Most people know very little about parents in child welfare outside of the terrible stories that make the nightly news. These constant portrayals of child deaths leave most Americans under the impression that parents who have had their children removed committed horrific abuse — and deserve no compassion.
Standing in family court almost five years ago, I was one of those parents, charged with neglecting my daughter. She was 6 years old. Back then, I felt the full stigma of child welfare involvement. The child-protective services lawyer spoke not to me but about me, as if I wasn’t even present. My faults stacked up higher than my attributes. In my community, too, I felt constantly reminded of my failure. That was truly the loneliest I have ever been. I felt less than human.
Luckily, at my trial, my judge made a simple inquiry: “Why is this happening in your life?” It was the first time someone had asked me that. I don’t mean during the case — I mean in my entire life. That sparked a fire in me. My judge believed there was more to my story than the stone of negligence cast upon me. And he was right.
Joining the Army and being deployed to Iraq had changed me. For years after I came home, I battled depression. I had no one I could share my fears, anger and sadness with. I tried to protect my daughter, but gradually, those feelings took over my life.
When the judge asked to hear my story, I remembered that I had survived the war. I found a belief inside myself that I could do the impossible; I could get my daughter back.
All those memories came back watching the new documentary “Tough Love,” which premiered in New York Saturday. The film follows two parents seeking to reunite with their children in foster care. Patrick is a single parent in Seattle who has gotten sober to regain custody of his daughter. Hannah, a young New York City mother fighting to reunite with two children in foster care, is pregnant and fearful that her newborn will be removed at the hospital.
Patrick and Hannah narrate their own stories, describing the childhood turmoil that followed them into adulthood. Unfortunately, we don’t learn the habits of parenting as adults. We learn them the way we begin to learn all things — as children, when we are still at our most fragile, most impressionable, most dependent. Imagine trying to reconcile past demons while juggling the fear and shame of losing your child. Now imagine standing in that condition in front of a judge. Yes, I saw a lot of myself in their struggles.
If there is one thing that “Tough Love” brought home, it’s that people need to be heard. I met people in child welfare who listened to me: my judge and excellent lawyers and parent advocates at the New York City Child Welfare Organizing Project, some of whom appear in “Tough Love.” I also started writing for Rise, a magazine by parents affected by the child welfare system. I needed to tell my story in order to heal.
Patrick was lucky to go through Family Treatment Court. His judge and his team listened to his story and applauded his hard work. Their support helped repair his broken family.
I hope this film will be a reminder that there is more to parents’ stories than we see on the news. The majority of children who enter foster care go home from foster care — to parents who repair their families and refuse to give up hope. My eyes swelled at Patrick and Hannah’s resilience. I saw Hannah and her new husband with all three children taking family photographs in their new apartment, and Patrick sitting on rocks with his daughter, pretending to be riding in a boat. She proudly shouted, “We’re almost home!”
My daughter is 11 now. The hardest and greatest thing I have done is listen to her tell me what it was like for her when we were separated for six months: “I thought you abandoned me, that you didn’t love me anymore.” It hurt, especially since I didn’t know how to explain why everything happened. So I just listened. That’s what started us healing.
I’m also learning to listen to myself. I listen to my sadness and anger, and the hurt and fear underneath. Then I write. I return to the strength of my words. My story matters. Telling it helps my daughter and me make our way. We are in this world together.