What's it like to lose parental rights?
Or...some may ask what it's like to go through a child custody loss.
Here's my answer based on personal experience:
You don't think it will actually happen, until a judge makes it happen.
If I can offer a few pieces of critical advice to any parent who is stuck in the family court system and possibly facing the termination of parental rights, it's this:
- The system is NOT on your side!
- The system does not care about what is best for you or your child.
- Your case is another number. The system wants to close your case as soon as possible because they have too many cases to handle.
- The system knows that it's going to COST them money to offer rehabilitation services to you (the parent).
- The system would much rather adopt your child out to a random family. There are millions of dollars available in "funding" to not only pay the CPS, but also to pay the family who supposedly wants to adopt your child. THEY ARE FUNDED UNTIL THE CHILD TURNS 18. They want the funding, not your child.
- The CPS case worker is probably going to make a biased judgement on the first meeting they have with you. They are going to judge you by the first impression and they will immediately decide if you are a good or bad parent.
- If you come across as weak, they'll see you as another number who'll be easy to "deal with". They'll never be on your side and they'll report to the judge that you're an unfit parent.
- If you come across as strong, your odds of reunification are much better. This is what strong should look like: Confident, firm, and willing to go through the bullshit to get your child back AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Strong is having the ability to effectively communicate with the necessary people and resources, as well as having the ability to contest lies and false statements in reports (which will be vast). Strong is being emotionally stable and standing up for yourself as a parent and standing up for your child as a dependent. This is what strong should NOT look like: Erratic, emotional, unstable, sob-story, "poor me" attitude, helpless, scared. If you are unsure about giving a statement to a case-worker, or if you feel that you are being attacked, DO NOT SPEAK TO THEM, PERIOD. Tell them that you are uncomfortable and want an attorney to witness and mediate the meeting.
- The best thing that you can do to get your child back as soon as possible is to regularly communicate with your attorney or public defender, and do everything that your attorney, the CPS and the court asks you to do, even if you don't feel like you should have to. If you don't show up to take a drug test because you are "offended", they'll think that you're either using drugs or that you're putting your own ego ahead of the welfare of your child.
- This is NOT the time to have an EGO! If you want to ever see your child again, you will suck it up and go through every burning ring of fire for however long it takes. Lay low, don't socialize, don't go anywhere that you don't have to go to, don't talk to anyone about your case who isn't directly involved, and get ready to roll up your sleeves.
I am sharing an important chapter in my new memoirevery parent going through this battle to read.
This is what it's like to hear the judge's final ruling.
This is what it's like to begin the journey of trying to survive an unimaginable ambiguous loss
This is what happens when you don't fight with every ounce of your soul and sometimes, even when you do.
This is what it's like to hear a judge tell you that you will never see your children again.
This is what it's like to say goodbye to unfulfilled memories and milestones that you'll never be a part of or have the chance to witness.
This is the result of an incompetent system that seeks to destroy the lives of capable parents and innocent children every single day because their agenda and financing are more important.
I returned home and told Derrick all about the visit. I couldn’t help but cry and worry about what would happen. I was so sad that I wasn’t as connected as I had always been with my girls and mad that, in spite of my poor judgment and mistakes, any one would have the right to take that away! I lay on my bed and cried for two hours. The first hour I cried for Chloe and Zoe, knowing that I hurt them and knowing that they must be so incredibly confused. I know that kids always blame themselves, but I hoped that they didn’t ever think that any of this was their fault. The second hour, I cried for our new baby. I cried because I was preparing for the worst, and the reality that CPS might take my baby away from me was a real one. Everything was sinking in and I would be forced to face the pain of it at some point.
Before the Court Hearing for Chloe and Zoe, I wanted answers from the CPS, and I wanted them in person. I was sick of hiding my pregnancy. I wanted to find out if they could tell me what could be done about Chloe and Zoe and what I had to do to get them back with me. I was getting scared and desperate. I wanted it to be clear that I would do whatever it took. The day before the Court Hearing, I walked down the street and crossed the highway. Derrick was working, and he didn’t know what I was doing. I walked into the lobby and asked the receptionist to see if a caseworker could speak with me for a moment. Five minutes later, a short man with dark hair in his fifties called me to the back where his office was. We sat down, and I was shocked at the first thing he said to me.
“When is your due date?” he asked. I made up a date that was a few months off, trying to confuse them and make it difficult for them to plot to hurt me even more. “Look,” I said. “I just need to know what I need to do to keep my parental rights. I will do anything that you ask of me. I would even leave Derrick if I had to. I lost time to do these things when I was arrested, and I need to show to you and the Court that I’m serious about taking care of my daughters and fixing the situation.” “I can’t say with confidence that there is anything I can do for you, Elizabeth. I’ll speak with my supervisor and look into it, but most people who make those decisions already have their minds made up.” He was useless. He didn’t even try to give me the information I needed. He didn’t even act like he cared about anything except trying to be nosey and scribble down notes about my pregnancy. I left after he said he would give me a call later in the week. I knew that he would not. It was all a waste of time, and I was even more worried. I prayed and prayed for God to help me get through this and to allow the Judge to see my progress and desire to fix my life and the lives of my girls. I told God that with me being so pregnant, I didn’t think I could handle losing my babies forever. The night before I had Court, I fell asleep with a bad feeling, and I cried until I started dreaming.
My alarm went off at eight in the morning. Derrick had taken time off work to take me, because he knew that I would need him if everything went bad that day. He was convinced that it would be okay. The few other people that I discussed it with were also sure that it would turn out in my favor - simply because I had completed every possible self-improvement class on the planet! I wanted to believe that it would be okay, but I wasn’t able to get my hopes up.
We drove down the icy highway and managed to find a parking spot only five minutes before the hearing began. We waited in the lobby along with ten other couples that were probably suffering through the same thing that I was. I was surprised when my name was called first. I wanted Derrick to go in with me, but it was a confidential hearing because it involved minors.
The seats were maxed out with what looked like Social Workers, Police employees, and other people wearing badges around their necks. If it’s so private, why the hell does it look like the media is here, I was thinking. I had no clue who they were and wanted them the hell out of the Courtroom. I told my Lawyer this, and she managed to get the Judge to kick half of them out. That was when I noticed that I had never seen the Judge that was currently before me.
I asked my Lawyer where the other Judge was. He had handled my case since the beginning and was actually qualified and knowledgeable enough to make such a huge, not to mention final, decision in my life. “He is sick today so this is a temporary Judge,” she said. She saw the look of frustration and anxiety on my face. “I can’t tell you what is going to happen, but I'll fight to get this postponed, okay? It’s not a promise that I can even do that,” she said. She had that same look of sympathy on her face. She looked like she didn’t even want to be there. The Judge called the case number and had the Recorder document everyone in attendance. Mary was there. When I heard the Attorney for CPS mention this, my heart shattered because I knew what was going to happen.
My Lawyer was fighting as hard as she could even though the circumstances were entirely against me. She mentioned every single accomplishment that I had made since I left jail. This included twelve weeks of parenting classes, thirty days at a rehab facility, six months at an Intensive Daily Outpatient Center, nightly Narcotics Anonymous meetings, counseling sessions, and weekly drug testing. The Probation Department had written a letter stating my compliances, and it seemed that the pile of certificates I quickly obtained would have shown my desperation to be with my children. My Attorney had the Bailiff give the Judge the documented proof.
During the time my Attorney was fighting our case and saying everything possible to delay the hearing, I heard the whispers of the employees of Social Services, the Court, and the CASA workers behind me. To them, I was nothing more than a drug-addicted liar who never was, and never would be, a good or capable mother. Now, it was I who was one of those pathetic women that I used to shake my head at in shame. It was all business to them and the closing of another case that they would be free to shake out of their hair.
When the Judge began to speak, the people behind me became silent and still. The Judge said a few sympathetic words of praise acknowledging the completion of my recovery classes. Not once, though, did his eyes directly meet with mine. I was silently begging him to just look at me, as I held my head up with a determined desperation. I wanted him to look at me, and I wanted God to let him see through me and just give me a fighting chance. When I realized that he was not going to look at me, I dropped my head in defeat. Please, God, please just give me a chance. I’m so sorry for making so many mistakes and I’m begging for your mercy. Please God - just don’t let this happen. I silently prayed.
As he was speaking his final ruling, I flashed back to the best days of my life - the days that my girls were born. I endured pain that I was never really prepared for. Their lives depended on this pain. The pain was just as real as they were, which made it painfully beautiful. The moment that I saw their faces and heard their first cry singing into my heart, I knew that I could go through the pain a hundred times over again. Nature pumped endorphins and serotonin through my body, and I was elated with joy. To hold in my arms the most perfect and pure gift that anyone can ever receive is what makes life and all of the pain it can cause, completely meaningful and perfect.
My gifts were about to be taken away forever. I managed to hold onto my dignity as I was hearing the most feared statement of my life, which was being ordered by the Judge, as permanently and painfully as anything could possibly be.
“The State of California and the county of El Dorado are granting the motion to terminate all parental rights of the biological mother, Elizabeth Jeter. The minors, Chloe and Zoe, ages three and four, will remain in the custody of the state until final orders for placement have been determined.”
The Judge was slamming his stamp down to certify the orders as if it were a signal to the Clerk to hurry through the paperwork and get on to the next, I felt it slamming intensely into my chest. It burned, ached and scarred. I was branded - branded as nothing more than a “birth-mother.” When the stamp from my punishment rose, it stole the flesh of my heart with it. I felt as if they died. They were gone. I would not see them again. I wouldn’t have any more visits, and I wouldn’t know where they were at all times.
Their first cries, smiles, laughs, words, teeth, steps and sweet pieces of artwork brought home to hang on the fridge were gone. I would have to hold on to these memories as tightly as I could because when I would inevitably become broken with pain in the long years ahead, I would no longer have the privilege of holding my daughters for any comfort or to uphold my responsibility of comforting them. Though Zoe was so young that she may not remember me down the road, I held on to the hope, and prayed to God as hard as one can pray, that Chloe would have just one first memory of me holding her, laughing with her, and loving her.
Please God, just let her remember how much I love her. Please don’t let her forget. She can tell Zoe the truth when no other will. Please…
Just don’t let her forget…
It was done. I sat with my head in my hands and my face soaked with the consequences of my punishment. I didn’t want to get out of my chair. I just knew that the crowd of big shot Social Workers was gleaming with pleasure. They took joy in my pain. I wondered if Mary did too. I didn’t want to believe that it was over and there was nothing else that I could do. My Lawyer reached over to lightly rub my back in sympathy. I looked up at her and thanked her for the fight. As I hesitantly turned toward the isle leading to the exit, I kept my head down, not wanting to give my audience any more gratification from seeing my tears. I slightly glanced up to the left, and for a split second, I made eye contact with the woman who was taking my babies home with her to be their new mother. The only thing I hoped to accomplish through this brief exchange of eye contact was to etch into her mind for the rest of her life the broken soul that I became from losing my daughters on that sad day in 2007. I wanted her to always be hesitant to say any negative words to my Chloe and Zoe as they grew older. I wanted her to see my true tie to them, induced by instinct and nature, which we would always share - in spite of all the orders, separation and words. According to me, and even more importantly God, Chloe and Zoe were my children. Not hers.
A woman I had never been introduced to that was in charge of the Family Drug Court followed me out of the Courtroom and stopped me to offer a hug.
“Sometimes, the hardest thing in life is allowing one’s self to let go. I’m so sorry for your pain.”
Out of an entire community made up of Counselors, Social Workers, Probation Officers, Attorneys, Law Enforcement, teachers and every citizen who had a role with the objective to help those in need, Olga was the only one who showed me true compassion. She thought I was worthy of comfort, and her hug may have been the tiny spark that kept my flame of hope and faith ignited - as it would soon be blown away…. again.
As I sit here in reflection and ending this chapter with tears in my eyes, I am grateful to see the beauty in this pain that now has purpose. I do not have tears from reliving the devastating experience. Today I have tears from feeling the tremendous joy in knowing that humanity is capable of empathy, compassion, and forgiveness. If only we could all be more like Olga.
I will always love and miss my little girls, and I still hold onto the hope that one day we will be united again.
Preview: Long Blue Line