by Michelle D. Chan
When I was a child growing up in the heart of lower Manhattan, I always felt like a child trapped in an adult’s life. I was 8 years old when I became responsible for myself. I like to describe that time of my life simply by saying I was a “latchkey kid.” It’s easier on the soul than admitting the truth: that I lived in constant terror and utter loneliness and heartache every minute of every day, and that the pain and trauma of being alone all day every single day is still real and raw inside of me even now.
It was the 1980s and early 1990s, and the inner city was harsh and unforgiving. Gang violence was a common reality in the Chinatown of my youth. To grow up where I grew up was to grow up tough, to grow up jaded, to grow up broken. I was a pretty girl, but also insecure and isolated – making me a target by local predatory men.
I was raped at 13, then again at 14, then trafficked several times before I turned 18. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was a piece of trash, a nobody, a nothing. My abusive grandmother reinforced these feelings by telling me every day that I would never amount to anything. I spent more than a decade of my life reliving the trauma by drinking and using drugs, utterly powerless to admit vodka and cocaine’s power in cancelling out the past, present and future.
I eventually did move on. I cleaned up my act, moved to California, got married, went to nursing school and had a baby. But, even 10 years later, the skeletons of my past clung to me like rotting flesh. After my son was born, the domestic violence in my marriage escalated to epic proportions. My abuser used my son to trap me, saying that if I ever left him, I’d lose everything – including my son.
I blinked, and my life was in utter chaos: the metaphoric white picket fence covered in dirt and graffiti, crawling with maggots. I blinked again, and Family and Children’s Services – more commonly referred to as Child Protective Services or CPS – was at my door, and everything I had ever cared about was gone.
A pattern of misconduct and a gross disregard for the best interests of children
It was when I became entangled in California’s child welfare system that I truly came to experience trauma and loss; that I truly experienced adversity, feeling the burn of stigma and oppression and injustice. It felt to me as if I were imprisoned.
My caseworker hated me and wished to obliterate me from my son’s life at all costs. She falsified reports and suppressed evidence, even forged my signature on a release of information form.
My son was taken from me in a convoluted system with no transparency, no due process and without my being given a fair chance to defend myself and to defend my child from the harm of foster care. Rather than focusing on the fact that I was a victim, the system instead chose to argue that I did not cope well enough. For my son, being separated from me was the worst thing that could have ever happened to him.
My case was messy. My caseworker hated me and wished to obliterate me from my son’s life at all costs. She falsified reports and suppressed evidence, even forged my signature on a release of information form. She went to great lengths to cover up wrongdoing and danger in the homes where my son was placed.
I will never forget something my social worker said to me after I swore to her that I would fight her all the way to the end. She looked me dead in the eyes and smiled. “If you take this to trial, we are going to win, because we have nothing to lose. You’re the only one here with anything at stake.”
The person with the most at stake was my son. He did eventually come home. But the system returned to me an entirely different child from the one they stole from me. For many, many months, he woke up in the nights screaming. Spontaneously throughout the day he would break into hysterics, and it would take hours to calm him.
Until this very day, I can’t even go to the bathroom without him following me because it pains him to be apart from me. More than three years have passed since he came home, and only now does he have the courage to talk to me about what happened. He tells me how hard it was, how long every day felt to him, how it felt to live with people who did not love him, how he never had enough to eat, didn’t have any toys of his own, how he felt like he didn’t belong.
He hated visits – because they would always end. He didn’t want to go on visits. What he wanted was to come home. Today, he is eight years old, but sometimes he speaks with the insight of an 80-year-old man. He asks me sometimes why he was taken away. I always tell him that his dad and I both made mistakes, but it’s over now, and it will never happen again. He always follows up with the same question: “What did I do wrong? Why was I punished?”
Since my case closed, I have continued to advocate for parents’ rights. As part of the work I do for my organization, California Families Rise, I survey parents and collect data on child welfare agencies in California and across the United States. What I have learned is disturbing.
Social worker misconduct and a lack of accountability within the system is common. I have also found that low-income families, and especially low-income families of color, are discriminated against and disproportionately represented. These issues are prevalent in agencies all across the nation.
California Families Rise: We are warriors, hear us roar!
It was after I fell into the child welfare system that I internalized the plight of the Black woman. I became a part of the Black community, in a sense, when I myself became oppressed and thus amongst the marginalized. When I caught a child protection case, I lost all credibility in the eyes of everyone. My friends, family and neighbors all looked at me and talked to me like I was scum.
I came to see that slavery never ended, and the United States foster care system is merely another means to keep Black mothers and Black children enslaved.
When I attempted to press criminal charges against my social worker for forging my signature, the police told me they couldn’t take action, couldn’t even take a police report. Everywhere I went I was treated as if I was a bad person and guilty simply because I had a CPS case. The only people who understood what I was going through, understood that the world had turned against me and that was just how it would be going forward, were members of the Black community – because this always has been and still is their lived experience, ever since Blacks were brought here forcibly as slaves.
I came to see that slavery never ended, and the United States foster care system is merely another means to keep Black mothers and Black children enslaved. Just as the slave owners once owned Blacks here in this country, the U.S. government now owns the Black children who are disproportionately represented in the system.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) was adopted as federal law in 1997 to address growing concerns that not enough was being done to protect the safety and well-being of children and to ensure swift resolutions so kids do not languish indefinitely in foster care. A core ideology guiding the development of AFSA was that it is in the best interests of children to move them quickly through the system and into an adoptive family where they can feel safe, secure and loved. Thus, perverse incentives were created to achieve this outcome and now foster care and adoption has become a billion dollar a year industry.
George Orwell writes about corruption in his classic 1945 satire “Animal Farm.” He tells the story of how a group of mistreated farm animals overthrew the inept and alcoholic humans and took control of the farm. Although the pigs in charge started out with the intention of bringing equality, freedom and happiness into the lives of all animals on the farm, they were ultimately consumed by greed, perverted by their desire for power.
Not only does ASFA put a price-tag on children’s heads, it has loopholes enabling agencies and courts to forgo provisions designed so families are given a fair chance before being torn apart.
I see the government as the pigs in Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” What began as a well-intentioned effort to improve conditions for at-risk children has been perverted. The bottom line is that money and unchecked power corrupt.
Not only does ASFA put a price-tag on children’s heads, it has loopholes enabling agencies and courts to forgo provisions designed so families are given a fair chance before being torn apart. ASFA also lacks provisions to ensure proper oversight and to ensure that local agencies are being transparent and accountable. It is my opinion that ASFA is too flawed to fix and needs to be scrapped entirely in order to restore justice and fairness to American families.
Shonte Foster and I started California Families Rise (formerly Parents Against CPS Corruption) to raise awareness of the injustices of the system and the negative impact of family separation on children and families and also to shift perspectives to help people see their implicit biases against low-income communities of color and how these biases are perpetuating cycles of intergenerational trauma.
We recently reignited our years-long campaign to raise awareness of the need to end federal adoption incentives by repealing ASFA.
I can’t stress enough how important it is for us to come together as a strong and unified voice. It is when we are alone and isolated that bad players in the system are able to so easily violate our rights and the rights of our children. It is when we are alone and isolated that a biased, racist society can weaponize stigma against us as a means to keep us quiet.
If a tree falls and no one hears it, it really doesn’t make a sound. We must not allow ourselves to remain alone and isolated. If you or someone you know has been impacted by the child protection system or courts, join our cause, and together we can improve conditions for children and families.
Michelle D. Chan is a writer and founding director of California Families Rise and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about their cause, visit CaliforniaFamiliesRise.com.