A mother, her sons, and a choice
State child welfare agency pressures woman to decide her future as a mother
First in a series
The conference room table was bare, except for two sets of documents and a red pen. Nearby stood a lawyer and a social worker, nervously awaiting the arrival of Barbara Paul. Everything was set. But where was Barbara? The 38-year-old single mother had been due at the Worcester social service office at noon -- 10 minutes earlier. Would this, they wondered, be the appointment Barbara would miss?
Seconds later, a woman with tousled red hair entered the room, walking with a broad side-to-side gait, like a wrestler. On good days, Barbara greets people with a big hello and a grin; on this day she was silent. As she approached the table, she looked at no one.
Barbara was being asked that day to sign away forever her rights as the parent of her two boys; the state had decided she was not up to the job of motherhood.
She could fight it out in court, hoping to hold onto the only two people in her life who ever made her feel lucky. But if she lost, she might never see her sons again. Her final court hearing was just two hours away.
The only certainty would come with the signing: If she voluntarily gave up her children, sparing the state a trial, she would be guaranteed two visits a year with her boys, each lasting at least two hours. She would also be entitled to occasional correspondence, a Mother's Day greeting, or maybe a birthday card.
Barbara had thought such a cruel choice could hang over only child abusers, drug addicts, or drunks -- and she was none of these. The accusation against her was child neglect.
Why, the state's social workers asked, did she send the boys to school in such filthy clothes? Why was her refrigerator sometimes empty? Why was her house such a mess? She sat at the conference room table, her face flushed. This much she knew: Her boys always told her they loved her.
And she had done her best. Even after a horrific rape plunged her into a dark world of flashbacks and sleepless nights, she had raced to food pantries and Goodwill stores for food and clothes. She never ordered her sons to sit for three square meals, but she swears they had plenty to eat. Barbara and her two little buddies watched wrestling on TV, went fishing, and played video games. Seeing her sons was, she felt, the best antidepressant, far better than the pills she took or the group therapy sessions that social workers told her to attend.
How, she often wondered, could those fresh-out-of-college social workers ever understand a life such as hers?
As she considered her options that day in February, Barbara knew there was a married couple from a Boston suburb who hoped to adopt her boys, ages 16 and 11. This couple had so many things that Barbara did not - college degrees, good jobs, a house with a swimming pool.
Next to criminal prosecution and imprisonment, states exercise no power more profound than the severing of parents' rights to their children. On this day, Barbara felt alone with the full weight of that power.
She stared at the two sets of documents and the red pen. A signature would erase her motherhood.
There are hundreds of thousands of mothers like Barbara across America, women whose stories lie behind most of the nearly 1 million child protection cases filed each year.
These are not, by and large, the most extreme cases, the parents who draw headlines, chaining their children to radiators, or otherwise abusing them. For every case of child abuse, there are at least two cases of child neglect.
Society has long wrestled with how to deal with those accused of child neglect, most of whom are unwed mothers like Barbara, raising their children with little money and under great emotional strain. Their lapses often aren't monstrous but more like the miscues in any busy family's life - the missed parent-teacher conference, the unwashed clothes, the unreplenished pantry.
But when such lapses become chronic, the question arises: Who is to blame? The mother who failed her children, or the society which perhaps failed her? And when should the government draw the line?
These women brace themselves for the knock on the door from the state's child-welfare agency - a knock that, now more than ever, signals the start of a race against time, a race they will often lose.
In one of the nation's most ambitious social experiments, the states, beginning in 1997, started terminating parental rights more often and more quickly. And courts began clearing children for adoption at a faster rate; there are now about 65,000 children under government supervision whose legal connection to their parents has been dissolved.
The theory is that the best way to break the cycle of poverty and fractured families is to move children, and swiftly, out of troubled homes.
The hardest of these cases are also the most common: They involve mothers such as Barbara. She has struggled and often failed at some of the basics of parenting. She has rarely been able to hold a job. She is burdened by depression.
Still, her children are devoted to her. And she could not love them more.
When is it time to sacrifice the rights of one generation - hers - to try to save the next?
A child in need
Understanding Barbara's choice means understanding the road she has traveled, how she grew into motherhood, and how her dream came undone.
She was known in childhood as Barbara Goewey, Class of 1983, at Murdock Middle High School in Winchendon. She was a girl with simple dreams: to be a teacher and raise a family. Her yearbook entry offered this vision: ``Being with friends, roller skating, cooking in Mrs. Honkala's class ... having a job and a family.''
One thing she was clear about. When she started her own family, it would be nothing like the one she had known.
Her family led a reclusive life in a tired, antique shingled cottage, tucked into acres of woodlands in the central Massachusetts town. It seemed, in many ways, an ordinary household with five children, two parents, two dogs.
But there was little ordinary about it, at least not for Barbara. It was, in many ways, a one-parent home. Barbara's father, Dennis, ran the show: He set the children's bedtimes, mealtimes, chore schedules. He made the rules and enforced them strictly.
Barbara remembers her mother, Beverly, as keeping to the shadows. She would sit in a chair in the living room for hours, smoking or watching television or perhaps doing a little knitting. Sometimes she helped with the meals, but often left that to her husband.
She seemed to Barbara so silent and passive; Barbara never knew why. Even at Barbara's entry into womanhood, her first menstrual period, she recalls, it was her father, not her mother, who helped her buy her first sanitary napkins.
The family was poor, even by the modest standards of Winchendon, a struggling community known as ``toy town'' because of its once-flourishing woodworking trade. Barbara's parents did not have regular jobs and relied mostly on welfare and disability checks. Her mother had lost the use of an arm in a car accident. Her father, diagnosed with a heart problem, worked now and then as a handyman. The family burned wood to heat the house and limited toilet flushes to save on well water. Barbara says she often wore the same clothes to school for an entire week.
Her parents rarely ventured out. One neighbor wondered whether Dennis and Beverly Paul stayed to themselves because they were afraid of being scorned or pitied. The neighbors never noticed the Paul youngsters being treated harshly by their parents, yet often thought the children seemed to be ignored. They recalled Barbara, the middle child with sandy-blonde hair and hazel eyes, as sweet and simple.
For suppers, the Paul family would gather. No prayers were said - they were not a religious family. But sometimes dinnertime was tense. Barbara remembers her father's way of making sure all the children ate what was on their plate: He pulled out the belt.
His wife kept her silence at such times.
Barbara harbored doubts that Dennis Paul was her biological father. Some relatives had told her that on her mother's wedding day, Beverly, then in her early 20s, was a single mother of three, the youngest being 1-year-old Barbara. That's why Barbara and her older brother and sister went by Goewey, her mother's maiden name. Still, neighbors and friends assumed Dennis was Barbara's father - and Barbara never openly challenged it.
In her graduating class of 104 students, Barbara blended in, though sometimes she was taunted. Her best friend going back to elementary school days, Theresa Taylor, said some students snickered about her body odor and her wardrobe; she dressed like a sloppy tomboy. Barbara once confided to Taylor that, to save water, she only showered once a week.
Some neighbors thought Barbara might be intellectually slow, although she was never assigned special services in school. She repeated first grade because of reading difficulties, but then moved through the grades with report cards full of Bs and Cs.
As Barbara blossomed into a young woman, she began to exhibit a mental gift: A knack for memorizing numbers after seeing them only once. It struck her as just one of the funny quirks in her brain. It would prove useful.
Around the time of her graduation, Dennis Paul asked her and her two older siblings if they wanted to take his last name. The two oldest children didn't see the need. Barbara, though, decided she'd like to share the same last name as her two youngest sisters, the favored ones in the family.
Still, she couldn't wait to leave her family home. She remembers thinking, ``I've got a mind of my own and I'm going to do what I want to do.'' Her parents - who declined to be interviewed about her - did not encourage her to stay.
And so Barbara Paul, at 18, began a transient life, boarding with relatives and friends, sometimes offering to help with child care. For one summer, she was a live-in mother's helper for Pam Sparling, a friend of the family who had three children of her own.
Sparling thought of Barbara as a young woman with ``a heart of gold'' and accepted her into the family like an honorary daughter.
Sparling's children loved playing with their fun-loving babysitter. They were sad when Barbara left them to start a new life in Fitchburg. Sparling was worried, thinking to herself, ``She hasn't a clue how hard it is out there.''
At 22, a mom
Barbara went, almost immediately, from being a mother's helper to being a mother in need of help.
At 22 she gave birth to her first son, Joseph. He delighted her from the start.
She remembers when a nurse from Burbank Hospital in Fitchburg was teaching the group of new mothers how to bathe newborns and grabbed tiny Joseph to demonstrate. Almost instantly, he peed on her. Barbara, looking on, burst into a fit of giggles.
When her second child, Arthur, was born in March 1991, he too was used as the demonstration baby for the newborn bathing class. And he duplicated his brother's feat.
To this day, the story makes Barbara laugh out loud.
The boys' father, Edward, wasn't around much to share in the fun. In fact, Barbara said, he had no interest in raising Joe and Art. [To protect their privacy, the boys are identified throughout this series by their middle names. The boys' father could not be reached.]
Barbara had met Edward at a church supper in Fitchburg. Barbara was instantly attracted to his dark Italian-Spanish looks.
When Barbara was pregnant for the first time, Edward tried to persuade her to abort, but Barbara refused, saying, ``conception is when life begins.'' Edward's mother took her to the nearby Marillac Manor for Unwed Mothers and urged her to put the baby up for adoption. Barbara stayed there two days, then left. She was determined to be a mother.
From the start, motherhood was hard. She had an emotional dependency on Edward and other men, some of whom were often drunk and violent. She wanted to raise her boys without the strict rules and chores of her own past, but sometimes, as a result, home life was chaotic, and the home itself a mess. She also found out how hard it was to be so desperately poor - especially at birthdays and Christmas.
Barbara entered what amounted to the family business as soon as Joe was born: she applied for welfare benefits. That gave her her first regular income - welfare and food stamps totalling $486 a month, or $5,832 a year. It never seemed enough to pay for diapers, formula, clothes, telephone, and electric bills.
She tried getting jobs as a waitress or store clerk, but struggled to add receipts quickly enough to satisfy her bosses. She worked briefly as a taxi driver and school bus monitor, but nothing lasted long. Plus, she had developed heel spurs that made it difficult for her to be on her feet, especially as her weight ballooned from 154 pounds to 210.
Early on, Barbara and the boys' paternal grandmother quarreled frequently, often over the care of the boys. When Joe was almost a year old, Edward's mother called the state Department of Social Services to say Barbara was ignoring her son. The agency investigated but did not substantiate the charge.
Even as Barbara struggled, she and the boys had their good times. She cheered when 1-year-old Art finally took his first steps - then walked right into a parked truck. Art was always the slenderer son with light brown hair, easily overtaken, as well as cared for, by his much bigger brother. Sometimes the three went on rides at nearby Whalom amusement park. They listened to country music. When the boys wanted the hot new toy, Barbara was eager to indulge.
Joe and Art grew very close, and at bedtime, they preferred sleeping together on the same twin-size mattress. They seemed generally happy. Barbara always insisted on good manners, though in other ways she ran a free-wheeling household, rarely insisting that they brush their teeth or stick to rigid bedtimes. She had wanted to be ``the opposite'' of her own parents, and in many ways she had succeeded.
To the extent there was a happy time for her, this was it. But it would all be dashed one night in October 1993.
Ride turns to terror
Barbara had stormed out of her two-room apartment on Adams Street shortly after midnight, furious at her new boyfriend, David, for being too critical of her. She had begun seeing him after the boys' father moved out and vanished from their lives.
Needing some time alone, she walked a half-mile to the only store open at this hour, a Store 24 in downtown Fitchburg. Her boys were asleep, and she knew David would stay to watch them.
After buying some iced tea, she began the walk home along the main thoroughfare. A well-dressed man offered her a ride in his purple Subaru, and she accepted. But as he started up Main Street, he took a wrong turn and pulled over. Within minutes, he had pinned Barbara to the backseat of the car, put a knife to her throat and raped her.
At one point, she opened her eyes and saw a decal on the man's car window. It had numbers on it - the one thing she memorizes easily.
``He asked her if she had kids, and she said she had two sons,'' according to the Fitchburg police report of the crime. ``He told her he knew where she lived and had seen her around before and if [she] told anyone, he would come after her.''
He left her where he'd found her. Barbara walked home, then fell into the arms of David with a hysterical account of what had happened.
He took her to the police station. She told police about the decal with the number 25 on it, as well as a green towel and knife located in the map pocket of the driver's door. With that, and a description of the vehicle, Fitchburg police that night arrested Daryl A. Walker, 28, of Fitchburg on charges of aggravated rape, kidnapping, and threatening to commit murder. His car had a decal noting the ``25th anniversary'' of an event, and police also recovered the green towel and the knife.
Days later, while Barbara was attending to her boys, then ages 6 and 2, Walker pleaded guilty in Worcester County Superior Court. As part of a plea bargain, he admitted that he raped Barbara Paul.
Barbara now had a new number stuck in her memory: ``He served 475 days in the House of Corrections.''
An adult in need
In the months ahead, Barbara had flashbacks to the crime and feared for her children's safety. She blamed herself for accepting the ride. She couldn't get out of bed, and when she was in bed, she couldn't sleep. Sometimes she kept Joe out of school, fearful that her rapist would be freed by some clerical error and make good on his promise to attack her and the boys.
Within a year of the rape, the state's social workers began calling. Teachers had complained that Joe sometimes wasn't in school and that his clothes smelled bad. At the time, Barbara didn't really mind the questions. She knew she needed help.
But the state wasn't focused on her depression or anxiety, but on her mothering and homemaking. Members of the family support services unit came to her apartment each week, offering advice about housecleaning, personal hygiene, and child discipline.
DSS closed its case against Barbara in January 1997 but reopened it six months later after more complaints about the boys' hygiene. By 1998, the state had taken legal custody of Joe and Art but allowed them to live at home under Barbara's physical custody. Social workers said they would monitor the situation closely, and, this time, they insisted that Barbara get some counseling.
Though Barbara knew she was depressed, she grew to disdain the mental health workers assigned to help her. At first she was given appointments with therapists who specialized in drug abuse, even though she had never tested positive for drug use. This infuriated Barbara's court-appointed attorney, Jan Gardner, who thought that social workers were operating under a stereotype about the poor.
Around this time, the state also gave her an intelligence test and reported that her IQ was 83; average is 100. Gardner said this added to the belief at DSS that Barbara's problems also had to do with subnormal intelligence. Gardner complained to the agency that Barbara's services were shockingly ``off-target.'' She repeatedly asked why Barbara wasn't receiving therapy focused on her rape.
DSS referred Barbara to the Lipton Center, a mental health facility in downtown Leominster. There, staff therapists decided Barbara would benefit most from ``home-based'' services, in which social workers and other staff would visit her once a week.
Barbara and the boys started to dislike what seemed like meddling in their lives. They came up with a nickname for the Department of Social Services - The Leash - because they felt yanked this way and that by the agency's demands. Barbara recalled yelling once at a social worker, ``How do you want me to clean the house? So you can see yourself on the floor?''
For his part, Joe, then in fourth grade, grew increasingly irritated by the saccharine tone of social workers when they asked, ``How do you like your living conditions? Are you happy?'' Joe quickly learned that saying something like ``everything is fine'' was the best way to get these strangers out of their home.
He was sure the social workers believed they were better than his mother. And he thought they underestimated her mothering skills.
Joe loved her fun-loving side. He recalled that once, as a young boy, he accidently sprayed Barbara's face with a garden hose. He meant to douse Art. ``Go to your room!'' his mother ordered, uncharasteristically stern. A short while later, she relented. As soon as he opened the door, a bucket of water splashed in his face. Barbara and the boys laughed and laughed.
Joe started taking on a bigger role in the family, sometimes telling Art to quiet down because Mom was having ``a bad day.'' Sometimes he cooked spaghetti or macaroni and cheese for everyone. He prodded Art to finish his homework. Both boys struggled some in school, repeating first grade because of reading difficulties. Sometimes, Joe also helped wash clothes in the bathtub, because his mother didn't have money for the laundromat. He favored black clothes for school so the dirt wouldn't show.
While therapists from the Lipton clinic still came to Barbara's home, the contact began to diminish. And when they rang her bell, often no one would answer. The therapists had seen this pattern before. While mothers like her know they need help, they can come to resent strangers poking around their lives.
One counselor said she tried to help Barbara explore the causes of her depression and sleep difficulties, but Barbara often seemed more preoccupied with her money woes. This counselor remembers being troubled by Barbara's inability to recall much of her childhood and wondering whether she had suffered some early trauma - or years of emotional neglect.
Everyone who helped Barbara at this time was struck by her dire poverty.
Barbara's welfare benefits were cut in November of 1998; she was one of the millions of American poor affected by the landmark overhaul of the welfare system. Now, with her younger boy starting school, she no longer automatically qualified for aid. She had to seek work and perform community service to keep her benefits. But she fell short on both requirements, and her income plummeted from $670 a month in combined welfare and food stamps to $200 a month in food stamps only.
Lipton's therapists who visited Barbara's home scribbled notes about the destitute conditions. An April 1999 report indicated that a social worker ``brought bread, milk, and a few things client could make a meal from.''
At the Reingold Elementary School in Fitchburg, the boys stood out in their dirty oversize clothes and unwashed hair. When the school secretary, Donna Auger, saw the boys, she often felt heartache because they seemed like such nice boys. Sometimes she wished that the state would simply remove the boys to a functioning home.
Auger also saw the boys hanging around their double-decker apartment at 24 King Place, which was only blocks from her own home. Sometimes the boys asked Auger about her garden and offered to help. Joe and Art were always kind and polite, which Auger took as a sign that the boys' mother did something right.
As Barbara's first-floor unit fell into shambles - a situation made worse by a ceiling leak that went unfixed by the landlord - Barbara reached out now and then for help from her parents.
She had tried so hard to be different from them, but now, as she floundered, she needed them.
Barbara remembers that they stood on the sidelines. They reminded her of her bad decisions. Barbara felt they judged her solely responsible for the mess of her life.
A family broken
In the summer of 1999, DSS social worker Rissa LeVangie, a 22-year-old who had just earned a bachelor's degree from Keene State College in Keene, N.H., became Barbara's fifth social worker in six years. She was an idealistic young college graduate who had her eyes set on a career helping children.
She didn't have much time to catch up on the case before she started getting regular calls from school staff, complaining mostly about the smell and condition of the boys' clothes.
On Jan. 3, 2000, the day after winter vacation ended, LeVangie received a call from someone at Joe's school who said the boy was again giving off a foul odor. Shortly after that, LeVangie and a colleague went to Barbara's apartment in the late morning, and found it ``unfit'' - the floor littered with trash, the kitchen full of dirty dishes and decomposed food, including ``french fries that appeared to be green beans.''
They noticed two old toothbrushes, but no toothpaste. The boys' room had no bureau for clothes. The social workers took pictures as evidence and asked Barbara to clean up by 4 p.m.
Barbara was sweeping the kitchen floor when the social workers returned early, around 2:30 p.m. Their report indicated that Barbara had made some progress, but the apartment was ``not much different.''
LeVangie returned to the office and talked to her supervisors about the agency's last six years with Barbara Paul - how things had sometimes improved slightly, but never for long. Since this was her first serious case, LeVangie leaned heavily on advice from the agency's senior staff members. She found the whole situation sad; there was clearly so much love in the house.
The next day, at 3:30 p.m., Barbara went out, telling her neighbor she was going to fill out job applications at some downtown stores. The neighbor agreed to watch 8-year-old Art. Joe, 13, was out on his paper route. In the late afternoon, when Barbara phoned her neighbor to check on the boys, her neighbor said, ``You should come home.''
She arrived back to her apartment at about 5 p.m. The boys were gone.
Next: Barbara's battle to get her children back.
Patricia Wen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.