Stigma Can Hurt

By Jeannette Miller

I remember the day I gave birth to my son, Joshuwah. It was inside Jeannette-Largemy sister’s apartment. I went into labor, but was sent back from the hospital because I wasn’t far enough along. I was angry they told me to go home when I knew I needed to be there. But that was nothing compared with what came next.

The Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) decided I wasn’t equipped to handle parenthood and took my son. It ripped my heart out. I wanted nothing more than to be with him. I used to walk over an hour from one Brooklyn neighborhood to another in the dead of winter just to see him.

Those walks gave me plenty of time to think—think about how my future mirrored my past. I grew up in foster care, after my mother killed herself in front of me. I spent all of my teen years in institutions and group homes. The system bounced me all over the place, trying to decide where to put a girl who had been beaten, yelled at, sexually abused and was severely depressed. I was put in a psychiatric center in upstate New York, then was transferred to a foster care facility all the way in Florida, which is where they shipped the “hard-to-place kids” back in the day.

It was like coming out of the frying pan and into the fire. The abuse didn’t stop once I was in care, and you weren’t allowed to say anything or stand up for yourself. If I questioned what was going on, the response was, “shut up, you’re stupid.” If I wasn’t hearing it from staff, it came from my peers. They suffered the same abuse that I did, and it had a huge impact. I had never met girls like that. They walked around with more negativity and attitude than I’d ever seen. I walked around with a Bible and did a lot of praying—but those experiences still affected me deeply.

When I was 15 years old, Marcia Robinson Lowry, an attorney, came to Florida to see me. She was trying to get justice for kids like me, who were shipped far from New York when the state couldn’t find anyone to take them. She may not know this, but by the time I met Marcia I was about to kill myself, I had all my Thorazine saved up. It was Marcia, who later founded the organization Children’s Rights, who made me see things differently. She was the only positive person I’d met in my life. She’d say, “Jeanette, your civil rights are being violated.” I didn’t know people like her existed, except on TV. She stood up for me and really, she saved me.

She also won her lawsuit, and made sure I was returned to New York City for the rest of my teen years until I aged out of foster care. I wouldn’t say things were ideal, but it certainly was better than being warehoused in Hialeah, Florida, so far away from my birth family and everything I knew.

So two decades later, when I couldn’t get Joshuwah back after three years of jumping through hoops for ACS, I knew I had to call Children’s Rights. I felt so powerless. I had already done everything ACS asked me to do. I attended a drug rehabilitation program for a year. When I was finished they still kept him, because I was living in my sister’s apartment and didn’t have a home in my name. So I got my own apartment. I had a daughter who I raised since she was born, without any intervention from ACS. I went to school and became a home health aide. Still they didn’t give me my son.

What made it even worse was my lack of access to him. Once my son was in foster care, ACS never gave me a visitation schedule or even told me what agency he was placed with. I had to fight like crazy to get the name of the agency, and then I only got to visit him for one hour every two weeks. I was supposed to have an opportunity to go in front of the court every year to fight for my baby. That never happened. Meanwhile Joshuwah was being physically abused in care.

Stigma can hurt. I believe that ACS made the decision to stereotype: I came from a dysfunctional family, and therefore I wasn’t going to bond with my son. In fact, they thought, I shouldn’t have had him in the first place. When people make big decisions about your life like that, it’s horrible. I was very angry for a long time.

Children’s Rights took the time to listen, and when they went to bat for me, do you know what they found out? The state’s custody of Joshuwah had lapsed, meaning that it wasn’t even Iegal for him to be in foster care! I can never thank them enough for standing up for me as a parent even though the odds were against me.

Now Joshuwah has graduated from high school and is attending college. We are grateful that we got years together that could have been taken from us. Thanks to Children’s Rights.

Published on May 22, 2014 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign. The opinions expressed herein are those of the blog author and do not necessarily represent the views of Children’s Rights or its employees. Children’s Rights has not verified the author’s account.