An Open Letter To The People In Charge Of My Family

The “community agency” in charge of my case wants to adopt out my daughters. They tried, last month in court. But by the end of two hours, when it became clear that they had mislead the court about their efforts to reunify our family (their literal job), and downplayed or straight up excluded evidence of my own efforts to remain compliant, even their own attorney would not join in that request. In an unexpectedly fair twist, all the attorneys, including the state and the guardian ad litem, asked for my case to be extended on a reunification track, and the judge granted the extension through the end of August. That’s the time I have to try to change everyone’s mind about me.

I celebrated by taking my girls, and their grandma, to see Frozen on Ice. Their faces glowed with genuine wonder and delight when those princesses came skating out. Anabelle told me it was the best surprise ever. The heartsong of their voices have been ringing inside of me since then, bouncing bittersweet between my ribcages like pinballs. I miss them. It’s been almost a year of this forced separation, this supervised nonsense. I don’t deserve this, and they deserve it even less. I miss them. They miss me. I want them, and they want home too.

This is my plea…

“I don’t want anyone to take you, Mama.” My three year old’s voice is fluted, quiet. There is an earnestness to her expression that is both precocious and innocent. She has begun saying this to me recently, during our visits. She pulls her face nearer to mine, so that I can smell the sweetness of her skin. Then she says it again: “I don’t want anyone to take you.”

I don’t know what triggered this anxiety in my youngest child; whether she overheard an adult conversation about our DCF case, or if this is the trauma of our prolonged separation rearing its head. Whatever the cause, she is voicing a primordial horror we both share: that we might be permanently severed from one another.

It’s not just Penelope. The other day, Anabelle, my five-year-old, refused to speak at the beginning of our visit. Anabelle can be a drama queen. Sometimes she misbehaves for attention. When she does that, a tickle or a joke is usually enough to break her out of it. This wasn’t that. I hugged her and asked what was wrong, then watched her small, lovely face as she struggled to fit an enormous feeling into a burgeoning vocabulary.

Finally, she spoke: “I miss Seattle.” When I asked her what she missed, she told me “everything.” Her toys. Her pink guitar. Her big pink hat. “I even miss…” she thought about it, her lips bunched together. “I even miss…” still thinking. “I even miss the furniture,” she finally said. She named our couch, where we used to cuddle and watch cartoons together. The dining nook, where family dinners were a nightly ritual, no matter what. Her bed, where I knelt every night, sometimes with baby Penelope latched to my breast, stroking the space between Anabelle’s eyes while singing Puff the Magic Dragon, remixed to include her name. She named Puff the Magic Dragon, too. Of course, it’s not the furniture she misses; it’s home with her Mama. It’s family time. It’s our life together.

I’ve prefaced this letter with these anecdotes so that you understand that when I ask to reunify my family, I am not asking only on my own behalf. Of course, I love and miss my daughters. They saved my life; it was my pregnancy with Anabelle that inspired me to get sober, and my bond with Penelope—who wouldn’t let anyone but Mama hold her or put her to sleep as a baby—which helped me re-learn how to accept love and affection in the aftermath of physical and sexual abuse. I want my daughters back; I ache to be a mother again—but it’s important that you understand my daughters want to come home just as badly as I want them home. Forced adoption will hurt them as much as—if not more than—it will hurt me.

This case has been marked by chaos. My child advocate–what Broward county calls my case manager–has been changed three times in the past year. My last CA made misleading statements in court about the dates when I received referrals for my court-ordered services; I have e-mail communications which demonstrate that I was unable to access services until October. Even then, I did not receive formalized, signed referrals or the opportunity to sign the safety plan nor any other case-related paperwork until February 27, 2019 when I met my current CA for the first time. It was at this date that she informed me that they held a staffing a week earlier, about which I had not been informed nor invited (in violation of their own policy), and made a decision to recommend changing the case goal to adoption. This decision was made without my input, without meeting me or seeing me interact with my daughters even once, without regard for the family tragedy (his father’s coma) that left my husband understandably depressed and in need of significant financial and emotional support from me, and without acknowledgment that for nearly two months—November and December—I did not have a CA.

This latter administrative issue had a direct, meaningful impact on my case. When I attempted to reach my prior CA in order to request a new, better suited referral for counseling and substance use disorder evaluation/treatment, he ignored me. I was never informed who my new CA was, nor was I contacted by anyone from the organization regarding the change. Eventually, my attorney was able to track down the name and contact information for my new CA. I promptly initiated contact, and explained why I needed new referrals. There were several reasons why the previous referral did not suit my individual needs. The provider at BARC took a punitive approach to treatment rather than one that is trauma-informed, making her an ill-suited match for someone whose drug use is intimately tied with PTSD from teenage physical and sexual abuse at the hands of an adult, career criminal. The location was also difficult, given my reliance on public transportation. This is a real barrier and one that should not be treated as insubstantial or as some kind of personal defect. Finally, because their counseling partner would not allow me to begin any other services until I completed SUD treatment, I would have been unable to access trauma-based counseling, which has been the cornerstone of my recovery for years.

When my CA informed me that she would get me new referrals, but that I could access counseling through my insurance in the meantime, I immediately began the process of enrolling in individual counseling at Henderson, a comprehensive, court-approved mental health provider just a short walk from my home. So far, it is a great fit. I have a counselor who listens compassionately, but also challenges me to grow beyond my self-imposed barriers, such as my tendency to focus on ways I have been victimized. I am already recognizing and questioning some of the entrenched thoughts and behaviors that have been holding me back; I can already feel myself growing into a better version of myself. There were delays in my case, but I ask you to look past those in order to allow me to continue this growth, and to grant my daughters the chance to know a healthy, competent version of their mama.

I am also eager to begin substance use treatment at Fifth Street Counseling. My intention was never to skip out on treatment. In fact, I readily admit that I need treatment. I am without my supports, surrounded by triggers, and in emotional agony due to the prolonged forced separation from my daughters. These are all potential triggers for a full-blown relapse. Based on past experience, the best way to avoid that is by engaging in individual mental health counseling, cognitive/behavioral group therapy for substance use, and some form of medication assisted treatment (MAT). My previous referral would have barred me from accessing individual counseling concurrent with group therapy, and did not offer MAT. My current provider has no problem with me continuing my mental health treatment at my current provider while attending their groups, and offers free naltrexone (a non-intoxicating opioid blocker) treatment. I have some questions for the doctor about naltrexone before committing to that treatment, which is not mandatory for enrollment in the program—but overall, I am leaning toward giving it a try. In any case, I get along well with the counselor at this facility, and have a general positive and hopeful feeling about this provider. I am genuinely looking forward to my next appointment.

When my trial commenced near the end of last summer, I was homeless, supporting myself solely through unstable freelance commissions, and not on speaking terms with my in-laws. In less than a year’s time, and with no housing or job-search support from the state, I have managed to drag myself up from the trenches of homelessness. While I was previously camping on the couch of a friend, I now have my own large apartment in downtown Hollywood with a room for my daughters, just a short trolley ride from the beach. I still have my freelance commissions, but I have also been granted two paid fellowship positions; one that began in February and is slated to last six months with the possibility of full-time employment thereafter, and the other which is beginning in April and lasts for one year. The year-long fellowship guarantees me enough income to cover my rent each month. In addition, I have a year-long (with the possibility of renewal) blog writing contract that guarantees enough to cover my utility and reasonable transportation expenses each month. My mother-in-law and I communicate regularly, including enjoying meals together, conversing in the car, attending Frozen on Ice (my treat), and playing together with my daughters. At the last hearing when requesting my daughters be adopted, my new CA said I’d shown no substantial change since the case opened, but in fact, these are clear demonstrations of major positive changes since July 2018, when the trial ended.

In their adoption recommendation, they have chosen to focus on the negatives; what I haven’t done or what I am behind on. In so doing, they have deflected their own share of responsibility for these delays, and have declined to acknowledge my accomplishments. But I am extremely proud of myself for going from being homeless to housed in an unfamiliar state; for being self-employed with unreliable income to having enough to cover my expenses and care for myself and my daughters, and for growing enough as a person to begin to repair the relationship with my mother-in-law. I am still working toward full economic stability, but I am on an undeniable upward progression. If my daughters came home today, I would be able to house, clothe, feed, and care for them. That’s a big change from this time last year, and one which should not be overlooked.

I am asking that you, too, acknowledge these positives. I accept culpability for my mistakes last year. I admit to struggling with my mental health and needing help—I also admit that because of my physical and sexual abuse history, I struggle with becoming defensive when I feel I have been treated unfairly, or that I have been denied agency over my own life and body. I think everyone involved in this case is capable of being big enough to acknowledge the investigation was not handled properly, and I could have been afforded more agency and respect without endangering my daughters. Regardless, that it is in the past, and I want only to move forward; I am not a bad person, nor am I a malicious, unloving mother. I would do anything for my little girls, and my only goal is to reunify with them and be the best mama I can be. I am so lucky to have such sweet, wonderful little children, because they share that wish with me. I am asking only that our combined wish can be granted.

One of the greatest aspects of our democracy is the permission to grow beyond our perceived limitations, and the ability to move forward from our mistakes. Forced adoption would stunt all of those possibilities; there is no greater punishment for a mother than the permanent removal of her children. Because that punishment is also applied to the innocent children, it is one which should not be meted out lightly. This case is not about malice or abuse; it is about treatable medical conditions, and a family in need of healing. My request is simply a measure of understanding, acknowledgment of the shared importance of my bond with my daughters, and the chance to continue to be a mother.

Please allow love and hope to win.

3 thoughts on “An Open Letter To The People In Charge Of My Family

  1. Hi Betty, I hope everything works out for you. I’m glad to hear you’ve made so much progress in light of all that you’ve been through. I hope the court can see this positive change too and bring your daughters back to you with Godspeed. Keep pushing through as much as you can. <3 Sending you love from California!

  2. very powerful Elizabeth. Family support is so important both as recovery capital and life capital; you need your girls as much as they need you. Family togetherness and involvement with each others’ lives doesn’t get the emphasis, research, or support that it deserves. Keep the faith. You will regain what you deserve, you will not accept anything less. #FamiliesMatter

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