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.