Picture this: you’re frantically sprinting through Jay Street/Metro-Tech, a subway stop in downtown Brooklyn. You arrive at the wrong end of the platform and you suddenly curse yourself for getting on at the wrong end of the train. It’s 11:00 am. Your hearing has already started. The train-in sat stalled underground for 25 minutes as you held your head in your hands, cursing yourself for not leaving sooner.
But the judge and attorneys won’t care about that. And the foster mother won’t care about train delays when you tell her that the adoption process for the only son she’s ever known- a son she’s had since 3 days old- is being delayed due to adjourning the trial where the birth mother’s parental rights were to be terminated. A trial that is 14 months in the making. Excuses are not good enough in a situation like this, so you do what you have to do.
I gave it my all and sprinted-a full on run- through the platform. You always see someone doing that and think they’re crazy or over-dramatic- and I could feel the stares as this sensibly-dressed young woman abandoned her inhibitions and fled to the platform exit. When I arrived on the street I had to stop, almost feeling like I was going to vomit. My job in child welfare hadn’t left me with much time or energy to exercise after long days of stress. My lunch break consisted shoving food in my mouth by the light of my computer, still writing notes and answering phones mid-chew because it’s a call I’d been waiting for from an elusive parent or service provider. My mornings were often a struggle to get out of bed after a sleepless night of worrying. My evenings were spent making the long trek to my neighborhood and then a longer walk from the subway because the money you make certainly won’t buy you convenience or short commutes.
This was clearly not helping me as I was forced from a run to a speed walk, honing in on Brooklyn family court. While waiting to go through the metal detector I texted my agency lawyer, who had been messaging me to see where the hell I was, telling her that I was walking in.
11:06. Damn. Family court hearings move surprisingly fast when they actually get called, and I assumed an adjournment was waiting for me- all that for nothing.
When I came in, the attorney told me the judge reluctantly heard another case early and we would be seen shortly after. I breathed a sigh of relief, but took a step back, sure that my breath and body reeked. I was sweating bullets and chugging water, mouth dry and heart still racing.
The lawyer suddenly rapid fired questions at me to prep, some I didn’t quite understand. And then I suddenly remembered why I was there- something I had forgotten with my sights set on simply getting to the courthouse.
Today was my first termination of parental rights. My first time testifying with the intent of severing all claim a mother had to a child who she carried for 9 months and birthed. My heart started pounding again and my mouth went dry, but this time it wasn’t because I’d just booked it through a subway station.
The answer to most of my questions were “no”, as she peppered me regarding the mother’s contact and efforts to plan for her child, if any. Despite this being labeled a “simple” termination trial, I still hesitated, feeling the weight of my testimony. I hesitated as I considered the mother’s history that led to this moment. I hesitated knowing that she probably loved her child and wanted desperately to care for him, but just was not equipped with the right tools. 15 months to battle a lifetime of addiction- that’s all you get in foster care. With that daunting of a feat, I can understand the urge to walk away.
When she felt my hesitation, the lawyer reminded me, “the purpose here is to terminate the parent’s rights”. I could see some other folks sitting nearby look over, and I felt almost ashamed. I wanted to turn around and tell them the full story. Tell them that I wasn’t just some ACS worker hell-bent on ripping babies from mothers’ arms. I wanted to tell them how the mother had used drugs throughout the pregnancy, and ultimately left the vulnerable and drug-addicted child in the hospital at birth. I wanted to tell them how the mother had given up 4 children before that, each scattered throughout the country in different homes. I wanted to tell them how the mother would call every few months from a different number, asking to visit and then never showing up. How the mother was air, no way to reach her or help her, even though we wanted to.
It’s odd how there’s an entire team of people spending months trying to track someone down, find out where they are; a team who deeply analyzes every little shred of interaction afforded, wondering if they said the right thing, wondering If they didn’t give enough chances.
And there she is, unaware that this decision to terminate her rights has been months in the making. It’s been documented, stressed, and cried over. Judges, lawyers, social workers, have spent months trying to pin her down. It’s funny how this entire universe exists around someone who doesn’t even know it. And that’s what I have to tell myself to get through. Because even though I know all of this, and I know completing this hearing will be a huge step, it’s still bittersweet.
I sit at the bench, microphone turned to me, as my lawyer starts the inquest. I answer her questions, one after the other, until she rests. No further questions. No objections. And why would there be? We sit there in silence as the judge carefully reviews our testimony and submitted notes and reports. A major decision made in under five minutes. But it only takes that long for her to see what needs to be done. I sat reflecting for a moment, both happy to be pushing this case forward and sad for the mother who clearly had her own demons but was not yet ready to face them.
The judge gave her decision: T.P.R. on the grounds of abandonment. We “prevailed” as they’d say, but I always feel uncomfortable with that language when in these situations involving parents and children. I still felt good about the work I’d done in helping to pave the way for a child to be adopted by a loving home. That’s not a feeling you’ll always get, and sometimes you need to look deeper to find it. I can’t do work that I don’t believe in, but sometimes with this work I need convincing.
Three days later I called the foster mother to schedule my monthly home visit. As we spoke, I suddenly remembered the events that unfolded a few days prior. I told her the outcome.
Screams. Shrieks. Crying and yelling erupted as I held the phone away from my assailed ears. Tears of joy and hope from the other end. She said it was the best news she had heard for some time. Her baby boy was finally going to really become hers. No imminent risk of him being whisked away, as always is the fear in the back of every pre-adoptive foster parents’ mind. She could breathe again. I had helped give this to her.
And in that moment, I believed in my work. A necessary connection made in my head, that helped me push on another day in foster care, where lines often become blurred, and questioning your decisions is commonplace. For today, I could sleep soundly, as I felt this work’s weight.