Indira is part of LSNJ's reunified youth foster project. The project encourages and promotes former foster youth perspectives, in an effort to empower both youth and parents in the child welfare system. She shared her story (below) with LSNJ as part of the national Reunification Month celebration. She also offered comments in a video (above) about the importance of visitation during Covid-19.
Remembering the Removal
I was around 11 years old when child protective services (CPS) came to our home. At the time, I had a good sense of who they were because we had had an experience with them once before. I knew that when they showed up it was not going to be easy for my mother. I was already pretty mature for my age so this was a worry for me constantly. After the first time we dealt with the child welfare agency and they did not help us, I had an intense feeling of hopelessness every time my stepfather abused my mother and us. I remember always trying to hide that feeling around my family because I wanted to make my siblings feel less anxiety than I did. My siblings were pretty young, and they looked up to me as the oldest sister of five children.
Living with an Abusive Stepfather
The removal happened one night when my stepfather was beating my mom. After a long day working two jobs, my mom came home around 6 p.m. She didn't want to make dinner right away. My stepfather was supposed to have been watching us all day, but it was really me, an 11 year old, watching four younger kids. My stepfather stayed upstairs locked in his studio all day whenever he "watched us."
When my mother came home, my stepfather came out and said how hungry he was and that he didn't have anything to eat. My mom had mentioned that she wanted to lie down for 20 minutes. He cursed at her, grabbed her by the throat and threw her down the stairs. She fell the whole way and onto the marble floor where she then got up and ran to the kitchen and grabbed a knife. When my stepfather got downstairs, she was trying to kill herself. I was scared, but all I could do was try and keep the younger kids calm as much as possible.
The fear and anxiety came to me, and I knew that the cops were probably going to be called that night. I tried my best to breathe regularly as the impending sense of doom started to cloud my thoughts. I began to get frustrated, so I moved my siblings into the bedroom from the living room, as I needed to regain some sense of control. I locked the door, for I feared my stepfather would try to hurt us to break down my mother.
Calling the Police
The screaming that ensued led me to believe that my mom just escaped out of the house. When I heard her scream, I looked out the window and saw that my mom was trying to commit suicide by standing on the train tracks as a train was approaching. My stepfather beat furiously on the bedroom door and was commanding me to let him in. I didn't want to let him in but eventually I did. He was hostile, and he picked me up by my hair and told me to call the police as he did not own a cell phone during this time. I obeyed and the police arrived.
The police observed that our home was not in the best shape. I was upset and terrified. I knew my mom had yelled at my stepfather many times about ceiling mold, the pipes not working, the water being turned off, and that we needed an exterminator because she knew this would be the basis for us being separated. And how could a home possibly stay clean after five children were alone for a minimum of 12 hours? While the officers were speaking to my parents, my aunt called and asked what was going on. I could only guess that someone had called her. She kept telling me over and over again "Do not let them separate you from your brothers and sisters." She said she was on the way.
Afterwards, the officers then came to speak to us. They let me know that "mommy and daddy" were outside and that everything would be ok. I felt a little better because I didn't hear them mention the child welfare agency. The police got us pizza and felt the need to try and console us by asking us questions. But I had already started hearing my mom scream. It was then I knew for sure that my siblings and I were going to be separated from my mom. I started telling the police of my admiration for my mother and that I needed all of us to stay with her and that I wanted nothing to do with my stepfather.
Pleading to Stay Together
I remember pleading with them to let us stay with her and to arrest my stepfather. But they just kept assuring me that it would be fine when the child welfare agency came. I kept repeating the same thing, and I refused to walk with them until they would at least assure me that me and my brothers and sisters wouldn't be split up. They didn't care what I had to say, and they just took me by the wrist and led us out of the house. I told them that I wanted to speak to my mother but they denied me as she screamed from the background to not to take us away. Her crying made me feel inconsolable and nearly broke my composure.
Trying to Keep Siblings Together
I insisted that they at least let me say bye as my siblings were crying and pleading for their mommy. My brother Titus, who was diagnosed with general anxiety, fell out on the ground wailing and they just ended up dragging him away. All I could do was hug him and tell him that I'm not going to leave him and that maybe they'll help mom get away from our stepdad. I told him that our lives might be better but little did I know that was far from their intentions.
When I told them that I don't want to be separated from my siblings, they just nodded. I must have said it every five minutes until they told me that they must separate us because no one wanted to keep a teenager like me. I repeated that I don't want to be separated and they said "tonight you won't be." I then asked where we were going and they didn't reply. I wasn't even allowed to use my phone to call my grandmother. I was just told to stay and shut up. I tried to keep my siblings calm and under control as the people who took us did nothing to help but tell us to be quiet. The experience was so hard for me that I almost broke my composure.
Entering Foster Care
It took us 2 1/2 years to get back home. First, we were at what I now know as emergency housing for a day. I actually knew the daughter of the lady there by chance, which gave me comfort. Afterwards, my siblings and I were taken for a lengthy day of checkups. They found a tiny piece of paper in my brother's ear, which the social worker wrote down as "neglect". This angered me because my mother had never neglected us in my eyes. Next we got separated, girls in one house and boys in another. But they didn't tell us. They just put us in two separate cars. As soon as the cars turned a different way, I began to cry.
When we got to our foster house, I tried to suck it up as much as I could since I had the youngest of the five with me as well as the third sibling. This house was the first of three different foster placements. I tried not to cry once I saw how little food the foster mother gave us. It was a dinner of one McChicken split between all three of us and one small bag of Doritos. They also gave us cheap, barely-wearable-dollar-store clothes. We became severely underweight and I lost 5 pounds a week. Another foster baby that lived with us was malnourished. I told the child welfare worker that I was hungry and the foster home didn't give us enough food. She said they spoke to her, but nothing changed until the doctor's visit where they finally made a motion to move us.
Cycling through Placements
The second house was a little better, but the family was rude most of the time. We fought about taking my phone away from me on multiple occasions even though I told her that my grandmother gets off work late and I wanted to talk to her. I was considered a bad kid for this, so they tried to move me to a teen home unless I respected her wishes. We were then moved from that house because the storm that year knocked out the power for weeks.
The next home was better. We got more freedom so I was able to hang out with friends and get better food and clothes. The lady allowed me to call my family I called her and my family secretly. It was taking months to even see my mom. They wouldn't give me the number to call my brothers. Everything took forever.
Visiting: Pros and Cons
Once we finally got supervised visits, I was happy to see my mom. But it was only once a week which hurt me because my mom was the one person I could talk to about how I felt and what was stressing me out. It hurt not to be able to have my mom with me and I missed the level of connection we had. My mom showed up at every visit on time for the whole hour. Meanwhile, my stepfather only bothered to show up maybe three times. They constantly made us wait two hours and eventually I asked not to have visits with my stepfather anymore. I hated him from the beginning for the abuse he committed not only on my mother but on us. Visits were particularly hard to end with my mom because she would get angry when she was helping us get ready to leave. I forgave her for getting angry. I knew she was just upset because she didn't want us to leave. I felt the same, but I had no power to change that. I felt hopeless and on edge every moment, not knowing if I was ever going to live with my mother again.
Living with My Aunt
Eventually, they approved my aunt's house in Pennsylvania. I hoped it would be better because we were with a family member and I could see my mom more often. I was also reunited with my brothers. But I eventually found out that living with my aunt was an emotionally abusive environment. She often belittled me and made me feel insecure about my body. She made me and my two adopted cousins watch all of the kids all the time and get them ready for school. This was aggravating because she would leave all the time just to go out with her friends, yet we couldn't hang out with our friends.
My aunt rarely brought us clothes. Later, we found out she was using most of the money that was for us to buy herself clothes, shoes, and iPads for herself and friends. We also learned my adopted 16 year-old cousin felt uncomfortable around my uncle, and that he was making sexual advances towards her, which I witnessed. When told my aunt, she called us names and punished us. My aunt didn't allow us to speak to the child welfare worker that month.
Visits were sporadic and reunification was never mentioned by the child welfare workers. The child welfare workers avoided reunification questions by telling us it will happen "soon," and avoided any questions pertaining to the status of the case. Whenever I complained about my aunt's verbal abuse, they told me that I was on the fast track to a teen home. So, I eventually started to spiral out of control. I had to care for the younger kids around the clock. I also had to do my schoolwork, and I wasn't allowed to hang out with friends. My aunt also tried to force me to change my religion. Without fail, every chance she got, she wanted to demean me. She would call me fat and ugly. It was torture.
I never remember speaking to my attorney or being asked to write a statement. I was in a back room of the courthouse, where I was given no information on why or what was happening. I just remember being scared that they would come in and tell me that I'm being put up for adoption or that they were giving my stepfather full custody. I was always kept in the dark. No one visited me in the foster homes. They only came to see me in my aunt's house a couple of times. When I tried to tell them what I was experiencing, they just turned a blind eye and pretended as if I didn't say anything. I was taken away from my loving mother who cared for us and gave us everything thing she could and they acted like they were trading property. I could only imagine what would have happened if my siblings were abused in any other way and what would have happened if they did put me in a teen home where I couldn't protect my siblings or sisters.
Witnessing an Unfair System
I didn't understood how my stepfather never got any legal action against him. Too many times, they let him continue to abuse my mother without a second thought. My mother stayed with my stepfather mainly because she wanted two parents in the household. She wanted him to be a father figure. When things were good, she saw his potential. But when things were bad, she felt lost. I think my mom should have been believed and trusted especially since she was backed by both her kids and family.
My mom tried hard to keep us happy and she stayed with him to keep us happy and to have a home. When they took us away, they should have seen how she was pushing to get us back and how determined she was to show them she could be a good supportive parent away from my stepfather. The child welfare agency should have created supports for her, like helping her find housing or helping her find ways to get better financial stability.
I also feel that if we had more contact and visits with her, it would have helped her mentally. She became depressed after the visit was over because she would not see us for another week. A normal week for her would be to wake us up every morning and make us breakfast to get us ready for school. I can only imagine how much pain that would cause a mother. They did not offer her mental help for the years of abuse she went through. Instead, they made it worse by giving her anguish and not offering any hope for a positive outcome.
Even after we were reunited, they should have offered her therapy. It was like they were trying to set her up for failure. They did not even offer counseling for the children, which would have helped relieve the traumatic anxiety we still hold now. I've gained almost a kind of PTSD from carrying the weight of my past before DCPP involvement the time spent in foster care. If I feel it this much, I can only imagine how my siblings feel.
Turning the Corner
Eventually we had weekend visits with my mom at a woman named Tammy's house. Tammy was amazing at keeping me and my siblings busy and trying to help me and my siblings feel as normal as possible with my mother. I really look up to her as a person because I could only imagine how good of a person you have to be to keep five kids, a mother, a grandmother, and her family all together and give them the best experience possible after all of that.
I am 22 now and going to school. I also work as a manager at Aldo to earn money for a laptop. After I graduate, I would like to be an aesthetician. I hope CPS will start thinking differently –stop taking kids away from families, especially those kids who want to be with their parents. CPS should be better with communication and offering help to parents who show potential and love their children. I also feel visits in foster care should be more frequent and children in these homes should be taken more seriously. CPS should also reduce the time it takes to reunify families.