being investigated by child protective services (part 3)

familia elias

The second time that social workers turned up in my life, I was between the ages of seven and nine.

I barely remember their visit except that they too surveyed the whole house and counted the beds. By this point, we had left Bayamon, the city in which we’d settled after moving to Puerto Rico, and had gone to Naguabo, a seaside town on the eastern side of the island.

Our family had grown in Bayamon. My siblings and I now numbered eight, and my father had a new wife too. B, as I’ll call her. She joined our family in 1999, sometime before that first visit from the social workers.

Our new home was beautiful. We called it the Green House. Our new neighborhood was beautiful, too – full of mansions and manicured lawns. Our neighbors were elitists, well-off, and clearly taken aback by the newcomers.

My father wasted no time setting up his ad boards – one for the front lawn, and a plethora of others for our car, a Ford minivan which we’d gotten in Bayamon just before moving. Our neighbors took offense at the ad boards and took it to the neighborhood council. They insisted he take them down. In the spirit of peacemaking, he did take down the one on the front lawn – but our car was another story. This was where much of our business came from, and my father was working to support a family of twelve.

Other complaints concerned the number of people he was allowed to have over at one time. Being both a salesman and a distributor, my father enjoyed hosting house meetings. This was soon outlawed as well.

We tried to make friends and succeeded in some cases. The couple across the street took a liking to us. The grandparents up the road had a granddaughter a couple of years older than us, and they allowed us to play with her. Another couple – a military family – was American. They had two daughters our age as well, and we quickly befriended them.

No matter how hard we tried, though, there was no softening the older couple that lived two houses up from ours. They didn’t want us there. And when their attempts at sabotaging our business didn’t go anywhere, they too called the Family Department.

The complaints these neighbors were making had nothing to do with suspected abuse. Every neighbor in that urbanization had the opportunity to observe us on a somewhat regular basis (we spent hours walking the neighborhood and riding our bikes) and no one was placing calls about bruises or broken bones. So what crimes were being committed?

Perhaps its necessary to take this kind of perspective, to consider the matter in hues of black or white.

The chief complaint seemed to have come from the woman. Our lifestyle, we were told she said, was affecting her and her husband to the point where he wanted another wife for himself. Other complaints included our not attending school (no one seemed very familiar with the concept of homeschooling) and there not being enough beds. Having never been inside our house, they could have only hoped they guessed correctly.

They must have been very desperate for the Family Department to intervene.

The social workers came. They inspected our home. They counted a surplus of beds. They questioned my father. They left, coming to the same conclusion the other social workers had, that the complaints were unfounded.

“The children weren’t being mistreated or neglected and the Family Department could not take a position opposing the family’s religious beliefs: they were obligated to respect them.” This was the written conclusion of the third investigation that my family was subjected to.

Because there was a first, though I haven’t mentioned it. The first was when I was a baby, before we left New York. A former friend had called CPS when J’s pregnancy with my first half-sister became known. There were social workers involved, I am told, but I remember nothing of the event. I do not usually count it since it did not take place in Puerto Rico.

The second was in Bayamon.

This was the third.

All three had come to the same conclusion.

All three would be ignored in the end.

victims of prejudice (part 2)

familia elias

To the untouched, a social worker may represent different things.

Social Work, as I have come to understand, is typically viewed as a noble profession and social workers are seen as selfless servers of the community. When this universally accepted perspective was first introduced to me, I was taken aback. It seemed so completely contrary to all that I had ever known or experienced. But I tried to allow for the benefit of doubt. After all, even logically one can surmise that social workers are people just like you and me, with families, beliefs, ideas, and feelings no less important than ours. Whatever their motives, one can’t be so arrogant as to imagine that they are all bad.

The difficult thing is this: the view that I have, based on the experiences I have had with the same, is quite different from everyone else’s.

My experience with social workers has not been limited but it has been exclusive to a type: the Child Protective Services type. I cannot speak for any other kind, whatever their function or job description.

I also know and am fully aware that the crimes of a few cannot and should not represent the majority. It would be unfair to presume otherwise.

But as a child, I had no concept of laws, procedures, or statutes. I saw in black and white. Home was my security, my world, and the Family Department (as they are called in Puerto Rico) was the monster that stole me from it. Trying to humanize the monster, as a pensive adult, has proven difficult. My child’s mind was irrevocably stamped by the fear they evoked in me.

The first social workers I ever met did not leave me with any indelible memory. They were strangers in the night and while they seemed intimidating, they didn’t do me any harm. They came to carry out an investigation, based on a neighbor’s complaints, and while taken aback by our peculiar lifestyle, they concluded that “the children” (my siblings and I) were healthy, happy, and well-educated. There was no sign of abuse or negligence.

I was four or five years old. And staring up at the social worker standing in my mother’s bedroom, I didn’t know what social workers had been licensed to do. I did not know about Act 177.

I did not know anything about the system that would one day rob me of two brothers and leave me with permanent scars.

That night it was only a strange woman and a companion, a badge, a clipboard, and the relatively innocuous question: What is your name?

I was timid as a child and I don’t remember if I answered. My mother stood behind me, holding my little sister, and I felt small and uncertain. I do not know how we found ourselves in her room: I imagine now that they must have wanted to count the beds. They had already looked into our fridge and surveyed the house.

The memory introduces a question I have often agonized over: Are we to forgive such gross intrusion upon our privacy in the name of simple investigation? Especially when it is purported to be for the sake of indefensible children?

I have not yet decided.

I spent ten months in a group home instituted for abused children when I was eleven years old. I hadn’t been abused but this is where we were placed nonetheless. However, the majority of the children I lived with had been abused – if the actuality of their removal (not a determining factor) and the testimony they claimed are to be the evidence, that is. It is these children I think of when I contemplate the harassment we underwent whenever a new neighbor decided they didn’t like us and called the Family Department on us.

It wasn’t fair to us, and it wreaked horrible results in our lives, but what of the abused children this agency claims to be in the habit of rescuing? If my efforts were to obliterate the existence of this agency, of this system, wouldn’t children suffer for it?

It is a perplexing conundrum with no obvious answer.

My siblings and I suffered no abuse or negligence and yet a year of our lives was spent in the hands of governmental agents posing as rescuers: their actions proved them our kidnappers. Did they make an honest mistake? I do not believe they can claim that defense. They were well-aware of the decisions they made and of the prejudice that inspired them. They were operating beneath the color of law and I’d be willing to bet that they knew it.

And what about these neighbors? What about this nasty trick of phoning in to an all-powerful agency that has the means of disassembling a family unit with a snap of their fingers? It is as easy as that, believe it or not. Obtaining a judge’s signature is a simple thing when you know what kinds of lies to tell.

Nowadays we have forums and comment sections for people to revile and condemn one another. But their threats are usually empty and their influence can only reach so far. What can someone do in real life when their opinions on how you live your life are so unyielding that they are moved to dismember it? They can call the Family Department. That is their weapon.

It is what they did to us.

It’s what they could do to you.

excerpt of my memoir

matthew elias

It’s strange the things that stands out in one’s memory. I can remember the sun blazing down on the top of their car and how the stocky, mustached man and the petite, brown-haired woman squinted as they came to stand in front of our gate. It was a hot day.

The man called out a greeting in Spanish. Nervously, my eyes shifted to meet Hannah’s and I could see my uneasiness reflected in her expression. Who are they? A few seconds passed and then he called again but this time it wasn’t a greeting: it was my father’s name. How did he know Daddy’s name? I wondered. A moment later, our front door slammed.

Daddy was walking down towards the gate.

A prickle of unease ran the length of my spine. Our house seemed unusually silent. Why couldn’t I hear anyone talking? Why weren’t the little ones laughing? Why wasn’t Mommy calling for lunch? My heart pounded faster as I shifted uncomfortably on my knees.

We could see the strangers were talking to my father, though we couldn’t hear them. I could only see the side of Dad from where I knelt but I could tell that he was frowning. Hannah wondered aloud if they could be customers but I shook my head. No. There was something different about these people. Daddy’s customers didn’t look like that.

It’d been several minutes. The strangers didn’t go away, even when Daddy left them there and returned to the house. We watched them in silence for a few seconds, wondering. When the door behind us opened, we all jumped, startled.

It was Jenna. Gone from her face was the reproof and hidden amusement we’d seen only moments before. Now, her eyes were full of fear and a barely concealed dread. Her mouth was a grim line as she went straight to the bureau and began rummaging through the clothes. Matthew stood behind her. His blond hair brushed his long eyelashes but he didn’t bother to push it away, only stood quietly, watching his mother. I stared at him. The strangeness of the moment kept me silent but questions burned in my mind. We watched as Jenna pulled out a blue, button-down shirt from the dresser.

 “Honey, let’s put this on,” she said to Matthew, helping him pull off his plain tee-shirt. “Listen to me, sweetheart, you don’t have to answer any questions if you don’t want to. You know that, right? You just smile and hold Daddy’s hand and everything will be alright.” He nodded and she straightened his shirt, brushed at his hair. His eyes were round and solemn. He took his mother’s hand when she reached for him and followed her from the room. The door clicked shut behind them and I looked at my sisters in bewilderment. Their eyes mirrored mine. Together, we turned back to the window and saw that strangers were still standing there… except now, Daddy was walking down the driveway towards them, and he had Matthew with him.

Matthew looked like a sheep being led to slaughter, shuffling along slowly behind our father. His eyes were on the ground, his hand clutched tightly around Daddy’s. I shot Hannah another look filled with dread. What now?

The strangers stared at Matthew and the man questioned our father. Daddy’s face was unreadable. He didn’t let go of Matthew’s hand and at some comment of the man’s, he turned quickly and brought Matthew back inside. I felt a stab of relief. Safe again, he’s safe.

But would the strangers never leave? Daddy had gone back out to them, now carrying Matthew’s basket of supplements. I shook my head, frustrated.

 “How come they wanted to see Matthew?” I asked Hannah. “Who are they anyway? What do they want?”

She shrugged, her eyes darting to mine and then away again. Something’s not right. I understood the glance as easily as if she’d spoken aloud. I nodded slightly and looked at Abby to see if she had noticed our exchange. Her eyes were wider than usual and her mouth was slightly open as she stared out the dusty window screen. She hadn’t.

We watched Daddy show the strangers Matthew’s medicine and we watched as he showed them proof of Bernadette’s graduate’s degree in nursing and we watched as he showed them the doctor’s notes on Matthew’s condition and progress. It seemed like forever before the strangers finally got back into their car and drove away, leaving as quickly and as suddenly as they’d arrived.

The car hadn’t even disappeared down the road before we were off the bed and running from the room.

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the elias family story (part 1)

familia-elias

In Latino communities, the term “gringo” isn’t necessarily derogatory….. It’s what they, the Latinos, call the Americans – the outsiders, the white folks with their bad Spanish accents.

It’s what they called us, when I finally got old enough to pay attention.

I was born in New York to a Latino father and an Irish-Italian mother. I already had an older sister, Esther, and two half-siblings from my father’s previous marriage. And another half-sister on the way.

My father’s simultaneous marriage with J, as I’ll call her, was what the world today calls polygamy. It’s the one topic I have avoided writing about in my various attempts at blogging and it’s one I am hesitant to address even now.

We are not Mormon. Gather from that admission what you will. They – my parents and J – simply obeyed the call they felt the Lord was making on their lives. With this call – as with most calls the Lord makes, I would think – came the loss of man’s good opinion. It came with much persecution and censure. It came with much suffering. It is the undercurrent to nearly every event that has transpired in my life.

Easily understood? Never. Of great responsibility? Always. But Jesus Christ has been the center and the mainstay.

I think when people first hear about my family, they might wonder what rock we climbed out of under. Do people outside of the openly Mormon Sister Wives still live like that? It seems both too strange and too antiquated of a concept to fit into today’s society. And I get it. I do. I will say this, however, that nothing about my family seemed strange to me until I got old enough to notice how strange it was to other people. This was around the same time that I caught on to the gringo label.

My younger half-sister and I would tell people we were twins when we were little. It saved us the difficult task of explaining that yes, we were only eight months apart, and yes, we had the same father, and yes, we grew up together, but no, we had different mothers… My father was a distributor for a multilevel marketing company and so we were always around people – but not everybody knew. Though a great deal suspected, I’m sure. The neighbors who would eventually wind up calling social services on us certainly did.

When we left New York to settle down in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, I was just under two years old. I don’t remember the snow-lined, sooty streets of New York City or the small, wallpapered apartment where I learned to take my first steps. But I remember the burning sun that baked the streets of our new neighborhood, the heat of the sidewalk beneath my bare toes, and the long walks to the supermarket to get our groceries before we could get a car.

Our life, in the late 90s and early 2000s, was relatively normal. My childhood was idyllic compared to other kids – especially the kinds of kids I’d get to know as I got older. We were homeschooled. My dad worked from home. We weren’t well-off but we had enough to get by. My sisters and I shared a room; my mother had her own, which she shared with the little girl who came along soon after our arrival to Puerto Rico; J had her bedroom with her newborn boy; and my father had his own. We were a small but well-functioning family. Both my mother and J were in their twenties – young, bright-eyed, and intelligent. My mom handled the groceries; J supervised our preschooling. My father knew Spanish and my mother and “step-mother” picked up on enough of it to handle small talk. We played at the local playground and took plenty of walks to keep ourselves busy. We made a few friends in the neighborhood – one even undertook the task of teaching J how to make proper arroz con gandules.

As a kid, my world was full of books and games and movies and the occasional loud-mouthed child that raced through my house – ours to entertain while my father pitched healthcare products to their parents. Occasionally, that world contained business meetings in lavish hotels back-dropped by glittering casinos and scores of well-dressed customers.

Most of the time, it was not so glamorous: we went a month without electricity when I was about six because of a backed-up bill we’d been unable to pay.

Our neighborhood was suburban and jammed between another, fully crowded urbanization and the bustling, over-packed city of Bayamon. We lived next door to a well-to-do dentist and across the street from a middle-aged couple that gave us the kinds of sideway glares reserved for brothels. We got our fruit from street-side vendors and spent our spare quarters on limbers.

And yet, there was no doubt about it – we were the outsiders, the weird Americans, the gringos. And we weren’t like everybody else. We were a gaggle of little girls and a solitary boy – a sweet, wide-eyed, fragile tot – a dad, and two moms. And our incredulous neighbors weren’t having it.

And so, sometime in the middle of 1999, I met my first social workers.