by Lisa ‘Tiny’ Gray-Garcia
“Noooooooo, don’t take my baaaabeeee ….”
I dream those words in daymares and nightmares, the sound of my mama’s screams haunt me to this day …
They were screamed by my mama when I was 11 and then again when I was 14. Two times CPS (affectionately renamed Child Separation Services by me and a lot of victims of this system that Dorsey Nunn said to think of like the police), when they “found” us houseless and me not in school, automatically deemed my mama unfit to mama me. Elementary school teachers, therapists and truant officers are “mandated reporters,” meaning the people who, if witnessing “abuse” of a child, must “call it in.”
This whole terrifying and real aspect of a houseless family’s life became the basis of my most recent children’s book, “When Mama and me Lived Outside.”
What is a mandated reporter and how are they related to the police?
If people don’t know, there is a state or county mandate, depending on where you are in the United Snakes, requiring anyone working with dependent children or disabled adults and elders to “report any abuse witnessed” to a local police department or Child or Adult Protective Services agency.
The rules dictating who is deemed “unfit” are rooted in ancient hetero-patriarchal society lies about who and what defines a parent and what or who defines “fitness” in regards to raising, loving, teaching and caring for your babies.
All that said, my mama was none of those things. She was a mixed race, poor, orphan with no job, minimal education, a disability and no husband. Her “husband,” my colonizer father, had taken her to divorce kkkort and accused her of being an unfit parent just to terrify her away from fighting for any kind of child support.
Because he was a wealthy white man, everything he said was believed, including using the length of my mama’s miniskirts to prove that she was a “whore,” as she used to explain to me.
All of these horrors happened all the time to women and still do, but when the CPS anti-social worker said the same thing, but now speaking about our homelessness and my mama’s lack of “mental stability,” it was locked in. Our only option was going underground. Getting lost, if you will, falling intentionally (as many of us poor people do) way deep in the cracks so as never to be “witnessed” again. This process of criminalizing and hiding is so treacherous and sad and part of the life of a houseless family.
From then on when we were sleeping outside on bus benches, park benches, in our cars – when we were lucky enough to have one – we were checking, watching, fearful that we would be seen, always hiding. Once you are houseless, people’s inclination – usually coming from fear of the “other,” the “unknown” or even just their loving hearts, savior-trained and confused – is to “fix” it, solve it, cure it, cure “you,” the houseless mama, child, elder, person having a “mental health crisis,” which frankly as a sufferer of mental illness, I’m not even sure what that is.
Suicidality, extreme depression, wanting to be a recluse, wanting to just sleep, even many forms of substance abuse, only become the public’s problem because we don’t have access to a roof. For most people who struggle with these issues who are housed, no-one gets in their business, calls police on them and turns their struggle into a “mental health crisis” worthy of calling the police, except of course in cases where “wellness checks” lead to death-checks of many Black and Brown elders.
But by and large, a so-called mental health crisis, the ensuing struggle and any of the healing processes are afforded the privilege of privacy, rather than what I call the “violence of exposure.” That violence of exposure is what killed Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat, Steven Taylor and so many more Black and Brown women and men across this stolen land.
For poor families, the violence of exposure leads to automatic calls to police or CPS calls, leading to families thrown in a worse place than they were, full of hoops they can never jump through as poor people who are struggling to stay alive, feed our children, and still acquire the crumbs it takes to do all these things. We’re given endless appointments to assess our “sanity,” with privileged “therapists” who have never missed a meal or lived our lives – assessments that determine our “fitness” as a parent based on aforementioned hetero-patriarchal, classist concepts of parental “goodness.”
And none of this process is clear or simple, as it is created and rooted in the same system. Concepts like “in the best interests of the child” that are the guiding light of the “mandated reporter” are not clearcut. Sometimes children and elders are in fact struggling in abuse and more often we are struggling in a place of extreme non-support. If their attack mode were switched up into a model of care and support, that would change our situations completely.
My mama and me spent all night printing shirts and most of the next day selling shirts, because if we didn’t, we couldn’t afford to pay for the motel room to stay in that night so we didn’t have to sleep on the street. In addition to all of that, we were filling out endless applications to get on low-income housing lists, Section 8 lists and cash aid lists. This was our hustle and it was the feedback loop from hell.
So if you witnessed us from the classist lens that informs all hetero-patriarchal notions of mama-health, my mama was unfit to raise me. And yet really what she was, was unsupported to raise me. As a poor, disabled, mixed race single parent alone, with no family in this occupied land, she was doing her best. This society, which values “independence” and aloneness, entrenches poverty with isolation.
But me and mama weren’t operating like that; we were an Indigenous mama and daughter in a family business trying really hard to survive. Entrenched poverty, trauma and struggle like that doesn’t end overnight because an anti-social worker separates a child from a birth parent and institutionalizes the child.
What happens to the mama? What happens to the child?
Endless studies by academics have proven the connections between foster care and the prison industrial complex. But very few people, except some Black revolutionaries and my mama and her project COURTWATCH, have looked at the connections between CPS calls and the Foster Care Industrial Complex; the reality is, CPS gets a huge federal payout each time they seize a child from a parent and the mandate of the anti-social worker is not coming from the people but rather the state and the Therapy Industrial Complex, rooted in the same racist, ableist, class-informed, hetero-patriarchal systems.
If we witness child abuse (which, just like violence and abuse of adults, happens in families in poverty ALL THE TIME) we don’t look the other way, we don’t enable it or pretend it’s not there, we pull the family in closer.
“That woman doesn’t have the mama gene,” said my mama about some of the mamas she loved, cared for, worked alongside and supported, who no matter how much they were supported didn’t really even want to parent, to be mamas or daddies or care-givers, because of all ways they were un-linked, un-connected to their babies. Very subtle, very deep and something a poverty skola mama can assess through action and life, not a code in a white science book like the Bible or the Therapeutic Industrial Complex.
This insanity and hypoCrazy causes poor children to be stolen from poor, Black, Brown and Indigenous parents who are struggling on $341 a month or maybe a little more and placed with foster families who will receive $1,200-$4,000 to raise that same child, locking in the institutionalized profit-making machine to keep making money off of that stolen child.
DemocracyNow! 7/13/20 Interview
And to be clear, the ideas I am presenting here aren’t some neo-liberal, social work perspectives. This narrative comes from “Poverty Scholarship,” a poor people and Indigenous people-led theory and practice that took lifetimes of struggle and resistance to figure out – that are rooted in culture and poverty, disability justice, multi-nationed eldership and the prayers of our ancestors. They can’t be quantified in a “test” of sanity or mental fitness and should not be quickly inhaled and discounted. We do bi-yearly PeopleSkool sessions and ongoing consulting work with teachers, anti-social workers and care-givers who are mandated reporters to try to help them unlearn these very dangerous lies rooted in the krapitalism we all want to overturn.
And we don’t just talk about this – we live it at Homefulness, a homeless peoples solution to homelessness, where we refuse and resist ever engaging with the police, CPS or APS, and Deecolonize Academy, a poor mama and uncle-led school for houseless and formerly houseless, disabled and Indigenous children. If we witness child abuse (which, just like violence and abuse of adults, happens in families in poverty ALL THE TIME) we don’t look the other way, we don’t enable it or pretend it’s not there, we pull the family in closer. We work with the our family elders to bring healing practices and call an endless amount of Family Elder/Elephant Councils – our accountability circles – to resolve conflicts in family and then straight up raise some reparations from our Bank of Come-Unity reparations for the family, so money isn’t there as another trigger to mama losing it.
In the end, I am asking anti-police community organizers, politricksters, conscious legislators, therapists, teachers and care-givers to look and listen, learn from “Poverty Scholarship” and the Elephant Council, models of revolutionary love work, to overturn and end not only police violence but its violent cousin, the mandated reporter model, and not replace it with what I affectionately call anti-social work or even “restorative justice.”
I’m asking them to realize that ableist, racist, classist police policies are in so many parts of our society – the least of which is how love and care is assessed for our children and elders. They need to see that, as Bell Hooks said, class matters, and, like my sisSTAR skola Jewnbug says at POOR Magazine, poverty is a culture, in teaching, loving, raising, repairing and criminalizing our parents and children in poverty.
Tiny can be reached at www.lisatinygraygarcia.com and @povertyskola on Twitter.