partner. I didn’t have support from my family and felt uncared for and alone.
The family friend lived in a cozy, nice home. She suggested that I leave my son with her and write a statement saying that he would live with her family temporarily, just until I got situated and had my own place.
I did not want to be without him, but I wasn’t able to provide a home or food. A ball formed in my throat and I wanted to break down and cry, but I agreed to it. If I had access to food, housing, mental health care and emotional support, I would not have made that decision. I didn’t know that my son would end up living there for 10 years.
Every day, I thought about my son and visited him. But I was constantly watched by the family friend, as if I were a bad mom. She did not want me to be alone with him or take him outside. We had to be in the living room where she could see us. It was a voluntary arrangement, but I felt like a prisoner, being told what to do and not do.
When he was three years old, I remember him being so happy to see me and giving me big hugs. He always wanted to play Trouble together and show me how he played Mario Kart. We had picture time and made silly faces. He liked to dance. Once, he was doing a scene from the movie “Rio,” and I was so happy, laughing and cheering him on.
Visiting him made my day—but when it was time to leave, I felt broken and cried hysterically.
Battling Trauma, Striving to Heal
The year my son began living with the family friend, I was homeless and went back to his father, thinking we could make it work. I thought wrong. The final time he put his hands on me and tried to kill me scarred me.
Later the same year, I found out that I was pregnant again with his child, a second son. I didn’t know who to turn to but knew that I had to get out of this situation with their father, even without support. I escaped the relationship before my second child was born.
When my new baby was two months old, he went to live with my grandmother. I was experiencing postpartum depression and my mental health was affected by the abuse I had endured. It was the right decision, but the way my family went about it was harmful. They saw I was struggling with my mental health and didn’t support me. Instead, they went to court to take custody of my son behind my back and even had me escorted by the police when I tried to see him. I could have gotten through it faster with help and medication.
I wanted to take my boys to the park and to school, create memories together and show them love. I wanted a healthy, happy family but felt maybe I was dreaming. Reality would sink in.
I was battling trauma, getting flashbacks and having nightmares about my sons’ father. I was jumpy, afraid and angry and didn’t trust anyone. I felt deep in a dark hole and didn’t know how to climb out. I was striving to heal, improve my mental health and get my life back.
Poisoned Against Me
I continued to visit my oldest son, and for those few hours the worries went away and I thought of nothing else. He said, “Mom, I want to live with you.” My heart shattered like glass. I explained that I was doing my best to bring him home, but that he needed to be patient.
Over time, my son became angry and disrespectful towards me. One day, when he was six years old, we were sitting together in the hallway, in front of the family friend’s door. He said, “Mom, is it true that you abandoned me?” He told me that the family friend and her daughter said that they didn’t think he would live with me and that I didn’t care about him.
I was shocked and angered—they had no idea what I was going through. I explained everything and reassured him that I could never abandon him. I felt that the family had slowly poisoned my oldest son against me. I couldn’t wait to get him out of that house.
When I became pregnant with my third child, eight years later, my oldest son became jealous and angry. I suspected that the family friend was telling him things to make him resent me. I reminded him that I was waiting to hear from housing so that he could soon live with me.
On the way back to the shelter after each visit, I cried and thought, “I’m so tired of being perceived as a horrible mother who doesn’t care and is doing nothing with my life. I’m tired of how my son hates me.”
‘We Are Going to Have a Home’
One day, when my daughter was 7 months old, I received a letter saying that I was approved for housing. My heart raced and I cried tears of joy and relief. I kept smiling and hugging my daughter, saying, “We are going to have a home, mama. We can finally be united as a family, and you can grow up with your brothers.” I imagined my boys coming home and having holidays, birthdays and Sunday dinners together, creating our own family traditions.
In 2018, I went to court and filed a petition to get my sons back. I told the judge that I was 100% ready and able to provide shelter and food for my kids. My oldest son was now 12, and my youngest son was 10 years old.
The process was postponed, but after several months, the judge decided to let me take my boys home for good. The person I most wanted to show the court petition and decision to was my oldest son. I said, “See, baby, I told you Mom was going to get her own place and you would come home.”
My youngest son came home immediately. The family friend said that I should leave my oldest son with her until the school year ended. I said, “Okay.”
But when he came home for his sister’s first birthday celebration, he didn’t want to wait to move in, so he stayed. The family friend got angry and had her daughter yell at me on the phone.
I said, “I thanked you for all you have done for my son and me, but my son doesn’t want to wait to move in. My court order states I can take him home.”
She used material things against my son. “She’s not going to do for you like we did,” she told my son. “She’s not going to buy you Jordans and all the things we got you.” I couldn’t believe what was coming out of their mouths. My son was angry and didn’t want to speak to them for a while.
After my oldest son came home, he started acting out—fighting in school, using the past against me and telling me he should have stayed where he was. He thought that he would come home and do what he wanted.
I knew that he was a good kid—smart, funny and goal-oriented—and was just acting out, trying to fit in, do what others do and be someone he isn’t. I expected that he would be happier being home with me, but I also knew that other kids bullied him and put a battery on his back to do bad things or fight. He had ADHD and behavior issues, so I began to do research about what could help.
I told him, “I have rules that you have to follow. I am not the same as those people who rewarded you even when you were doing bad in school or being disrespectful.” I told him, “As long as you have food in your belly, clothes on your back, sneakers on your feet and a place to live, that is what matters. PlayStation, Jordans, allowance, V-Bucks, video games, a phone—these are privileges you have to earn.”
Still, my son continued to misbehave, coming home late after school, cutting class, fighting and disrespecting girls. I felt like a stranded traveler not knowing which way to turn, so I would slap him or punish him. He would say hurtful things to me. It was just argument after argument. Every time I was called to the school after something happened, I told them about these challenges. They asked if he was in a gang. I said no—how would he have time when he is home? They judged my son as this “bad kid” and a gangster. I told them he had just moved in with me and was dealing with changes.
I felt judged—and uncomfortable because I didn’t know what my son said about me. But I kept going to meetings, showing up every time they called and doing my best to understand my son.
Reported Instead of Supported
One day, I woke up cranky, and my oldest son also had an attitude. I was tired, fed up and overwhelmed. We got into an argument, and I slapped him.
He went to school and, because he was still angry, told the school staff that I had hit and choked him.
The school called and said that they were sending my son to the family friend’s house, because that was what he wanted—and that they had reported me to ACS. I was furious. Why couldn’t the school help me when I had asked the dean, guidance counselor and social worker for help and resources? Why couldn’t they meet with me first to ask about what my son said? I would have spoken truthfully. But because school employees are mandated to report so-called “abuse,” they called ACS.
When ACS got involved, I told them I did not choke my son—yes, I slapped him, but I didn’t choke him. I explained everything I had been going through with him and said that they could read the school incident reports.
They checked my daughter and youngest son and saw everything was okay. They asked me questions about why my son and I were having issues. They said that he told them he was afraid to come home.
I felt like I failed my kids. I was afraid all my kids would be removed, including my daughter, who had always lived with me. I cried, thinking how hard I had been trying to get my sons home—only to go through this. I said to the ACS worker, “I can’t live without my kids. I can’t go through that again.”
Struggling to Find Solutions
Luckily, I had an understanding ACS worker, and my son came home the next day. I told the ACS worker that I would appreciate therapy to have a better relationship with my son, but they told me to look for a therapist on my own. ACS could have provided resources, but they didn’t. They said that, because it wasn’t a case but an “investigation” to see if the allegations were true, they couldn’t help. ACS coming to my home to investigate made me question my parenting. I didn’t have privacy and felt on edge, because if I made one wrong move, I would lose my kids.
Eventually, I started doing research on my own. I looked at a disciplinary program for my son and thought of putting him in military cadet school, but this made him upset. So, instead, I started him on a curfew, a chore chart and a behavior chart. All this would show ACS how he was doing at home and would maybe help create trust.
I tried it for a while, but none of it worked. He still defied my rules and gave me problems. It got worse once ACS was involved. Later, in ACS’s investigation, he told them he was smoking marijuana, so he had to be drug-tested. He also told the school that he was in a gang. I kept thinking that maybe he was lying to feel cool.
One day, he went to the roof of the school building—and that was the last straw. They tried to transfer him to another school, but I took it upon myself to start homeschooling him.
On My Own
Eventually, ACS decided to close our case and connected me with preventive services. I didn’t know preventive services even existed—the school counselor had mentioned them but never took action to get me set up.
Preventive services were helpful. They provided furniture and made sure we had food. The case planner I had was amazing. She understood me, made me feel I had rights as a parent and complimented me about the progress my son and I were making and how resourceful I am.
The preventive services agency suggested finding a therapist for me and for my son, but did not help me find therapists who were nearby and could see us. Eventually, I got him into therapy on my own. I tried to get therapy for myself, but I called a few places and was put on a waiting list.
I continued looking for resources, reading about teens with ADHD, trying to do things differently and finding ways to change his behavior. I wanted to connect with moms who had experienced similar things, but I was still on my own.
Trying New Approaches
I didn’t get help from ACS or preventive services with rebuilding my relationship with my son—this was something I did by myself. I knew I wasn’t perfect and needed to work on controlling my anger with him. I did research, watched YouTube videos and read blogs. The tips that were helpful were exercising when I felt upset, taking a walk or finding something that makes me feel better. I learned to take deep breaths until I feel calm and relaxed—and to write down what made me angry or vent to a friend. I try to think before I react and speak. I use meditation to take a step back.
These tips worked because I was serious about making changes. I was so used to reacting the same way for such a long time, it took training not to react or shout. Telling myself to pause and breathe takes practice. I have to be committed to change for the better—that is what I remind myself every day.
I knew hitting my son didn’t solve the bigger problem, so I decided to try a different approach. I started to take away his privileges when he misbehaved. I talked to him calmly and explained why I felt upset. I allowed him to express himself calmly, rather than talking to me with an attitude. If I was upset, I would leave a note explaining why I was upset, or he would write down how he felt and place that on the table. We took breathing moments. When we were both calm, we would talk about it and then hug, and I would remind him that I love him. I also had him write in a “mom and me” journal where we shared thoughts about our day.
We play video games and watch movies together. I help create and edit video montages for him. That is our bonding time. I give him advice about girls and getting a job. I love that he takes interest in my writing and expresses his feedback. I remind him that I love him so much, that I am proud to be his mom and that everyone makes mistakes in life—no one is perfect.
My son is now 15 and is an honor roll student. He has a normal teenage attitude—not every day is 100%—but I show him that I will always be here and love him through tough days and good days. He has made a huge turnaround in his behavior compared to a year ago. I have tried to understand him more, to learn about ADHD and to remember what works. I do my best every day and am still learning to heal. I am proud of the progress we have made, and I am so proud of my son.