Fighting For Myself Taught Me How to Fight for Others

I have experienced the pain and trauma of family separation from both sides. My mother lost her parental rights when I was a child, and my own children were taken from me and placed in foster care. It took me nearly five years to get them back.

Why did this happen? There are lots of complicating factors, but for both my mother and for me, one truth stands out. The system looks at a Black poor woman and sees someone who is going to fail at parenting. The reality is that what has failed is the system itself.

I remember people told me my mother didn’t try hard enough — that’s why she lost her kids. But going through the same experience myself I could see that the expectations put on us were just unrealistic. To get my kids back I had to do more things in a week than I had the time or resources to do – parenting classes, nutrition classes, therapy sessions. All while trying to keep a job and deal with unstable housing.

Figuring out how to navigate this while dealing with the horror of being separated from my children was like walking through a dark tunnel and finally coming out the other side. What I learned in that long journey is now my life’s work. I am a parent ally for Legal Services of New Jersey, helping other families stay together and meet child welfare and family court obligations. As the first person to play this role, my credibility with parents has allowed me to really make a difference in their families’ lives.

I lived most of my life in Irvington, New Jersey. It’s a place with a small town feel. I grew up here and my life is an open book. People here have watched me progress and change. I love my community and they love me back. There is no one I who doesn’t know me and recognize my role – and that includes the mayor of Irvington.

People in our town and across Essex County and the state know that, like systems across the US, our child welfare system is stacked against poor and Black families, who are targeted for child welfare investigations that too often break up families. Nationally, Black children are at least twice as likely as white children to be the subject of an investigation. And the tragedy is that these families are torn apart – at great cost – when they could be together if given the resources to do so.

I see it in my work every day. The things that can keep a family whole are so basic. And that’s where I come in. I’m a networker. I tell my clients there is no shame in having needs you cannot fill yourself. And with my roots in the community I know how to connect the dots. Get someone that housing voucher, or help them find a job or fix their credit score. It’s usually very doable things that can mitigate the harm and preserve families.

One of my clients had it all together to be with her kids. She found an apartment. She had the down payment. Just one problem – no money to pay for the move. So I called my brother, who had a friend who worked for a moving company. He rented a truck and we moved her and her belongings across town. We set her up to succeed – not to fail. She says she wants to be Iesha Hammons when she grows up.

I am part of a national movement that calls child welfare by its true name: the family regulation system. We are advocating for an end to the unnecessary separation of families — not because they are harming their children – but because they are experiencing poverty. The majority of the time what a parent needs is help paying the bills, finding affordable housing, fixing a broken washing machine. It would be much cheaper for systems to just do what I do in my work.

It time to repeal a very bad law called the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) that for 25 years has disproportionately impacted families of color by putting an arbitrary 15-month deadline on when a parent’s rights should be terminated. That timeframe is like a ticking time bomb for parents who often need more time than that to get what they need in place to raise their own children. As you are counting down the months and the days, you’re looking at hope just get smaller and smaller.

My lived experience is behind me, but the pain never entirely recedes. What happened to me and to my mother will never be okay, but we found the bridge back to our family. Every day I try to use what I have learned to do the same for my clients.