Thursday, June 16, 2005

Part Five: Bittersweet homecoming

I'd spent Christmas Eve and Day with the former foster parents who had cared for my two smaller children (the baby was never taken into state custody) the entirety of the previous year. It was a little scary, not having known them on a personal level for long; even moreso meeting their extended family. I was (and still am) treated just as they'd treat any other family member. Under the circumstances, I was incredibly grateful and relieved.

The first few months home with my children were difficult, but it was to be expected. There were going to be trust and abandonment issues stemming from the separation, and I expected some fallout.

My older daughter was turning five in January. She understood a little better than my son (who was only two), but her understanding was still very limited. Up until their return I had been under strict orders by the previous county's CPS workers to never tell them neither that I missed them nor when they would return home. The total lack of reassurance was traumatizing for my children. Why didn't mommy want them to live with her? How could they possibly understand what was going on?

Once, when my then five-year-old wanted to imitate me, she'd decided to try to shave her legs. I hadn't thought of it when I'd thrown the old disposable razor in the bathroom trash pail, and she'd seen it and dug it out. I'd heard quiet sobbing from upstairs and went up to check on her. I saw her sitting quietly in the corner, tears streaming down her cheeks, shaking like a leaf. She was hugging her legs to her chest when she looked up at me and sobbed harder.

"I'm sorry, Mommy," she pleaded, "Don't be mad, I love you, I'm sorry." I was completely bewildered. I told her, "It's ok, honey, Mommy's not mad. What's wrong?"

Her body now racked with tremors, she held out her leg. On her thigh was a thin, shallow scrape. She grabbed my arm, crying softly and covering my arm with kisses, "I love you, Mommy, I love you, don't be mad." I nearly broke down as well.

"Oh, baby, I'm not mad. Please don't be scared, it's ok. I know it was an accident. We just need to remember not to touch those things, ok? Mommy should have thrown it out somewhere else." My little girl was terrified that if she was at all disobedient, she would be sent away.

I was still under the supervision of the county for another year, just to be sure I could "handle it". I still didn't have my older two boys, who were then eleven and eight. They had gone to their paternal families. The younger two (excluding the new baby) had no contact with their fathers, by their fathers' choice (there's a reason for the pluralization, in case you haven't guessed yet - I have a crappy track record when it comes to choices in men).

My second-oldest was with his father. At the time, he was understandably suspicious and it was quite awhile until we had any reasonable interaction (it's much better now, he's much more understanding of the circumstances). I didn't see my son often at first, but his visits for the weekend eventually became more regular. His father had been granted sole custody when I was homeless and without transportation to the hearing, though I'd begged the workers to help me to get there. At the hearing itself, I was later told they informed the courts my whereabouts were unknown, even though I'd been in constant contact with them via phone and email I had access to through friends.

My oldest was living with his paternal grandparents. His father was not granted custody or physical placement because of his drug and alcohol problems and his refusal to complete AODA counseling. Unfortunately, my ex's parents were under the impression that wife-beating was supposed to be handled behind closed doors, and not reported to the police - no matter how many times it occurred. I had apparently "ruined their son's (my ex's) life". I had been told my son would be returned to my custody shortly after the return of the younger two, so that I wouldn't become "overwhelmed". That story didn't change for four months.

In April of 2004, the county workers came to my home. Sitting in my livingroom while my smaller children played near me, they informed me that there was to be a hearing for permanent guardianship of my oldest child and that they were recommending he remain with his grandparents. Their reasoning was that I had too much to deal with having the younger children, and that one more would be a burden. I was flabbergasted... devastated! Why would they return the others and not him? Where was the logic here?

The conversation which followed must be heavily censored here. Suffice it to say, I less than calmly told them where to put their "recommendation" and their lies to me, asked them to leave and thoughtfully placed more than a few expletives in for good measure. I had done more than was ever expected of me, even more than was thought possible! I had been told by the caseworkers at the shelter (whose attempts to contact the workers while I was there went unanswered) that I was a "go-getter" and was used as a success story by them. I was working my rear-end off. I did everything I was told, I was completely compliant. Why would they change their story now?

The guardianship hearing (which took place in the county of my prior residence)was the following month. My son had asked if he could go, but the workers refused to allow it because he was a few months underage. He asked me if he could write a letter to the judge instead, and I agreed. He wrote a note and, in the manner of a schoolchild wanting to preserve his sense of privacy, folded it into a tiny package and taped it closed. I didn't want to invade that privacy, but had to make copies for my own safety. I made several for anyone in the court who might need them (the original went to the judge at the hearing along with my other letters).

I had no money for an attorney, but called every one in the phonebook, anyway. I had gotten one to listen, but she couldn't speak to me until the day after the initial hearing. My case had been transferred to the county I now lived in, and I had even gotten a letter of reference from the new worker (the prior county still has yet to transfer all of my records to her) who was unable to attend. The former foster mother even went with me, for which there was talk of having her fosterparent license removed for "enabling me", both for acting as a witness at the hearing and for allowing me the use of their vehicle for several months so that I could get to work until I could get a van of my own (which, incidentally, was given to me by the foster mom's sister).

The hearing was a total fiasco. After I had submitted my letters, I was reprimanded by the judge for allowing my son to have any involvement in an "adult issue". The attorney for the social services department accused me of either coercing my son to write the letter or telling him what to write. I had done neither, but my explanations were meaningless. The foster mom of my other children was allowed to testify on my behalf, but was constantly interrupted by the judge's reprimands of me. The worker who had been in charge of my case in that county sat on the stand with a smirk as she told them of my inadherance to their rules and their recommendation that my son remain with his grandparents permanently. I lost. My son would not be coming home.

Imagine losing a child. Imagine not having the legal ability to spend a holiday, birthday or any other day with him without permission. In two years, I have spent three holidays with him: A few hours of Easter, 2004; New Year's, 2005; Mother's Day 2005. Christmases, birthdays and other holidays are for "the family" - their family. I am no longer considered one of his parents, only an unfortunate inconvenience. I was granted every third weekend with my son, since both his father and his grandparents needed weekends with him. No holidays were laid out: If it lands on "my" weekend, I can have him. Unless they have plans, and then the weekends are switched. If it's not my weekend, better luck next time.

In developing an opinion to all of this, one must keep in mind that at a halfway-point hearing of my progress, the board had told me that I was doing an exemplary job, and that I was not a typical case. I was never into drugs and rarely drink - three to four times a year, at the worst. I had no prior criminal record. I had attended college and have certifications in Early Childhood Education, First Responder, Certified Nurse's Assistant and Administration and Supervision of Childcare Centers. At the time of the hearing, I was the acting director of a childcare center, and the owner knew my circumstances before I was hired.

The attorney I spoke with the next day was as confused as I was. Her interpretation is that my son's grandparents know someone in the court system. As a matter of fact, I might just know who that is. I have a letter in my possession I fully intend to use. It's from my ex's attorney regarding one of his arrests for beating me. In it, the attorney congratulates him for attaining a lesser charge. It goes on to explain that in order to gain that lesser charge, my ex's attorney was asked to go to the District Attorney's Christmas party. This particular DA (Winnebago County, WI - check news archives for Joseph Paulus) is currently serving 58 months for precisely this type of bargaining.

In that town, it's not who you are or what you do. It's who you know.

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