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.