September 26, 2018

Picking Up the Pieces: After Years of Court Supervision,

A Mother and Daughter Find Ways to Reconnect  

By Angela Butel

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April and Emery (not their real names) are a mother and daughter from the Bronx who had their lives turned upside down by the combination of domestic violence and Family Court. Their experience shows the destructive effects of that time in their lives and the long process of rebuilding that followed.

April wears two hats. She’s a parent advocate at a law firm, helping families navigate the complex and frustrating child welfare and Family Court systems; she’s also a veteran of those systems herself. “My trauma/drama prepared me for this career,” she says almost lightly. She has a way of speaking -- referring to her ex-husband as her “was-band” -- that signals how much she has integrated her experiences into the confident self-image she projects.

Emery, now a young adult, projects equal confidence, but in a more measured way, weighing each thought before speaking. Her background in political science and international studies, and recent work in sustainable development with a network of ecovillages in Africa, have given her a human rights vocabulary for the ways the child welfare system and her father disrupted her childhood.

Those disruptions intensified when Emery was around 10 years old, during a Family Court battle over visitation rights. Based on the narratives Emery’s father wove about April and her children, a judge removed Emery and her two younger siblings from their mother’s care and sent them to live at their father’s house. Emery sees the court’s response as unreasonable. “When we were removed and given to my father, we went from structure and activities to something totally different.” Even worse, she says, “there was no investigation of the conditions we were being thrown into. There were poor living conditions -- my father’s house had rats -- and also emotional and physical abuse.”

April concurs. She regained primary custody fairly quickly, but “Once they were returned to me, the damage was already done.”

Frustrated in attempting to gain custody, April’s ex-husband then began making unfounded child welfare reports. April was stuck in a cycle of going to court and then working to complete preventive services managed by ACS. This made it impossible to return to her normal routine: “I couldn’t work consistently, because I had services to do or I was constantly in court. I was engaged in Family, Criminal, and Housing Court; being in the court system was a full-time job for 10 years.”

During this period, April felt like her life was a glass that had been dropped and shattered. There are the big, obvious pieces that you pick up in the immediate aftermath; then there are the tiny shards you keep finding in the most unexpected or inopportune place

Picking up the big pieces meant completing the services assigned to her by the court, even when found them irrelevant or too surface-level to really help. “I had a check-the-box mentality,” she says.” Check your box, get your kids back, get [mandated services] out of your life as soon as possible.”

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For Emery, the lack of stability in her life made it hard to process what she was experiencing as a child. “My mom did try to send us to counseling, but I opted out because I was so used to having a social worker constantly writing down everything I say. Then two or three days later something would shift in my schedule. So I was like, ‘I don’t trust therapists; when I see people writing, I feel like I’m under some type of magnifying glass.’” This suspicion of other people’s motives made forming friendships at school hard, too.

Talking about her school experiences leads Emery to describe what finally convinced her to stop visiting her father’s house. “My father tried to remove me from school when it wasn’t his weekend. He came to the school and it turned into, like, a fistfight. I was probably 4’11” and he’s 6’2”. So imagine that, dragging your child from the fourth floor of a school building you’re not supposed to be in, out into the street, all the way across town.” April, who has been listening quietly, says, “I’m just hearing this for the first time.”

This is one of the “shards” of broken glass; involvement with Family Court and the services it mandated changed how April and Emery relate to each other. Managing what she shared with whom was one way Emery could keep some measure of control; she admits, “I purposely didn’t share much about what was going on at my father’s home.”

As they have worked hard to rebuild their bond, they received little support from the child welfare or court system. They’re not sure what more that system could have done, though. As Emery puts it, “It’s not really set up to do restorative transitions.” So they have forged their own path for coming back together – something that’s apparent in watching them interact. They are careful not to interrupt each other, or at least catch themselves when they do. They ask clarifying questions to make sure they understand what the other person has said. When asked what has helped most in rebuilding their relationship, Emery says, “It’s about finding that space where both you and your parent are in a place to receive each other.”

For example, Emery recently revealed that she experienced sexual abuse at her father’s house but hasn’t disclosed the specifics of what happened. April is trying not to push her. “That’s the hard part,” April says. “Realizing that your children have their own journeys. She’s going to come to me when she’s ready, and I just need to make sure I’m strong enough to deal with whatever she presents.” For April, a big part of making sure she’s strong enough has been going to therapy. Her self-care toolbox also includes African dance class, meditation, and journaling.

For Emery, getting into the right space to reconnect with her mom has meant spending time together. “A lot of lunches. A lot of manis and pedis. A lot of one-on-one time.” April tries throwing spa time into the mix; Emery replies that a spa is not something she would enjoy, because of the sexual abuse she experienced. April takes this in stride, folds it into her growing catalogue of information. The conversation continues; one more small shard of glass has been brought into the light.

Photo By: max Pixel

Angela Butel is a research assistant at the Center for New York City Affairs.