Written by K.G., an anonymous 17-year-old from New York City. Names have been changed.
I met Ms. Taylor, from New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), in the hospital where my mom was detoxing. She first came to our home a week after that. She greeted my mom and me excitedly before turning her attention to my 9-year-old sister Evelyn.
Ms. Taylor asked where we slept, what we ate, and how we got to school. She looked in our refrigerator. I didn’t like the scrutiny, but I had to admit it made sense. If her job was to find signs of child neglect and malnourishment, she needed to do this.
But she asked the same questions over and over again, which made me feel like I had something to be guilty about.
Later, Ms. Taylor told the three of us that ACS was doing a 60-day investigation. After those 60 days, it was clear my mom was addicted.
We now had an “open case.” The possibility of being taken away from my mom had become real.
I went online to research ACS. Its website says it works hard to keep families together, and Ms. Taylor said repeatedly that was her goal. But my mom said their job was to tear us apart.
Four months after the case was opened, another organization, Sheltering Arms [a nonprofit that contracts with New York City to serve foster youth], came into the picture. Mr. Khan of Sheltering Arms also asked me questions, but seemed friendlier than Ms. Taylor.
“Do you have any careers in mind?” Mr. Khan asked.
“I want to be a wildlife vet when I grow up.”
He smiled and told me about his friend who went abroad as a veterinarian. He seemed calm, and surprisingly, I felt the same way talking to him.
Ms. Peterson from Sheltering Arms was like a kind but strict grandmother. She waddled into our home with her small purse and hugged us like we were her long-lost family.
She seemed to care about our well-being. She didn’t scribble things in a notebook after each sentence or examine our house. I didn’t feel judged.
Mr. Khan or Ms. Peterson came over on Sundays, and I didn’t filter my speech the way I did with Ms. Taylor. Even when we did discuss my mom’s addiction, I never felt the need to lie. Talking to them was easy and I felt safe afterward instead of stressed.
The Sheltering Arms people made it clear that our mom needed to stop drinking. But they didn’t threaten the way Ms. Taylor did. Ms. Taylor would tell my mom, “Your children will be remanded if this keeps happening,” or, often, “The judge decides what happens based on what they see, and it’s not looking too good.”
Let Me Choose
After my mom lost custody, we went into kinship care with my uncle. Another ACS social worker began to visit me at school. It was embarrassing to be pulled out of the room by my guidance counselor. I worried that other students would start thinking, “What’s wrong with her?”
I was pulled out of class five times in two months. I hated the curious stares of my peers when I walked back into class. I would get texts from my friends in the class, asking if I was OK. I felt like the damaged friend, and I just wanted to be normal. These visits at school made me feel much worse.
Ms. Taylor explained that some kids feel pressured by their family when they’re asking questions in the same house, and that’s why workers were coming to my school.
For me, speaking alone in another room in the house was enough privacy. I wish I’d gotten to choose.
Tell Me What’s Going On
As far as how workers talk to us, Mr. Khan and Ms. Peterson from Sheltering Arms both ask questions like we’re having a normal conversation. I can let my guard down around them, and so they get more insight into my condition. They can tell whether I am as joyful as a teenager could be or if I’m silent because I’m hiding things. This way, they’re better able to decide what’s best for Evelyn and me.
The aggressive questioning of ACS shuts me down, and I don’t tell them what’s happening. I also want the workers to give me more information — about ACS, about foster care, about addiction.
When my mom was going to the hospital every other week, I did my own research to find out what happens in detox. What I found online left me crying about how physically messed up my mom is. The word “death” appeared a lot.
I wish someone had talked to me about detox and addiction and how they relate to my mom. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds deserve to know more about what’s going on. Everyone copes in their own way. Getting help doesn’t only mean telling everything to social workers or a therapist.
ACS and Sheltering Arms offered friendly conversations and the suggestion of group therapy (which I don’t believe would work for me because socializing makes me very anxious). My little sister might have liked music lessons or art classes. I would have preferred an internship or access to something that would give me exposure to animals.
Being around animals feels very therapeutic to me. I got an animal care internship through my STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] program. Spending quality time with an introverted hedgehog and an egotistical rabbit helped me feel special and useful.
Providing opportunities to join a community doing something they love could give ACS-involved kids pride and purpose, at the same time it gets us out of the house and into a more comfortable environment.
My advice to ACS is to help us grow as people at the same time you’re listening to us and sharing the truth about what’s going on with our parents.