Families separated away from the border

June 28, 2018

Dinah Ortiz-Adames is a parent separated from her children 17 years ago by child welfare authorities, who waged a successful seven-year struggle to reunite her family. Ever since, she has been an activist and advocate for parents caught up in a system that polices and punishes poor families of color. She is now the Senior Parent Advocate at Bronx Defenders, which provides legal representation and peer advocacy to parents, and which supports fundamental change to promote equity and justice in child welfare policy.

In May, Dinah delivered the keynote address at the first National Interdisciplinary Parent Representation Conference in Chicago. Don Lash, author of “When the Welfare People Come”: Race and Class in the US Child Protection System, spoke to Dinah about her keynote and the issues she raised. The interview is followed by excerpts of her speech, which were first published at Medium.

YOUR REMARKS at the conference were unusual. First, you’re a parent, and parent voices aren’t heard that often in the system, and when they are heard, they are expected to follow a script about accepting responsibility and basically taking the blame for what has happened to their family. You didn’t stick to the script.

How important is it for parents to voice their perspectives on the injustice that they experience, and talk about their experience without feeling like they have to apologize to be heard?

IT’S EXTREMELY important. I didn’t always think this way. I was just like everybody else when I first began my journey into the movement, thinking that I brought this on myself, because society pretty much teaches us throughout our lives that we’re supposed to think a certain way and behave a certain way, and the perfect parent doesn’t look like us.

I tried to aspire to be the perfect parent the way that society said that I should be, and I failed, and that’s what I thought. It wasn’t until I started to meet new people. As I said in my speech, it was Emma Ketteringham [supervising attorney of the Family Defense Practice at Bronx Defenders] who had been through the courts so many years, who opened my eyes to why I really experienced the difficulties that I did.

I learned that some parents who don’t look like me or have the difficulties I did are given the benefit of the doubt as parents, whereas parents like me — poor parents and parents of color — are having to prove ourselves at every turn.

When I decided to be a voice for parents who look like me, I decided I wanted to do things differently, because I wasn’t a bad parent. I never said I was a bad parent, and my boys, who are now grown men, young men of color, would tell you the same thing. They say I was an amazing mother.

So I stopped apologizing for my mistake, and I started speaking out about all the obstacles that were put in my way to prevent me from being the best parent that I could be in the situation that I was in.

HOW DO you feel about the current controversy over separation of children as families at the border? It’s obviously horrible, but how different is it from what’s always gone on?

IT’S JUST that now there’s a light being shed on it, because it’s the Trump administration. But separation of families has always been going on. The separation of poor families and families of color has gone on under so many previous administrations.

NOW THERE’S all sorts of public health and brain science research showing that removing kids from their parents causes trauma, and your kids had that experience. As young men of color, they face the risk of police violence, harassment and arrest.

It seems logical to conclude that the state, which traumatized them as children and continues to threaten them as adults, has always had more potential to harm them than you ever did. And yet, a lot of effort goes into convincing people that the state needs to operate the way it does to protect children from their parents.

IT’S INTERESTING, because I always ask: When do they stop being children in need of protection?

I went through the child welfare system, which tried to tear my family apart, supposedly to protect my children, but now the police are terrorizing my children because they are young men of color. So when did they stop caring about “saving them” and when did they start seeing them as targets, terrorizing them and criminalizing them because of the color of their skin.

YOU WORK at Bronx Defenders as a Parent Advocate. For those unfamiliar with family court in New York, one of the truly welcome changes that has occurred has been the quality of legal representation for parents, with the change from a panel of individual lawyers who were isolated from one another and not always diligent, to institutional defenders who coordinate with one another across the system, and provide social work support and parent advocacy.

What is important about centering parent advocacy in the way that organizations like Bronx Defenders do?

I THINK that it’s about humanizing our clients, because our clients are not seen as human beings in the system — they’re seen as numbers or cases or allegations.

What’s different about Bronx Defenders is that we center our clients, and we show them to the judges and other attorneys as human beings with real lives, because they see their files, but they don’t see the multifaceted aspects of our clients’ lives.

We give them voices and the autonomy to be their best selves, which they wouldn’t have had we not been there.

WHERE DOES the movement go in terms of organizing for system change within the communities affected, rather than the norm of relying on professionally led organizations to lead reform efforts? What is the potential for this to be a parent led movement?

THIS MOVEMENT started with parents and it has to continue with parents. Those closest to the problem are those closest to the solutions, as one of my comrades once said.

This movement has to be led by parents. Parents are the experts on their families and their homes, and we’re not just saying that. They’re the actual experts. If we just listen to them, they have the answers. But nobody’s been listening.

Remarks at the National Interdisciplinary Parent Representation Conference

WE FOUGHT our way here, through every Family Team Meeting we attended with our clients, every court appearance, every adjournment, every fact finding, every Elevated Risk or Child Safety conference, or whatever they call them around the country. With like-minded comrades, warriors in the work, we do it because we believe in it, we do it because we are aware of the treatment our clients receive when they have no support, we do it because our clients are entitled to exemplary legal defense like any parent of affluence would receive.

We do it because we care — and because we can’t close our eyes to what this system is doing to poor families and families of color across this country.

This is nothing short of amazing. This is a historical moment in the time for our movement, and I am so honored to be a part of it.

For far too long, social work has been on the wrong side of child protection. Social work has long been associated with a social welfare system that picks people apart, with accusations and judgment. This moment is about many things  —  among them, changing the face of social work in our communities.

People who do social work don’t have to do police work. Period.

We have come a long way from the days where the majority of parents weren’t offered the dignity of representation in child welfare proceedings. Yes, there was a time when most parents in this country had to represent themselves against the state in the most important, life-altering circumstances. Where the stakes were extremely high and the possibilities of leaving court without their parental rights were as real as ever.

NOT ONLY am I an advocate for parents, but I am a parent affected by the child welfare system. 17 years ago, I received the very same, dreaded knock on the door that my clients receive.

I was a young mother with three young boys who also happened to use illegal substances. I had lost my own mother at the tender age of 13 and had no real support in my life. I bounced around a lot, between New York and Florida, without an anchor or any stability.

I remember when I opened the door to child protective workers. I had no idea who they were, why they were there, or what their function was. That is, until they made it very clear to me they were there to remove my children if I didn’t comply with their demands.

I was extremely stubborn, and I refused to allow strangers who don’t know who I was, or my children, to come in and start dictating what I needed to do in order to be a “good parent” to my children. I didn’t have a parent advocate or social worker to help me maneuver the complex system I was thrown into.

I soon learned that I didn’t have to be a good parent  —  I had to be the perfect parent if I had any hope of making this nightmare end.

The child protection workers threatened me every chance they got. They threatened to take my children from me and strip me of my parental rights.

I felt like I was on a sinking ship with no lifesavers around. I needed to get away, I needed to get my kids away, so I did what any rational thinking parent would do in that situation. I went AWOL. I ended up leaving New York mid-investigation, back to Florida, and a warrant was put out for me.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but what I was sure of was that I loved my children to the moon, and I was never going to allow anyone to take them from me. I needed to figure out a plan.

I didn’t.

My plan was to hop between Florida and New York for as long as possible until the child protection system got tired of chasing me. Eventually I had to do what’s called a submission. I had to say I was guilty of neglecting my boys so that I would no longer have to deal with that awful system. What good did that did for my boys, I have no idea.

I don’t recall the child protective service workers ever offering to assist me with getting my boys into better schools, or helping with after school programs. They spent the better part of seven years in my life, and all my boys and I got out of it was a finding of neglect.

Throughout that time, not only did I have to deal with the New York Family Court system, but also the Florida Family Court System.

Five years into my New York case, I gave birth to a baby girl who was born exposed to Xanax. Just when I thought I was getting these people out of my life, it started all over again. With class after class, court date after court date, until I ended up in prison. My only daughter had just been born, and I was sentenced to two years in prison. During these two years, I only saw my daughter once.

When I came home, I came home to adoption proceedings. I was not afforded an attorney, and I represented myself on the most important decision anyone would ever make about my life. The daughter I had always prayed for, that I had always longed for, was now being snatched from me because I couldn’t be around for the first two years of her life.

It all happened so fast. One minute I was giving birth to the miracle I had always wanted. The next minute, I was no longer her mother.

I REFLECT on these times often. I keep them in the forefront while doing this work. Because I had a nonexistent attorney in New York and represented myself in Florida Family Court, I am uniquely able to see, firsthand, the progress we’ve made in parent defense over the past 10 years.

When I finally decided to go back to New York permanently, I had no idea that there was this thing called parent representation. I was offered the opportunity to intern at National Advocates for Pregnant Women. You may have heard of it. It is run by Lynn Paltrow, who is the executive director. At the time, there was a woman named Emma Ketteringham, who was the assistant director.

I remember sharing my story with these two white women, in small increments, because I wasn’t sure how much this formerly incarcerated, past drug user, could trust two white women who, granted, were doing this work. But they could never understand my past experiences. Little by little, I opened up to them. And little by little, they began teaching me the realities of the systems I had encountered all my life.

I never realized just how little I knew about what I’d experienced. For example, I remember vividly having a conversation with Emma about the New York judge assigned to my case. And I said to her, “I had a great judge — he would constantly scream on the case workers for not coming prepared to court.”

See, to me, during this horrific time in my life, when the deck was stacked against me, the only thing I could hold onto as a beacon of hope was this judge yelling at case workers.

Emma turned to me and said, “Dinah, that judge would have taken your kids from you in a heartbeat. He didn’t care about you.” And that was the turning point for me.

I began to reflect on all of the aggressions, both micro and macro, that occurred during the seven-year life of the case. Every time I finished a parenting class, I just needed to do one more. I needed to complete after-care, for the three drug programs I’d completed. I needed to be the perfect parent in their eyes, times ten. Because you see, they didn’t see my value.

I had to work ten times harder than the average parent of affluence to prove that I deserve the right to parent the children I brought into this world. I had to struggle to be seen, to be heard, while strangers entered our lives regularly.

Most times, they didn’t have children of their own. They’d come and tell me I’m doing it wrong, and this is how it’s done.

ALL OF these things played in my head, and it was these two amazing white women who helped me to realize that what my family experienced was not something we brought upon ourselves. Honestly, I wasn’t the exception to the rule when it came to the choices I made while raising my family. There were parents out there who did exactly the same thing I did. They used drugs while parenting their children.

And not that I’m condoning it, but good, bad or indifferent, I deserved to be treated with respect. I deserved to be treated with dignity. I deserved the same opportunities afforded to those parents who use in the comfort of their home, while they sit behind their laptops and blog about it. You know, the “marijuana soccer moms” or the “pot parents.” Them.

Because it really doesn’t matter whether you take a toke of marijauna or you have other extra-curricular activities. What matters is that everyone has the right to receive the best parent representation possible. It shouldn’t be based on your wallet size, and very similarly to the mass incarceration movement, it shouldn’t be based on the color of your skin.

Seventeen years is a long time, and yes, there has been progress made. More and more, states are offering parent representation, and more states are hiring social work advocates to assist in representing parents. So yes, as I stated in the beginning, this is a historical moment for our movement. We are gathered in this space, 175 strong, mostly social work advocates. We are not outnumbered by our attorney colleagues, or by child protection system workers.

But let’s not celebrate too much just yet. Because as we stand here right now, there are states like Kentucky that are passing laws which terminate a mother’s parental rights 90 days after giving birth to a baby exposed if the mother hasn’t sought out treatment within that time frame.

In New York City, we’ve seen an incredible increase in filings in court, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon. We’ve seen an increase in babies being removed from their mothers at birth because of a positive test for marijuana.

The culture of fear of the child protection system is alive and well in our communities.

The stigma that’s attached to drug use is not allowing for a broader conversation in poor communities and communities of color, even while the white families of the opioid crisis receive headlines in the New York Times, like “a kinder, gentler drug war.” The nation is talking about compassion and treatment in those communities, while taking Black and Brown babies from their mothers in the Bronx and all around this country.

THERE IS much work to be done. And that’s why we’re gathered here over these next two days. We’re here to collectively come up with ideas and solutions to help the families who have been forgotten by so many. We know their stories. We feel their pain. And we wear the scars from fighting for them every day.

There was a researcher who came into Bronx Family Court a few years ago. She interviewed lawyers and social work advocates from every side. She interviewed clients. She observed court appearances over a period of months. She went to lunch with my boss Emma, to share her observations.

What she said was, “The Bronx Defenders is unique in this courthouse —  and I think it’s because you’re battle-bonded. You share the scars your clients wear. You support each other in the trenches, day in and day out. You feel deeply, and share the war stories, in a way that the Child Protection lawyers, the lawyers for the children, and the solo practitioners just don’t.”

I want to offer that as my closing message today.

This group is battle-bonded. We go to war every day for our clients, and we do it together.

Whether you’re one social worker in a sea of attorneys in your office, or you have a social work practice that’s forty people strong.

We, as advocates for parents across this country, stand together. We remain battle bonded. My hope for all of us is to use these two days to share stories, to think outside the box, to dream big about where this movement can go from here. Not just for yourself, but for those who are not able to be here with us.

Remember, this is a historical moment. This is a movement. We are all one family, and we’re in this together.

Keynote address first published at Medium.

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