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(WOMENSENEWS)– When Nancy Vivioda, 26, set off for a meeting with Detroit’s Department of Human Resources in 2004 she brought all five of her children and a false expectation.
The fast food worker was working nights and paying her bills. She thought she was going in to discuss some discrepancies with her current food stamp case. But the appointment turned out to be about her husband of four years.
At the start of the meeting the children were escorted into the department’s playroom by a social worker, a common practice in child welfare. By the end of the meeting her children were being sent to five separate foster homes.
Vivioda recalls being led into an office and seated across a table from three unfamiliar authority figures: a Protective Services investigator, that investigator’s supervisor and the district manager for the Department of Human Resources, South Central.
Vivioda was told that she had come to the attention of the Department of Human Resources because of a reported dispute with her husband, the father of her three youngest children and step-father to the two eldest. The people at the “team decision-making meeting” were concerned about him. By the end of the meeting she was escorted to the playroom to say goodbye.
“I had to tell my older daughter that I wasn’t going with them.”
After the meeting Vivioda found herself in car with a silent social worker behind the wheel. Crying all the way, Vivioda was taken to a shelter an hour away from Detroit in Pontiac, a suburb she knew nothing about, stopping only to pick up her final paycheck and quit her job.
‘There Was No Support’
She said she remembered thinking the social workers only cared about two things: placing the children in foster care and her in a shelter. “There was no support for me,” she said.
City authorities had reasons for what they did. Vivioda’s husband was abusive and the household was vulnerable to more violence. But Vivioda’s case raises the question of why authorities focused on Vivioda, who was nonviolent.
Detroit’s Department of Human Resources did not respond to requests for comment.
“Unfortunately, the system’s response is to remove a child from the non-abusive parent rather than working with the non-abusive parent to help her keep the children safe,” said Vivek Sankaran, director of the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, a group created in 2009 to serve families under the stress of the child welfare system.
In the 1990s policy makers and advocates began reviewing the divide between advocates for battered women and government workers focused on protecting children from household violence. While both camps sought to protect their clients, neither seemed to recognize that violence in the home overlaps for both victims and their children. Between 3.3 million and 10 million children are present each year during the battering of a caregiver, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
When state workers remove children from the nonviolent parent it’s often because that parent–most commonly the mother–is seen as negligent in her ability to protect her children as a result of her children’s exposure to domestic violence. Advocates for battered mothers say this means the women are victimized twice, first by their abuser and second by state workers who take their children away.
In 2004, a New York judge found the practice of removing children from situations of domestic violence unjustified. A number of states are practicing an integrated approach where advocates for children and battered spouses work and train across platforms. Some state programs offer legal, housing and educational services for victims and their children.
Sankaran, of the Detroit Center, said her group helps non-abusive parents keep their children by helping them file for divorce, arrange orders of protection and separate from the batter and obtain sole custody of their children. “In addition, the organization would provide her with the help of a social worker and family advocate to ensure that she receives the appropriate services, such as housing and financial assistance along with other needed services,” said Sankaran.
Long, Lonely Year
But the Detroit Center didn’t exist in 2004 when Vivioda lost her children. It took her a long lonely year to get back to Detroit, reestablish a life there and get her children back from foster care. “I felt hurt and embarrassed,” she said.
When it was over, she said she felt like most parents in her situation; anxious to get back to some semblance of normality and keep a distance on the system. “When the case is closed they don’t want to be bothered with other people going through the process.”
But she realized that she needed to be in a community. That’s when she and the future founder and director of the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy crossed paths.
“I could help them emotionally and get resources to get their kids. I became a mentor for other parents,” said Vivioda.
Vivioda knew about navigating the system from hard personal experience.
Shortly before the meeting in 2004, a social worker had interviewed Vivioda’s then 6-year-old daughter at school. Vivioda’s daughter told the social worker that her stepfather was bad.
Vivioda hadn’t seen him that way.
“To me he was a guy who went to work all week and had beers with his friends and family on the weekends,” Vivioda said. But she also said he was not happy and had begun taking it out on her about a year and a half after they were married. “You put on make-up and you keep walking,” she said.
During the interview Vivioda said that as a child she had witnessed domestic violence and suffered abuse. “As a kid it was normal,” she said.
The people at the meeting said the department had investigated her husband and found illegal dealings about which she said she was completely unaware. Vivioda said she struggled to reconcile her impressions of her husband, with the man being described to her.
“I was trying to figure out what their investigation meant,” she said.
For her, that investigation meant that she wound up being driven to Pontiac and getting dropped at a women’s shelter. Vivioda remembers being scared and crying. During the meeting she said the social workers promised her everything was going to be OK. ” ‘Consider this a new start. They’re going to help you get back on your feet,’ ” Vivioda said she was told.
But upon entering the center she was traumatized by the sight of a woman with a busted eye.
She was ushered into an orientation session where she learned she could stay for 31 days. That’s when she realized she would not have her children with her. “I didn’t realize I was going to be on my on once I was at the shelter,” she said.
After Vivoda’s 31-day stay at the first shelter, she moved to two more shelters, each with a maximum month stay for all domestic violence survivors.
A Reunification Plan
To regain custody of her children she needed a “reunification plan” that included mandatory meetings of one-hour a week with her children. But she was an hour away from Detroit with no job and no transportation.
“There were no services to help find work or housing. There was no meeting to find out how to get my kids back,” said Vivioda. “I was lost in my emotions of missing my kids.”
She managed to obtain an old car to get to court hearings and appointed visits but it was hard to find a job that fit with her family-reunification schedule.
“Employers don’t hire you. You need too many days off to go for visits with your kids, hearings and therapeutic sessions.”
Vivioda said at one point the car broke down on the way to a meeting and she was scared and upset because missing a meeting was not possible. But she had to remain calm. “The workers were always judging you,” she said, referring to state social workers assigned to observe her interactions with her children during the visits and interviews that made up the family-reunification process.
“You couldn’t get upset or angry about what was happening to you. If and when you do, you have to go to anger therapy.”
She shared her frustration with one social worker assigned to her by the court during her initial reunification hearing process. ” I need to go back to Detroit. I know my old neighborhood,” she said.
She was shocked when the worker said: “You could have done that a long time ago.”
She was assigned a new worker with a new focus: How do we help get this family back together?
She went back to Detroit and stayed with a friend. Within days she was getting domestic violence therapy, housing and going back to her old employer to get her job back. She started doing everything on the to-do list.
“I was more in control, at peace and in my comfort zone,” she said. “I knew where to go. In Pontiac, I felt I was at everybody’s mercy and scared.”
Anna Limontas-Salisbury is a reporter and writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. This story is part of a series on Child Protective Services and low-income women made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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