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

Life

why I disappeared

When we started out the year, I set my sights high. Life had been painful for awhile and I was looking forward to a new start, a new season, a new chapter. I made my resolutions, wrote optimistic blog posts, and tried to fill my mind and heart with anything bright to mask what had become a constant depression.

And then came February.

Hardly two months into the new year, my worst fear was realized when social workers appeared at our front gate, their white car’s ominous insignia igniting the dread and fear that had colored the years of my childhood and early teen years. I wrote a blog post on it but later took it down. I’m not sure why – only that I’ve found it easier to write about what’s already dead and gone than it is to write about what’s alive and pulsing.

The following weeks were everything you can imagine them to be. We went into hermit mode, so concentrated in our own pain and memories that we could nothing but think, suffer, and pray. A week after that first visit at our gate, another catastrophe unfolded – no less painful… I gave up trying to blog or update my Facebook page. It felt like everything was in pieces. There was now a case in court and every time the dogs barked it meant that they were there – the social workers, the court marshals, the police. If we didn’t immediately attend them, they would turn on this whoop of a warning sound. My heart would fall through the floor. I was convinced I was developing some kind of long-term stress disorder because of the frequency of my heart racing.

The days crawled by, each presenting some new challenge or trial. Somehow we made it through. It’s a blur to think of now. There was a lot of praying. A lot of crying. A lot of pain. Shame, too – I never meant to cry the day the social workers brought court marshals and insisted upon being let into our home to interview the kids, but cry I did. They filled the living room and watched in confusion as I sobbed on the couch like a little girl. It’s a memory I’m still trying to repress. To the social workers (and police) that watched me cry that day – I hope one day you stumble across this post. Then maybe you’d know that it wasn’t forced or fake – that when I saw you fill my living room I was suddenly in another time, another place, where social workers and police equated removal, a nightmare I went through when I was a little girl – a nightmare that trails me to this day, even as I cross the threshold of adulthood.

My father requested in court that the judge would order social services to refrain from more visits to our home, that it scared his children. The judge assented, and I haven’t seen a governmental car at our gate since. It was a relief. There is a reason that an entire chapter of my memoir is titled ‘Strangers at the Gate.’ It was the event that triggered the nightmare.

The whole of the experience lasted about three months. It felt like longer. And yet, I can hardly believe that we are in July – the year is flying by so fast. It has held so much unexpected pain. But it has held answered prayers, too. The archiving of the case last month was an actual fulfillment of a word the Lord had given us. The gifting of a new car was a much sought-after blessing. My heart has stopped racing and I no longer jolt with fear when the dogs start barking.

And so my heart has turned to writing once more – to chronicling the stories and the thoughts that tumble about my psyche. My striving to see my book published has been laid to rest, much like my fears. It will happen in its time – in God’s time. In the meantime, I want to write. I want to fill this space with evidences of myself as I am now – because I won’t always be a twenty-one year old girl navigating the fuzzy realities of looming adulthood. One day it could all change and I will wish I had left more traces of myself to remember.

It has been a year full of the unexpected so far. But God has a way of bringing beauty from the ashes, so I’m looking forward to the beautiful things He will do in the coming months. This year may not have been what I was hoping or looking for, but God knew what it would hold, and if it has done anything, it has shown me that God has not forsaken my family, no matter what some people may think. Only He knew how much I needed to know that.

Only He knew.

Memoir, Writing

 

healing trauma

“Each of us is a book waiting to be written, and that book, if written, results in a person explained.”

Thomas M. Cirignano

For those of you who have read Our Story, you know already that I lost a brother; I actually lost two – the first was eight, the other was only five weeks old. I was also, along with my siblings, removed from my home by CPS and placed in foster care twice. It goes without saying that these were traumatizing and life-altering experiences, and since then, I have had to live with the fear that it could happen again. I have had to endure the nightmares and face the old memories of loss, of separation, of tragedy.

Somewhere along the way I got it into my head that I needed to write our story. I was only ten, but I had no qualms about doing it. I knew it needed to be told, and it seemed to make sense to me that I should do it.

At thirteen I started writing.

At first, I could only work on my book during the afternoon or the evening. I was setting myself up for a miserable day if I worked on it in the morning. Depression would set in and I would find myself confronted with the all-too-fresh memories, the ones that I only wanted to bury away.

 “…it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both.”
James Baldwin

It was a battle to write. It is still a battle to write. It’s only gotten incrementally easier, and that’s only because I’m slightly more confident now that I have several years worth of experience beneath my belt.

But if someone were to ask me today if I felt healing through the writing of my memoir, I honestly wouldn’t know what to say.

Writing my memoir was messy. It was confusing. It was painful and scary. It is only upon reflection that I can look back and see the ways in which I was able to grow from it.

“The features of character are carved out of adversity.”
Rick Barnett

I made peace with certain memories.

This seems strange to say, but I found acceptance in my heart about certain incidents that happened after I wrestled them out on paper. Somehow, seeing it there in black and white was a form of restitution. Everything was stripped from me as a child – my family, my home, my security, my innocence, even my sense of safety. Being able to put into words what that was like was powerful. It didn’t restore what had been taken – only God could do that – but it gave me hope that by sharing what I had gone through, I could lay to rest the things that had always haunted me privately.

I found a voice.

I felt powerless as a child, a victim of circumstance, of injustice and prejudice.

I read in this superb article a quote by David Kessler, that “Grief must be witnessed.” I so completely agree. It is terrifyingly lonely to experience loss of any kind. We feel as if no one on the face of the earth has ever known the depths of what we are experiencing, and to be unable to express our pain is a choking feeling that leads to suppression; it leads to feeling invalidated.

As a child, I was denied a voice. I felt hidden in plain sight. People walked all around me and they seemed oblivious – in a sphere all on their own, untouched by tragedy of any kind. Did no one see what I was going through? Did no one care? Being able to – finally – tell what I had experienced was liberating. In some ways, writing restored elements of what was stolen from me.

I faced the ones I was afraid of.

There were men and women involved in what happened to me whom I hold, in my heart, most responsible. I am on a journey, right now, towards complete forgiveness, but these faces were the ones that haunted me at night. How could I face these people, even in my writing? How could I bear to repaint their features so they became real again, to infuse their words with those accents I despised?

At first, writing about them angered me. At times, I was afraid. I feared the repercussions. For a long time, I was afraid of turning 21, because I was afraid they would find me – they would track me down and accuse me of libel, of defamation of character. I insisted upon being kind to their memories, even when they did not merit it. I wrote as truthfully as possible, and when I was unsure, I erased rather than proving, even to a fractional degree, that what their ghosts ranted at me in my dreams was true.

But eventually, I grew accustomed to seeing their names in black and white, over and over again. I stopped seizing up with dread and anger upon facing their existences in my story. I confronted every terrible moment, and I triumphed over them by writing them. Rewriting them. Reading them over and over and over again. I didn’t let their strength prevail against my need to see this story told.

“Aren’t autobiographies born in a question we ask ourselves: how did I get to this point? Don’t we look back over the path and tell ourselves a story? This is how it happened. This is who I am.”
― Frederick Weisel

How did writing – in any of it’s forms – help you come to terms with your past? Have you ever considered writing a memoir?