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New York: The Besieged Children

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Lisa Weatherbee/SalaamGarageNYC
Elijah, a former foster child who lives in Manhattan and was interviewed in Everybody Needs Someone, said of his experience, ‘It really felt like nobody loved me. No kid should have to feel like that.’

One person who benefited enormously from the Child Welfare Fund’s work is Nicole Goodwin. After her stepfather recovered from the stabbing, things seemed to settle down in Nicole’s household, but not in her mind. Formerly an obedient student, she became angry and defiant at school. Her teachers cared about social justice and, on one occasion, took the entire third grade to a demonstration against apartheid in South Africa, but they seemed oblivious to the abuses in their own students’ lives. Fortunately, Nicole liked reading, got good grades, and became one of only twenty-five students in her high school class of over two hundred to graduate on time. But at home the near-constant fighting continued. What angered Nicole most was that her mother, concerned with keeping up appearances, refused to acknowledge the abuse Nicole had suffered. “She made me feel as though I was crazy,” Nicole says now. “I felt so lonely.”

After graduation, Nicole enrolled briefly at John Jay College, but when living with her mother became intolerable, she dropped out and joined the army. It was 2001. Eighteen months later, while at a training camp in California, Nicole gave birth to a daughter, Shylah, the product of a brief affair with another soldier. When Shylah was a month old, Nicole placed her in the care of some friends and then shipped out to Iraq. The war had just begun, and reports of soldier deaths were beginning to come in. Nicole now had something to live for and she says she felt terrified.

In Iraq, Nicole was assigned to a unit that managed the ordnance supply chain. She avoided the most dangerous missions, got out alive, and was honorably discharged in 2004. She collected ten-month-old Shylah from her friends, but when she turned up with her at her mother’s house in New York, the two women began fighting almost immediately. Within a month Nicole and Shylah were homeless. Nicole spent the next six weeks begging for an apartment at the desolate Bronx office of the city’s Emergency Assistance Unit. Each day she was told she was ineligible because she could live with her mother, and each day she explained that her mother had thrown her out. While struggling to get out of this catch-22, Nicole and Shylah were relegated to the “emergency shelter system.” Each night a bus, stinking of urine, with a driver who was frequently exhausted and reckless, would take mother and daughter to a small room somewhere in the city provided by the Department of Homeless Services. Sometimes the bus wouldn’t arrive until four am, and by six, Nicole would be on her way back to petition the Emergency Assistance Unit for housing again. During this time, no city agency, including the Administration for Children’s Services, did anything to ensure that Shylah and the other homeless children were safe; there was no day care, no counseling, not even toys for the children.

Eventually, the Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit group, found an apartment for Nicole and Shylah, where they now live. Nicole enrolled at City College under the GI Bill, but memories of Iraq continued to haunt her. “It was a beautiful Hell,” she recalls now. She liked riding across the desert in a crane truck at twilight, but the things she saw and experienced—torture, rape, shootings, and the humiliations of occupation—amplified painful recollections from her childhood. Back in New York, her dreams were so scary that she sometimes awoke with a headache. By day, the ordinary routines of life—shopping, cooking—seemed absurd. As if still in the midst of a war, she began hoarding things—clothes, canned food, newspapers. She was, she later told me, acting like the Holocaust survivors she had read about in her college literature classes.

One night, when Shylah was six years old, Nicole was awakened at midnight by a loud banging on the front door. A pair of child protection investigators entered the apartment and, Nicole says, screamed at her for the next three hours. Three months earlier, Nicole had slapped Shylah after the girl decided she wanted bangs and cut her own hair with a pair of meat scissors. Shylah barely cried at the time, but that day she had mentioned the incident to a school guidance counselor who called the Administration for Children’s Services child abuse hotline right away. For reasons Nicole still does not know, the report was registered as an emergency, and when the investigators arrived that night and saw the clutter in Nicole’s apartment, they woke Shylah up and took her away.

Nicole was summoned to appear at the Administration for Children’s Services office on 125th Street the next morning. There three city officials berated her for beating her child and for being a sloppy housekeeper. Also at the conference was Sabra Jackson, a young woman who had temporarily lost her own children to foster care because of drug abuse. Sabra worked as a parent advocate for the Child Welfare Organizing Project, one of the community groups created by Tobis’s Child Welfare Fund. “All she did was hold my hand during that conference, but I don’t think I could have gone through it if she hadn’t been there,” Nicole recalls.

In order to get Shylah back, Nicole was required to undergo mental health treatment, which she did through the Veterans Administration. She was lucky. Civilian community mental health services are severely underfunded in New York State and about 20 percent of parents in the child welfare system lose their children because of poorly managed mental illnesses.11

After six months, Nicole’s case finally came up in Family Court, where she was represented by an able attorney from the Center for Family Representation, one of the organizations supported by the CWF’s partner foundations. A kindly judge threw out the case because of lack of evidence.

After Shylah came home, Nicole noticed a change. The little girl had always been somewhat hyperactive, but now she was furious all the time, and had hysterical tantrums that Nicole had never seen before. A social worker at Shylah’s school referred Nicole to a support group for families that had been reunited after foster care. The group was run by parent advocates from the Child Welfare Organizing Project. There Nicole met other parents trying to deal with the consequences of family separation.

Shylah’s experience in foster care was relatively benign because Nicole had managed to have her placed with close friends and, unlike most parents whose children are removed, she was allowed daily visits. But Nicole hadn’t realized how traumatized Shylah had been when she was first dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and taken away. At the time, the child protection officers did nothing to reassure the girl that she and her mother would be OK. It wasn’t what they did that troubled Nicole—she admits she needed help—it was their SWAT team tactics. “It really shook her world,” Nicole says now. “She was confused and frightened, and thought it was all her fault. She really thought I didn’t want her anymore.”

Nicole tried to calm Shylah down that night, but until she joined the CWOP support group, she didn’t know how deeply that experience had aroused Shylah’s fears of abandonment or how long they would persist. Even now, three years later, Shylah is often afraid to sleep alone. Finding the language to mend the emotional wounds of separation is difficult for many parents, but at present only the CWOP and a small number of other nonprofit groups offer them any help. The ACS itself provides little funding for these services.

The CWOP counselors helped Nicole to be more attentive and responsive to Shylah, and mother and daughter gradually began to trust each other again. Today Shylah is a bright third-grader, and recently stage-managed and codirected a school play about turtles. In 2011, Nicole graduated with a double major in anthropology and creative writing and now works as a volunteer at the CWOP and is thinking about doing a Ph.D.

This winter, I attended a dozen support groups at the Child Welfare Organizing Project, where I learned that Nicole’s case is not unique. I met a young woman who lost her child for a year after taking her to the hospital with a swollen eye, even though a series of MRI and CT scans found no evidence that the cause was anything other than an allergy. Another mother who was in a drug treatment program lost her child after a single relapse. For a while, mother and daughter were allowed to meet regularly at a desolate Bronx foster care agency beside a gravel yard where garbage blew around like tumbleweeds.

One day, when the child appeared with a black eye somehow acquired in her foster home, the mother became hysterical, and the police were called. The child was placed in a new foster home, but after that, mother and daughter spiraled into madness. While scrambling to assemble court documents, the mother managed to obtain the original report filed when her daughter was first taken away. This document, signed by the New York State commissioner for children and family services, states that the original allegation of neglect was “unfounded”—aside from the single drug relapse, the report said the child was well taken care of. Nevertheless, because of the mother’s angry outbursts, she lost her parental rights last February. Her daughter, now eight and taking four psychotropic medications to control her behavior—including one that can cause irreversible catatonia and drooling—is, the mother told me, up for adoption.

Some children, like Nicole herself, and Nixzmary Brown, the seven-year-old girl whose death from beating and starvation made headlines in 2006, are in immediate danger from their parents, but many—and perhaps most—of the children now in New York’s child protection system are not, and removing them from their homes may harm them even more than leaving them with their flawed parents—especially if the parents receive the supportive services they need to help them manage their problems.

This is the apparent conclusion of a 2009 study conducted by MIT economist Joseph Doyle. He compared thousands of young adults who had been in foster care to a group of adults who had been similarly abused but remained with their families.12 Compared to the stay-at-home group, members of the former foster care group were three times more likely to have been arrested, half as likely to have held a job for at least three months, and, if female, twice as likely to have become pregnant as teenagers. This finding may help explain why nearly a third of all New York foster children end up behind bars and more than half of children in juvenile detention in the state were previously in foster care.

Why might even troubled biological parents be better for children’s development than foster care? The answer is not known, but one of the earliest studies of juvenile delinquents was conducted in the 1930s by British psychiatrist John Bowlby. He noticed that rates of theft among thirteen-year-olds were extremely high—higher than for any other single-year age group—and he wondered whether stealing wasn’t a disease of childhood like rheumatic fever. For most children, this was just a passing phase but some continued along a criminal path, moving on to more serious offenses. Bowlby looked into the backgrounds of forty-four adolescents who had been convicted of theft and compared them to a group of children who were not thieves but had other mental health problems. The thieves were eight times more likely to have been separated from their mothers for months or years in early childhood, usually because of illness, death, or divorce.13

  1. 11

    “Hard Choices: Caring for the Children of Mentally Ill Parents,” Child Welfare Watch, Winter 2009. 

  2. 12

    Joseph J. Doyle Jr., “Child Protection and Adult Crime: Using Investigator Assignment to Estimate Causal Effects of Foster Care,” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 116, No. 4 (2008); Joseph J. Doyle Jr., “Child Protection and Child Outcomes: Measuring the Effects of Foster Care,” The American Economic Review, December 2007. 

  3. 13

    John Bowlby, “Forty-Four Juvenile Thieves: Their Characters and Home-Life,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, Vol. 25 (1944). 

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