I quit Child Protective Services (CPS) the Monday after I removed a beautiful, healthy, articulate six-year-old from her mother. Though she was beautiful and healthy, she was also still in diapers and taking a bottle. I’d spent the better of part of my previous Friday with this family of two trying to get their story. It had taken me two weeks to find them and arrange that interview. As I sat watching this tender little mixed race child, skinny with kinky blond hair and a knack for charming people, I was eyeballing her mother.
Her mother was covered in cellulitis sores—all along her arms, spreading from between her toes, and God knows where else. She said she had them everywhere. Cellulitis is a skin bacterial infection and appears as red sores that spread out to cover an infected area. Though cellulitis can happen to anyone, in these places it is a likely sign of intravenous drug use. This mother was addicted to heroin and she had been given many chances by the drug court in our county by her own admission. A call had come into our hotline after this mother went to a local hospital and bragged about having custody of her child even though she wasn’t supposed to. An eavesdropping nurse had heard her and called in the report. I’d been unable to locate them at the address she’d given the hospital since I’d gotten the on-call report.
When I started the marathon half-day interview, I did not know how imperiled this child was. I only knew that the allegations involved yet another case of neglect due to opioid addiction and that more than half of all the reports I received were unfounded. Walking in I figured I had a 50/50 chance of substantiating on neglect and removal. I hoped for the best.
The mother was very forthcoming about her history of addiction. She said she had been addicted for almost as long as her child had been alive. She had been involved with drug court for years, and kept talking the judge into more and more chances with every positive drug screen or arrest. She admitted to taking Suboxone and heroin, though the Suboxone was supposed to block the affect of the opioid. Still, we were supposed to make reasonable efforts to keep the child with family, so after discussing what that might look like, we all packed up and went to her mom’s house. Besides, she’d told me, her mother had legal guardianship anyway.
Grandma’s house smelled like stale smoke and bedbugs. It hit me in the face as soon as I walked in the door. When I say stale smoke, I do not mean like you might smell in a regular smoker’s house a few hours after they smoke. I mean the colossal stench of 20 years of smoking constantly, and never fully cleaning or painting your house. Bedbugs, after a long enough period of colonization, smell like sweet mildew. I hated homes like this because I was confronted with the hopelessness of the truly poor—those who lacked not only money, but the knowledge and will to improve their own circumstances. These kinds of homes almost always present generational issues with not only poverty, but substance abuse and mental illness, and all that comes with them as well.
Though it was way past quitting time, I knew if I did not work out a solution for this child soon, I would be removing her from her family. Grandma had told me she kept the girl most times. A great aunt to the girl was also there, a black-haired woman with deeply etched wrinkles and far too much eyeliner, nodding her head ferociously at everything the grandmother said. They produced the documentation for the alleged guardianship, but I recognized it instantly as an online form many parents try to use to “sign over” their kids to a relative, often in an attempt to evade CPS. It had no legal validity. I stepped out to call my supervisor. She ordered the removal.
We are supposed to wait for police to arrive before we informed a parent that his or her child would be removed. For the first time in my career, I did not wait for police. It was 8 pm and we’d been at this since 1 o’clock pm trying to make it work. I had not seen the child eat anything in that amount of time, and I had certainly not eaten since breakfast. Thought it was October and the sun had long set on this dangerous neighborhood, I decided to inform them quickly and then make a run for it.
“Wait!” all three women said in unison, as I took the child’s hand into my own.
I was tense. I’d had enough. I had approval. I didn’t think I needed to know anything more. There was always more. Suddenly a baby bottle was being shoved into my hands, along with a plastic grocery bag with pull ups inside it. I looked down at the bag in confusion, expecting one of the women to produce a baby they might be hiding. But no, it was for the girl.
“She still takes a bottle at bedtime. And the diapers are due to her condition,” her mother said.
She did not have a name for it. But she insisted the girl had uncontrollable bowels. She admitted that that’s why she withdrew the child from school, because they would not accommodate her without paperwork from a physician. My tight stomach tightened even more as it dawned on me that the child was likely still in diapers and taking a bottle because her grandmother did not have her much of the time at all. Mom had her, and mom was so hooked on heroin, so invested in getting herself to the next fix, that it was easier to keep her child an infant even as she grew to school age. I was more certain than ever that this child was in need of services, if only to stabilize her life and get her caught up developmentally.
She was a very easy and charming child. She had learned to be boundaryless with her mother, and she was used to crawling right up in your lap and talking to you as if she had known you forever. This is cute in a six-year-old, but what would it look like when she was 15, or 25? We decided together that we would stop for pizza, which she said she loved. We took the pizza and her Sprite back to the office and I began the difficult process of finding placement for her on a Friday night. After I placed a phone call to the placement line, we took over a conference room to eat our pizza and color while I collected information for her court report. She barely ate the pizza, picking at the toppings, but she slurped down the Sprite in three sucks of the straw and then asked for candy. She continued to pester me about candy, Twinkies (kept in my desk), and soda pop for the next couple of hours until she got tired, and then requested her bottle. I had to give it to her. There seemed no point in further disrupting whatever would bring this child solace this night. Nevertheless, it broke my heart.
It was a tough talk with her new foster mom later that night. Afterwards, I went home and laid down to cry over this beautiful child and all the baggage that she already carried. I sobbed until I was unable to catch my breath. I was not just crying for this little girl. I was crying for the little girl inside me, too, and all the little girls who have complicated stories of abuse or neglect, who are marked so early in life by the scars their own parents leave on them, both physically and psychically. Though this girl’s story and my own diverged in detail, we both had been hit at a tender age with the betrayal of people who are supposed to love us and care for us and yet are not so loving or careful.
That is also the night I found out my father had died four months prior. It was so like my family to hold a secret like that. I will never forget asking my stepmother to speak to my dad and her exclaiming “Well he died!”
It was like the grinding of a boot after being pinned to the floor at the neck.
*All names have been made up and all directly identifying details has been withheld or altered.