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.

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