The Civil Death Penalty Makes Hungry Ghosts of Mothers and Children

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Termination of parental rights, or forced adoption, has been termed the civil death penalty. It is the worst action that can be taken against a parent who loves her children. Perhaps even more disturbing, it is the worst action that can be taken against a child who loves her parent. Equating this action to the death penalty is not hyperbole. In fact, I’d argue that it’s not a strong enough comparison. As far as I can tell, the dead don’t wander among the living, constantly inundated with images of the lives and experiences they don’t get to have. As far as we know, the dead don’t miss themselves, don’t mourn their lives; the dead don’t remember the aspirations they never achieved. The dead are, if not at peace, then at least null. Mothers without their babies are neither at peace nor null. Mothers without their babies are Hungry Ghosts–but they are the Hungry Ghosts of the social workers’ karma, not their own. Which is so much worse…a lifetime of being tormented by another human’s deranged karma.

Even worse than the Hungry Ghost mothers are their Hungry Ghost children. A womb forever aches for the child she housed. The child forever aches at the belly button, and the top of her chest where hearts beat and good momhugs begin, for the parent she cannot forget. The image of the Hungry Ghost is a creature with a huge, hollow bellow, a thin thin neck, and a mouth too small for food to pass through. The Hungry Ghost child has the huge, hollow craving for her mother–but the “termination of parental rights” paperwork shrinks her mouth and rings her neck so her longing can never be fulfilled. How does turning a child into a Hungry Ghost serve her, or any purpose that is not rooted in evil?

My children are still my children today, but it has been almost a year since they were wrenched from me. Every day I see them, my littlest one hugs me again and again, and tells me she loves me. And tells me she misses me. Lately, she’s been breaking her hugs to look at her. Drink me in. She fears that I am finite. She fears she will lose her mother. Beside me at dinner the other night she turned to me and said, “Mommy, I don’t want anyone to take you away.” I don’t know why this fear haunts her. Did she overhear it? Is it just a terror residual from our prolonged separation? She knows I would never leave her like this by choice. My littlest and I were inseparable. Even when we were apart, for weekends with grandma or whatnot, we had the invisible knitting of inseparability between us, warm and palpable and comforting as a blanket or a tether home. When inseparable people are separated, their bodies feel it like the constant sound of a shelffull of glasses breaking. This is what it means to be rent. This sound-feeling is a cousin to the blood of rape and the sore shame that comes with it; it is married to serrated knife edges; it is the parent feeling to drughunger, and in being that parent shares the same sharp pangs that hit in the same places. If you’ve ever been separated from someone to whom you are inseparable, and who is inseparable to you, then you know what it feels like to live the sound of ten jars breaking constantly. If you haven’t, then I’m guessing these are just a hodgepodge of words you think don’t go together.

But the death penalty, you know that term, right? And the word “civil?” And you must know that they should never be put together, don’t you? Civil death penalty? I mean, there’s a blatant violation of evidentiary standards and basic rights. The idea that someone could have their child taken forever–could have a civil death penalty committed–when their child was never even deemed to have suffered abuse or neglect, that should not happen in the United States, right? Nobody should suffer forced adoption simply because their caseworkers were switched several times, setting their services behind, nor because they sought safe treatment for a medical condition, and finding a provider who offered such safety took an extra couple months. That doesn’t makes sense; that doesn’t meet our definition of justice that we hold dear here in the U.S. But Broward County and the State of Florida want to make me and my daughters Hungry Ghosts–forever–for no better reason than an administrative delay, and my desire to seek care from a provider who I trusted instead of one I did not.

The civil death penalty looks like hating Facebook because you post photos of your kids there. The civil death penalty sounds like shoving headphones deep into my earlobes so I don’t have to hear the mom downstairs shout at her kid in a way I never would, but don’t have the opportunity to do better than. The civil death penalty feels like the recirculated air of my apartment because going outside means seeing families walking together. Going to the grocery store means not buying goldfish and juice for my daughters while you buy snacks for yours. Going to the beach means the terrible freedom to swim without worrying about kids and waves and water and drowning. The civil death penalty means hating the mirror, where my belly will never be flat again and that was only okay because it gave me you and you and you but you’re not here anymore. The civil death penalty means being conscripted to irreparable loneliness. It means living the mangled reality of mother without her children. The civil death penalty means hating everyone I know for having the audacity to live forward and move on while I remain dead and stuck for the rest of my life.

I’d give anything to be granted clemency.

One thought on “The Civil Death Penalty Makes Hungry Ghosts of Mothers and Children

  1. Your pain is so palpable in this post Betty. I can’t imagine the pain you’re going through, I’m not a mother, but I’m truly disheartened by your situation. I hope your children can come back to your arms soon somehow.

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