Michelle: Surviving in a Fixed World

Michelle Malakova arriving at her Aunt Sofya’s apartment for a supervised visit with her maternal relatives, Forest Hills, Queens, October 2012

On March 11, 2009, a social worker named Eliana Cotter, who was monitoring the state-mandated foster care of Michelle Malakova, had a delicate task to perform. She needed to tell the six-year-old child, in not so many words, that a jury had found her mother, Mazoltuv Borukhova, guilty of the murder of her father, and that she would not be released from jail. In her social worker’s “progress notes” Cotter wrote:

At the park CP [case planner, Cotter herself] asked if Michelle remembered who is waiting for court and why. Michelle replied, “Mommy! So she can come out.” Michelle understood that the court and the judge would decide if BM [birth mother] could come out, and she knew that the court didn’t have to let BM out. CP informed her that court happened. Michelle immediately asked “When did it happen?” and CP informed her that yesterday was the last day. Michelle immediately became distracted and started playing with some toys and snacks. CP had difficulty getting her to focus and listen. CP explained that the court decided BM had to stay. Michelle asked, “How long?” and CP said she had to stay for a long time. Michelle repeatedly asked how long it would be in an almost playful manner until CP explained that there is another court that will say how long. Michelle ensured CP would find out from that court, then immediately distracted herself again with her toys…. CP again refocused Michelle and brought out a book about feelings that she enjoys. Michelle eagerly looked through the book and pointed out the page about “Sad.” When asked to say what was making her sad Michelle looked away and said “I don’t know.”

Michelle was then living with her paternal uncle Gavriel Malakov and his wife Zlata and would continue to do so for another two years. That she was unhappy in this home was apparent to the two agencies in charge of Michelle’s state wardship—ACS (Administration for Child Services) and OHEL, the Orthodox Jewish foster care agency that acted as an arm of ACS, and for whom Eliana Cotter worked. But the state system—whose third and decisive component is the Family Court—was designed to “maintain the stability of the placement.” Accordingly, the child’s wishes—to live with her maternal relatives—were disregarded, and the problematic character of the placement was overlooked until, finally, it could be overlooked no longer when Michelle accused her uncle of hitting her. In February 2011 she was removed from the Gavriel Malakov household and sent to the “non-kinship” Broder family where she had once before found a happy haven. But once again the haven was temporary. In the winter of 2012 Michelle left the Broders and went to live with her other paternal…

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