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Preventive Services Saved My Family
Erica Harrigan-Orr
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Before I went into care permanently, at age 11, I lived with my mom on weekdays and visited my dad on weekends. My mom left us alone when she went off to drink or do drugs. We later found out she had a mental illness.

My father worked two or three jobs to ensure that we were financially taken care of. But he spent no quality time with me. Neither parent hugged or kissed me or said “I love you,” or explained where they disappeared to.

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Once I went into care, I bounced around to different placements. Any attachment I made was interrupted. At age 12, I was placed in a state mental hospital for attempting suicide. I’ve had different diagnoses over the years, but my current one is bipolar depression with manic episodes, and borderline personality disorder. I take Prozac to control depression, lithium to stabilize my mood, and Trilafon, an antipsychotic, to help me think before reacting.

When I aged out of care, I was pregnant by my boyfriend Michael. We wanted to have the baby, but I worried that I’d be a target for Child Protective Services (CPS) because I grew up in foster care and was mentally ill.

But CPS and the mental health system ended up providing a great support system. I spoke about my fears with my therapist and ob-gyn, and they connected me with prenatal classes, parenting and anger management groups, and a mental health treatment center. After giving birth I was referred to social workers who connected me to mommy support groups and to preventive services at Good Shepherd, a child welfare agency in New York.

Learning to Parent

Prenatal and parenting classes taught me the basics of providing a child with food, medical care, shelter, and clothing. The classes also taught me non-aggressive ways to respond to my child’s emotional behaviors as well as stress management techniques to help me stay calm and in control.

I started receiving preventive services when my daughter Emma turned two months old and I began to struggle with postpartum depression. CPS assigned me a homemaker to train me how to be a parent. The homemaker also watched my kids when I went to get my mental health treatment.

When Emma was 10 months old, I did mom and child physiotherapy sessions, where a therapist videotaped me with my child and then watched the video with me. They encouraged me to do more of some things and pointed out what I needed to improve to better connect with my child.

For example, they told me to stop trying to be in control all the time and allow my child freedom to do what she chooses sometimes. I realized I sometimes forced her to do something the “right way,” when it could have been done her way: If she was coloring the grass purple, I told her to make it green.

The therapist said I was too overprotective and wanted perfection instead of letting Emma explore her own creativity and independence. When Emma sat facing away from me, I made her turn around. The therapist helped me train myself to acknowledge her behavior without judgment and to give her the freedom to be creative and discover things without expectations.

Emma’s crying would fill me with guilt and frustration, and sometimes that made me detach. Parenting classes taught me that every baby is different and the only way a parent can develop a relationship is to pay close attention to the baby so you can recognize the wet diaper cry, the hungry cry, the “I need Mommy to rock me to sleep” cry.

Meanwhile, marriage and family therapy helped me learn how to better connect and co-parent with Michael rather than debating parenting styles.

Then we got pregnant again. That news triggered more overwhelming feelings. I thought, “I am just learning how to attach and bond with this child, and I’m having another one?”

After I had my second daughter, Michel, I wasn’t released from the hospital for a week due to being diagnosed with maternal mental health disorder, also known as postpartum psychosis. I had the delusion that the hospital replaced my baby with someone else’s and abducted my daughter. I kept asking for my baby as I was holding my baby. I felt out of control and like my family would be better off without me.

Overwhelmed

I recovered from that, but when Emma was 2 and Michel 18 months, CPS said they were going to take away my homemaking services and close my preventive services. CPS thought I was doing well enough to parent on my own, but I was afraid of becoming overwhelmed and breaking down again.

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I started skipping my therapy appointments and stopped refilling my antidepressant medication. I picked fights with Michael, now my husband, in front of the kids, and I got violent. Even though I’d mostly stayed away from alcohol before because of my mother, I found myself going down her path. I stayed out late drinking and began an affair. I got in fights with Michael where I broke property and threatened to kill him.

CPS intervened and started supervising the household twice a week and offered family therapy that we accepted. Yet I still struggled. I stopped taking my medication altogether.

I wasn’t trying to hurt or abandon my husband and our kids; I was trying to live. I felt dead inside, and going out partying, drinking, and having the affair made me feel alive. I was getting the time and attention from the other guy that I wasn’t getting from Michael.

Michael did everything he could to save me, but in my disordered state, I thought it was only because someone else wanted me. He was left performing both the daddy and mommy role with help from the homemaker. The homemaker and Michael were helping me, but I was paranoid that they were out to take over my role as mom.

One morning I called my CPS worker and told her I felt overwhelmed. She came over that day and handed me a paper to sign. She acted friendly and helpful and told me she would only take the girls for a three-day temporary hold (respite care). Then she told my husband and me to come to the office with the kids for a family team conference.

My Girls in Care

The CPS workers told me that they didn’t want me to be alone with the kids, so something would have to change. Michael could take the kids, but who was going to watch them while he worked? Even if the homemaker came seven hours a day, five days a week, I’d still be alone with them occasionally, while Michael worked.

The kids had to go into foster care until our court date a few weeks later.

CPS placed the two girls together in a temporary therapeutic foster home. I visited them there once: When my oldest daughter grabbed my hand and asked to go home, I wanted to break down but I had to hold it together for them. My kids were miserable and I was miserable. The foster mom begged for me to hurry up and go to court to get them back, because the kids cried nonstop for Mommy and Daddy. She had black spots under her eyes from lack of sleep.

At court, it was decided I only qualified for 12 hours of homemaking, seven days a week. That was based on Michael’s work hours and my mental health treatment. The only strategy to get the kids home was for one parent to leave the home until we completed the services that the court required. So Michael went to live with his father. The court-ordered plan was supervision for me by the homemaker whenever I was with the children.

Michael had visits anytime, unsupervised. He received services to learn how to better deal with my mental breakdowns and outbursts, and I found a program that provided domestic
violence treatment for mentally ill patients. I learned how to better control my emotions without becoming abusive toward my partner.

Within six months, things improved and I got my kids back with services at home. I had two more children, and continued to become a better parent and take better care of myself thanks to the services that CPS provided. I’ve been able to slowly reduce them. My mental health treatment was reduced from every day to once a week and one monthly medication visit. Now I can work and attend school as well as take care of my children. My homemaking services were decreased from 12 hours a week to four hours.

Grateful

Though I once feared CPS, I am grateful for the help they’ve given me. I wasn’t born mentally ill. I developed it from my painful experiences as a child. Until I’m confident that I am fully recovered and healed from my traumatic childhood, I will continue to advocate to keep preventive services in place.

As upsetting as the removal of my children was, it was the right move at the time. I needed to take steps to make my life better, and the only way was for my kids to be temporarily placed outside the home so I could stabilize and get back on my medication. I knew I needed to work on stopping the violence between me and my children’s father.

I am slowly becoming less dependent on Michael, homemaking, and mental health treatment. I am taking on more things than ever before, even though we now have four kids. I work a seasonal paid job at the Board of Elections and I get compensated for volunteering to advocate for children with special needs and mental illness. I recently started to work from home part-time as an independent distributor for a company that sells weight loss and nutritional products. I also got my high school diploma in June 2015.

Both Michael and I had substance-abusing mothers and went into care. It makes sense that it was harder for us to parent. I think every parent who grew up in care should get parenting services and classes; how else do you learn how to do it? I’m grateful for all the help I’ve received from Child Protective Services. I’m still struggling, but with their help I’m healing and becoming the best mother, wife, and person I can be.

(FCYU-2016-07-10)