A permanent fixture of injustice: Child Protective Services

Single mama Alicia has had all three of her children taken by CPS. – Photo: PNN staff

Young mother’s attempt to help a friend leads to invasion by CPS

by Amanda Smiles, Poor News Network

Three years ago single mama Alicia (whose name has been changed) never would have thought her desire to help a friend in the wake of tragedy would lead to a tragedy all her own, when Child Protective Services would enter her life and become a permanent fixture.

It began when Alicia was 23 and, with her young daughter, decided it was time to leave home in Union City to be on her own. She moved into Elizabeth House, a transitional residence for single women with children in Oakland, enrolled in school and found a job.

At Elizabeth House she met Karen, a single mama of four. Over time the two formed a friendship and in order to help Karen, Alicia often babysat her youngest son. One morning, Alicia awoke to discover Karen’s youngest had died from bacterial meningitis. Karen, shocked and distraught from the sudden loss of her child, threatened to leave Elizabeth House and go back to the streets and back to using drugs.

Alicia, in a desperate attempt to help her friend, called her family asking for help with her own daughter but to no avail. As a last resort she put an ad on Craigslist seeking a government agency to help with her child. Someone did contact Alicia through the housing director, but it wasn’t a child care agency; it was a case worker.

The case worker assigned to Alicia came to Elizabeth House to evaluate her, after which she decided Alicia wasn’t “fit to mother her child.” In order to keep her child, Alicia was told by the housing director that she needed to quit school and work and “move into the house mentally.”

In addition to quitting school and work, Alicia was also told she needed to be back at Elizabeth House by 2 p.m., despite the fact that Elizabeth House has no curfew. Alicia abided and for a while things went well. That was until her daughter got sick.

One day Alicia attended her friend’s book signing with her daughter and afterwards they went to her friend’s house to rest. When Alicia woke from her nap she picked up her daughter and almost dropped her because she was so hot. Alicia rushed her daughter to the emergency room in Hayward. Although the doctor did not call Elizabeth House, he told Alicia he would confirm her whereabouts if needed.

When Alicia called Elizabeth House herself, the director demanded that she return to the home immediately. She abided and returned home. Twenty minutes later her case worker arrived to take her daughter. The reason? Alicia didn’t return to Elizabeth House before 2 p.m. The documents Alicia brought from the ER had little effect.

Seven months later Alicia regained custody of her daughter with restrictions. At this point Alicia had found her own place and, with her job at a school in Oakland, was able to pay for rent and groceries. Alicia was also pregnant with her second child.

In order to maintain a job while still finding time to bond with her daughter, Alicia would bring her daughter to the school she worked at and have her in the classroom. Her caseworker deemed this inappropriate and Alicia stopped. On her Christmas break, Alicia planned and paid for a trip to Disneyland for herself and her daughter. When her caseworker found out she accused Alicia of “too much bonding” and forced her to cancel the trip.

Several months later, Alicia’s water broke while she was at home and she took herself to the hospital where she had a cesarean birth. When Alicia was released she went to a friend’s house in order to rest and receive assistance with her daughter. After a few days, Alicia decided to return home with her two children.

When she arrived her caseworker called to tell her she was coming to see her. Immediately afterwards, the father of Alicia’s newborn baby, who had wanted her to terminate the pregnancy, called threatening to kill her and her family because he heard she’d had the baby.

Alicia, fearing for her life and her children, went to the notary and got a notarized letter, which she made a copy of, giving temporary custody of her children to her neighbor, who was a foster mom and regular churchgoer. Alicia’s plan was to hide her children with her neighbor until she could sort out the threats from her ex, but when Alicia returned home the police and her caseworker were waiting for her.

The caseworker took her baby and the letters and demanded to see the house. Alicia agreed and the police and the caseworker searched the house for some type of “immediate danger” that would allow the police to take her kids. When the caseworker said her house was “too messy,” Alicia explained that her water had broken at home and this was her first time home since the birth.

The police, unable to find any reason to take the kids, left. The caseworker, who informed Alicia that a hold had been placed on her daughter so that Alicia would be unable to pick her up from school, called an ER worker to examine the newborn, who had deep brown spots all over her body. These spots, which the caseworker accused Alicia of being bruises, were actually Mongolian Spots, which are dark brown, purple or blue birthmarks that are common in newborns. When the ER worker arrived and examined the marks, she confirmed that they were not bruises. It seemed Alicia was going to be able to keep her baby.

Minutes later the caseworker asked to speak to the ER worker alone. As Alicia waited she realized her kids were going to be taken again. When they emerged from their private meeting, the ER worker consented to taking the kids away. The reason? Alicia’s custody letter, meant to protect her children, was considered a ploy to “give her children away.”

Once again Alicia’s children were taken into foster care and she was only allowed to see them at visitation. One foster mother passed on words of advice that forever changed Alicia’s attitude from abiding to fighting.

“She told me, ‘Some mothers don’t deserve to have their kids and some mothers deserve to have the right to fight for their kids.’ She told me never to give up my right to fight,” says Alicia, “So, I started to ask questions.”

Alicia became pregnant for a third time and started to see a doctor at a clinic. When she went into labor, Alicia went to a different hospital, one that was closer to where she was, simply because she was so close to giving birth when her contractions started.

While Alicia was preparing to go home, the nurse informed her that the caseworker had been in the room earlier without Alicia knowing. When preparing for discharge from the hospital, the charge nurse told Alicia that she would be leaving there without her daugher. The reason? The caseworker accused Alicia of going to another hospital to “avoid her”.

After her third child was taken, Alicia sought legal aid to get her children back. Her lawyer got her a court date but on her court date she was ill and was admitted to the ER. While she was not present, her rights as a parent were terminated in court, which is illegal, and Alicia’s lawyer refuses to file an appeal.

Now Alicia has supervised visitation once a week with her baby, but she does not have visitation rights with her other two daughters. However, she volunteers at her oldest daughter’s school and her aunt is the foster mother to her two oldest children and Alicia is able to see them often.

Several months ago one of her daughters had intestinal surgery and Alicia asked her caseworker if she could be with her daughter for the surgery. The worker’s supervisor responded, “It is my professional opinion the baby should see who’s loving and caring for her.”

“I feel like there is racism, ageism and sexism in the CPS system,” said Alicia. “I know what mistakes I made but I told them I’ll never stop fighting for my kids. A mother’s divine right is to mother her kids and I will never stop doing that.”

Alicia is seeking legal aid. Please call Poor News Network at (415) 863-6306 if you can help. Read more about issues of poverty and race written by the people who face them daily at www.poormagazine.org.