My Story

being-investigated-by-child-protective-services-missruthelias-com

The second time that social workers turned up in my life, I was between the ages of seven and nine. I barely remember their visit except that they too surveyed the whole house and counted the beds. By this point, we had left Bayamon, the city in which we’d settled after moving to Puerto Rico, and had gone to Naguabo, a seaside town on the eastern side of the island.

Our family had grown in Bayamon. My siblings and I now numbered eight, and my father had a new wife too. B, as I’ll call her. She joined our family in 1999, sometime before that first visit from the social workers.

Our new home was beautiful. We called it the Green House. Our new neighborhood was beautiful, too – full of mansions and manicured lawns. Our neighbors were elitists, well-off, and clearly taken aback by the newcomers.

My father wasted no time setting up his ad boards – one for the front lawn, and a plethora of others for our car, a Ford minivan which we’d gotten in Bayamon just before moving. Our neighbors took offense at the ad boards and took it to the neighborhood council. They insisted he take them down. In the spirit of peacemaking, he did take down the one on the front lawn – but our car was another story. This was where much of our business came from, and my father was working to support a family of twelve.

Other complaints concerned the number of people he was allowed to have over at one time. Being both a salesman and a distributor, my father enjoyed hosting house meetings. This was soon outlawed as well.

We tried to make friends and succeeded in some cases. The couple across the street took a liking to us. The grandparents up the road had a granddaughter a couple of years older than us, and they allowed us to play with her. Another couple – a military family – was American. They had two daughters our age as well, and we quickly befriended them.

No matter how hard we tried, though, there was no softening the older couple that lived two houses up from ours. They didn’t want us there. And when their attempts at sabotaging our business didn’t go anywhere, they too called the Family Department.

I think its important to point out that the complaints these neighbors were making had nothing to do with suspected abuse. Every neighbor in that urbanization had the opportunity to observe us on a somewhat regular basis (we spent hours walking the neighborhood and riding our bikes) and no one was placing calls about bruises or broken bones. So what crimes were being committed? Was this not a free country?

At times, I think its necessary to take this kind of black and white approach, especially when we are confronted by things we don’t understand. Unfortunately, there are not many people who will prayerfully consider a matter according to the Bible’s standards, and these people should at least have the courtesy to remember that ours is a free land, where every man, woman, and child has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is not our job, nor is it our right, to determine the quality of our neighbor’s life based on our own uninformed prejudices. 

But back to the story.

The chief complaint, we suspected, was from the woman. She said that our lifestyle was affecting them so much so that her husband wanted another wife himself. Other complaints included our not attending school (no one seemed very familiar with the concept of homeschooling, unfortunately) and there not being enough beds. Having never been inside our house, they could have only hoped they guessed correctly.

They must have been very desperate for the Family Department to investigate.

The social workers came. They inspected our home. They counted a surplus of beds. They questioned my father. They left, coming to the same conclusion the other social workers had, that the complaints were unfounded.

“The children weren’t being mistreated or neglected and the Family Department could not take a position opposing the family’s religious beliefs: they were obligated to respect them.” This was the written conclusion of the third investigation that my family was subjected to.

Because there was a first, though I haven’t mentioned it. The first was when I was a baby, before we left New York. A former friend had called CPS when J’s pregnancy with my first half-sister became known. There were social workers involved, I am told, but I remember nothing of the event. I don’t usually count it since it didn’t take place in Puerto Rico.

The second was in Bayamon.

This was the third.

All three had come to the same conclusion.

All three would be ignored in the end.


Previous posts in this series:

» The Truth about the Family Department: Rescuers or Kidnappers?

» Moving to Puerto Rico

Exposing CPS, My Story

missruthelias.com | Ruth, Writer

To the untouched, a social worker may represent different things.

Social Work, as I’ve come to understand, is typically viewed as a noble profession and social workers are seen as selfless servers of the community. When this universally accepted perspective was first introduced to me, I was taken aback. It seemed so completely contrary to all that I had ever known or experienced. But I tried to allow for the benefit of doubt. After all, even logically one can surmise that social workers are people just like you and me, with families, beliefs, ideas, and feelings no less important than ours. Whatever their motives, one can’t be so arrogant as to imagine that they are all bad.

The difficult thing is this: the view that I have, based on the experiences I’ve had with the same, is quite different from everyone else’s.

My experience with social workers hasn’t been limited but it has been exclusive to a type: the Child Protective Services type. I can’t speak for any other kind, whatever their function or job description. Please understand I don’t wish to sound prejudiced or discriminatory. The crimes of a few can’t and shouldn’t represent the majority. It would be unfair to assume otherwise.

But as a child, I had no concept of laws, procedures, or statutes. I saw in black and white. Home was my security, my world, and the Family Department (as they are called in Puerto Rico) was the monster that stole me from it. Trying to humanize the monster, as a pensive adult, has proven difficult. My child’s mind was irrevocably stamped by the fear they evoked in me.

The first social workers I ever met did not leave me with any indelible memory. They were strangers in the night and while they seemed formidable, they didn’t do me any harm. They came to carry out an investigation, based on a neighbor’s complaints, and while taken aback by our peculiar lifestyle, they concluded that “the children” (my siblings and I) were healthy, happy, and well-educated. There was no sign of abuse or negligence.

I was four or five years old. And staring up at the social worker standing in my mother’s bedroom, I didn’t know what social workers had been licensed to do. I didn’t know about Act 177. I didn’t know anything about the system that would one day rob me of two brothers and leave me with permanent scars.

That night it was only a strange woman and a companion, a badge, a clipboard, and the relatively innocuous question: What is your name?

I was timid as a child and I don’t remember if I answered. My mother stood behind me, holding little Abigail, and I felt small and uncertain. I don’t know how we found ourselves in her room: I imagine now that they must have wanted to count the beds. They’d already looked into our fridge and surveyed the house.

The memory introduces a question I have often agonized over: Are we to forgive such gross intrusion upon our privacy in the name of simple investigation? Especially when it is purported to be for the sake of indefensible children?

I have not yet decided.

I spent ten months in a group home instituted for abused children when I was eleven years old. I hadn’t been abused but this is where we were placed nonetheless. However, the majority of the children I lived with had been abused – if the actuality of their removal (not a determining factor) and the testimony they claimed are to be the evidence, that is. It is these children I think of when I contemplate the harassment we underwent whenever a new neighbor decided they didn’t like us and called the Family Department on us. It wasn’t fair to us, and it wreaked horrible results in our lives, but what of the abused children this agency claims to be in the habit of rescuing? If my efforts were to obliterate the existence of this agency, of this system, wouldn’t children suffer for it?

It is a perplexing conundrum with no obvious answer.

My siblings and I suffered no abuse or negligence and yet a year of our lives was spent in the hands of governmental agents posing as rescuers: their actions proved them our kidnappers. Did they make an honest mistake? I don’t believe they can claim that defense. They were well-aware of the decisions they made and of the prejudice that inspired them. They were operating beneath the color of law and I’d be willing to bet that they knew it.

And what about these neighbors? What about this nasty trick of phoning in to an all-powerful agency that has the means of disassembling a family unit with a snap of their fingers? It is as easy as that, believe it or not. Obtaining a judge’s signature is a simple thing when you know what kinds of lies to tell.

Nowadays we have forums and comment sections for people to revile and condemn one another. But their threats are usually empty and their influence can only reach so far. What can someone do in real life when their opinions on how you live your life are so unyielding that they are moved to dismember it? They can call the Family Department. That is their weapon.

It is what they did to us.

It’s what they could do to you.

Any establishment that makes itself available to this kind of redirected harassment or wields this kind of cruel power is an establishment that demands scrutiny. It is an agency that should be investigated and kept under close watch. It is a system that is broken – and how many more families will be ruined before we attempt to fix it? How many more lives need to be shattered for this to become a pressing concern?

My family isn’t the only family to have been treated this way. Our story caught the interest of the press and the uncapping of our privacy was a double-edged sword that ultimately proved a blessing. We ended up surrounded by families that had suffered similarly – whose lives and homes had been shattered by the intrusions of an agency widely reputed for its restorative powers. The social workers I knew were bullies who treated my parents like criminals with absolutely no evidence that they even deserved such marked scrutiny. And I know of parents who were driven to madness by the “legal” kidnapping of their children, by the gross destruction of their dignity in the hands of ruthless aggressors.

The truth is, you are no longer a human being when you find yourself a target of this agency.

You are a case number.

Your assertions are ignored. Your concerns are disregarded. You have no say in what takes place once they get a hold of you. If you dare refuse their ministrations, that which is most precious to you will be used against you: they will dangle the imminent removal of your children before your eyes until you are too scared or too broken to resist. And you will be haunted forever by the sounds of your screaming children being torn away from you if they deem the situation an emergency. 

So what justifies the removal of your children if there is no sign or evidence of abuse? What laws are in place to protect you from an erroneous kidnapping of the precious lives God has entrusted you with?

It is too easy for them to write off the removal as necessary – to claim suspicion as their armor to protect their lies. And this is what should scare you. This is what should stir you up in righteous indignation.

Because suspicion is a nasty thing in human hands kept clean by laws left up to interpretation.


Previous posts in this series:

» Moving to Puerto Rico

My Story

Moving to Puerto Rico | telling my story series | Ruth, Writer missruthelias.com

In Latino communities, the term “gringo” isn’t necessarily derogatory….. It’s what they, the Latinos, call the Americans – the outsiders, the white folks with their bad Spanish accents.

It’s what they called us, when I finally got old enough to pay attention.

I was born in New York to a Latino father and an Irish-Italian mother. I already had an older sister, Esther, and two half-siblings from my father’s previous marriage. And another half-sister on the way.

My father’s simultaneous marriage with J, as we’ll call her, was what the world today calls polygamy. It’s the one topic I have avoided writing about on this blog and it’s one I am hesitant to address even now.

We are not Mormon – gather from that admission what you will. They – my parents and J – simply obeyed the call they felt the Lord was making on their lives. With this call – as with most calls the Lord makes, I would think – came the loss of man’s good opinion. It came with much persecution and censure. It came with much suffering. It is the undercurrent to nearly every event that has transpired in my life. Easily understood? Never. Of great responsibility? Always. But Jesus Christ has been the center and the mainstay.

I think when people first hear about my family, they might wonder what rock we climbed out of under. Do people outside of the openly Mormon Sister Wives still live like that? It seems both too strange and too antiquated of a concept to fit into today’s society. And I get it. I do. I will say this, however, that nothing about my family seemed strange to me until I got old enough to notice how strange it was to other people. This was around the same time that I caught on to the gringo label.

My younger half-sister and I would tell people we were twins when we were little – it saved us the difficult task of explaining that yes, we were only eight months apart, and yes, we had the same father, and yes, we grew up together, but no, we had different mothers… Being that my father was a distributor for a multilevel marketing company, we were always around people – but not everybody knew. Though a great deal suspected, I’m sure. The neighbors who would eventually wind up calling social services on us certainly did.

When we left New York to settle down in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, I was just under two years old. I don’t remember the snow-lined, sooty streets of New York City or the small, wallpapered apartment where I learned to take my first steps. But I remember the burning sun that baked the streets of our new neighborhood, the heat of the sidewalk beneath my bare toes, and the long walks to the supermarket to get our groceries before we could get a car.

Our life, in the late 90s and early 00s, was relatively normal. My childhood was idyllic compared to other kids – especially the kinds of kids I’d get to know as I got older. We were homeschooled. My dad worked from home. We weren’t well-off but we had enough to get by. My sisters and I shared a room; my mother had her own, which she shared with the little girl who came along soon after our arrival to Puerto Rico; J had her bedroom with her newborn boy; and my father had his own. We were a small but well-functioning family. Both my mother and J were in their twenties – young, bright-eyed, and intelligent. My mom handled the groceries; J supervised our preschooling. My father knew Spanish and my mother and “step-mother” picked up on enough of it to handle small talk. We played at the local playground and took plenty of walks to keep ourselves busy. We made a few friends in the neighborhood – one even undertook the task of teaching J how to make proper arroz con gandules.

As a kid, my world was full of books and games and movies and the occasional loud-mouthed child that raced through my house – ours to entertain while my father pitched healthcare products to their parents. Occasionally, that world contained business meetings in lavish hotels back-dropped by glittering casinos and scores of well-dressed customers. Other times it was not so glamorous – we went a month without electricity when I was about six because of a backed-up bill we’d been unable to pay.

Our neighborhood was suburban and jammed between another, fully crowded urbanization and the bustling, over-packed city of Bayamon. We lived next door to a well-to-do dentist and across the street from a middle-aged couple that gave us the kinds of sideway glares reserved for brothels. We got our fruit from street-side vendors and spent our spare quarters on limbers.

And yet, there was no doubt about it – we were the outsiders, the weird Americans, the gringos. And we weren’t like everybody else. We were a gaggle of little girls and a solitary boy – a sweet, wide-eyed, fragile tot – a dad, and two moms. And our incredulous neighbors weren’t having it.

And so, sometime in the middle of 1999, I met my first social workers.

My Story

announcement (3)

Like I wrote in my Announcement post, I’ve been looking at my blog and reevaluating why I’m here and what my goals are.

And the truth is, I think I started blogging for the wrong reasons.

When I finished my memoir last year, I naively thought it would be as simply as printing out my manuscript and shipping it off to the big publishing houses. Surely they would appreciate the compelling story it contained and agree on publishing it. When I actually started looking into the process of publication, I realized that it isn’t as simple as that.

So I decided to learn as much as I could about it. I did a ton of research. I read articles. I talked to different people. I studied a publishing program kit. And everywhere, everyone was saying the same thing. Build your platform. Your message, your story, everything about you, is essentially pointless if you don’t have a following to share it with.

I was told that unless I built this following, unless I attracted an audience, no publisher would be interested in my book.

With this daunting knowledge weighing upon me, I hurried to set up my social media sites. I started a blog on Blogger. With the sense that I had already wasted years of potential audience-building in my ignorance, I felt like I was in a race against time.

All I succeeded in doing was overwhelming the life out of myself.

And I mean that literally. The creative force and inspiration that had aforetime spurred my love of writing withered and died. It became all about the numbers. Once, I had enjoyed blogging. I had been a part of a blog as a teenager for a fitness group. I had blogged regularly and loved it. But not anymore.

On my Facebook page, I would often joke about my spinning head and splitting headache because I was so overwhelmed all the time with trying to make everything work right from the get-go. I had no room left to enjoy the process. It was a chore. A requirement. A job. And when I look back at my old posts, I see that reflected in my writing.

The worst part was, I felt like I fraud. I wanted to write more about my struggle with blogging than actually blog. (And I do realize this is ironic given the current subject material of this post – bear with me.) An element that kind of robs from the over-all magic of the experience. Bloggers are almost like entertainers, at the end of the day. And the show they pull off, from the actual writing of the post to the images embedded, the keywords they tag it with, the catchy headline and the subtle but persuasive promoting is an art in and of itself. And I felt like some kind of one-woman show trying to pull it all off behind the drawn curtains when I wanted nothing more than to pull that curtain back and reveal my struggle.

Having reached a point where I’d rather not blog than blog just to fill up space, I’m revealing that struggle now.

It’s not the popular approach. It’s not the recommended approach. I’m tempted to let the (poorly executed) magic live on. But I don’t think I was fooling anybody. I think anybody could tell that I didn’t know what I was doing or why I was doing it (if the infrequency of my posting was any indicator, at least). I felt like a fraud because I knew that I was only blogging to build a platform. And that isn’t a bad motive, necessarily… Everyone’s trying to sell something. But it’s not the motive I wanted to start out with and it’s not the motive that was doing anything for me. It was killing my creative juices and I felt like I was throwing together content that I didn’t really care about – and because of that, I doubted anyone else was really caring about it either.

When you take all these elements and mush them together with the very integrity-oriented nature of yours truly, add a healthy dollop of good, old-fashioned insecurity, and a personality that veers toward the high-strung, sensitive, and shy, you get a proverbial mess.

And that mess was me.

In my recent hiatus, I’ve had a lot of time to think. And I’ve come to this conclusion.

I’m not going to blog with the aforementioned mentality anymore. Sure, SEO and engagement is important. Always will be in this crazy Internet world. But if I’m going to blog, I want to enjoy it. And I want to know that I’m sharing something that’s worthy and valuable – not just created with the intention of attracting views.

I figured I should circle back to the beginning – no, not the beginning of time, but the beginnings of me. The back-story that I’ve purposefully left out, the one I’ve alluded to so often but have yet to really relinquish. It’s the why behind my memoir. It’s the reason I am who I am today. It’s what I thought would come out little by little but instead remained firmly locked in the archives of my mind, under the section that reads I Dare Not. And subtitled No One Will Care.

It’s my story.