Motherhood on trial

I thought dealing with my sick child was bad. But then I was reported to Child Protective Services for neglect.


Jessica Williams
July 12, 2000 10:27PM (UTC)

My son wasn't gaining weight. At 4 months old, he weighed 13 pounds, 4 ounces, more than double his birth weight. But then he just stopped growing. Not an ounce.

Justin had gained wonderfully on breast milk alone for four months, so when his pediatrician told me to start feeding him formula, I was confused. After receiving a second opinion, my husband and I switched to a pediatrician who supported breast-feeding.

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A simple blood test revealed that Justin's nutritional status was sound. I continued to nurse with frequent reassurance from a lactation consultant. We began supplementing Justin's diet with solid foods and quickly moved to table foods. Justin was eating bigger meals than his 3-year-old brother was, but his weight stayed the same. The doctors and I spent months speculating on the cause of his illness: growth disorders, obscure diseases, chemical contamination. I checked off each possible cause on my ever-growing list, but nothing fit.

Finally, in May, the doctors detected a heart murmur. The same day the murmur was found, Justin surprised us all with a gain of a few ounces -- golden ounces of hope. As troubling as the heart murmur was, at least it represented a baby step toward an explanation. Justin slowly gained a few ounces every week, but he still wasn't even on the growth chart.

But I had a new problem. I was being investigated by Child Protective Services for neglect.

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It was June. My husband and I had just ended an 800-mile drive home from a visit to a metabolic specialist, and we were exhausted. The test results had come back negative. Late that night, as we attempted to pull ourselves together for the next day, the telephone rang. My husband's voice began to change as he spoke to the caller. He handed me the phone and said, "Your Aunt Dee called Child Protective Services."

My mother was on the other end of the line. She told me that her sister had spoken to numerous family members about my son. The relatives I had visited in Oregon had told Dee that I looked underweight, anxious and defensive. They were right. We had just driven 14 hours to take our son to a specialist, and I was exhausted. My mother tried to comfort me by telling me everything would be all right. I told her she couldn't possibly know.

After I hung up the phone, my husband and I stood next to our sleeping son's bassinet, shocked by what we'd just learned. Our situation looked suspicious. I realized that my insistence on breast-feeding could be misunderstood.

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Dee had just received her nursing license. This overzealous aunt, someone who had never even met my son or seen my home, had made a call that would change our lives forever. From her tower of judgment 1,300 miles away, she drew conclusions. To her, a rare disorder wasn't as plausible as neglect. Without even speaking to me about her concerns, she had called Child Protective Services, and told someone there that she believed I wasn't feeding my son correctly. When she had learned that I had transferred Justin's care to a pediatrician who supported breast-feeding, she was sure I was purposely depriving my son of the "proper" nutrition.

I expected a visit from a social worker the next morning. After two days, and no new information, I called CPS myself. I demanded to speak with the person who was handling my case. When I got her on the line, I explained that I knew about my aunt's referral and wanted to know what was coming next. She laughed and said she had never had an accused parent call her and offer to come in for an evaluation before.

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"I have been wrongfully accused," I said, "I want to clear this up." We set up an appointment for that day.

In the caseworker's office that day, Justin began to fall asleep in his car seat. I tried to answer all of her questions about Justin's health, but I couldn't give her a good reason as to why he wasn't gaining weight.

She began to ask me about my own health. "You look like you are underweight. Why is that?" she asked. I explained that I'd always been a thin person, and after suffering from a bad stomach virus, I had lost some weight. She took notes and asked for my doctor's name.

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I gave her a list of phone numbers to call. The numbers were of doctors and social workers I had met during my pregnancy, the people who had helped me successfully prevent another preterm birth. I listed friends and family, La Leche League members, nurses who were at the delivery of my son.

"Call them," I said. "Call them and ask them about me and my family."

As I was leaving, I began to fight back tears of anger. Why did I have to explain myself to this stranger? How could she possibly have the power to decide if I was a good parent? Then I began to get frightened. Justin had slept the whole time. I should have awakened him and let her see him crawling and playing. Would she think he was lethargic, weak and passive?

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She noticed my anguish and put her hand on my shoulder. "I am not going to take your children away," she said. I wanted to believe her. But she had spoken about my greatest fear as if she were offering a passing comfort -- one she makes every day. Then she asked me to sign legal release forms allowing her to obtain records and documents from any person or agency that had had any contact with our children -- doctors, nurses, preschool teachers. The background check began the minute I left her office.

Despite the support of my doctors, and of friends and family who saw my son on a regular basis, CPS continued its investigation behind closed doors.

During the first few months of the investigation, I received calls from people on the list that I had given my caseworker. "I just talked to CPS," they'd say. Each new call provoked new questions: Had CPS gathered enough information? Would it close my case now?

My motherhood was being scrutinized under the assumption that I was guilty of not caring for my child -- and it was breaking my heart.

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During the six long months of the investigation, I stared at my front door, frightening myself with images of ominous officials breaking through the door and ripping my children from my arms. I loitered by my mailbox, waiting for something, anything, from the CPS office.

Justin began to have problems again. But this time, his health was not the issue. He had developed a case of "white-coat syndrome" -- he was terrified by the doctors and weekly weigh-ins at the clinic down the street.

CPS had instructed me to take my son to the clinic when the investigation began. But it could give me no idea when I could stop subjecting him to this weekly ritual. About three months into the weigh-ins, I called my caseworker and explained that my son was now crying when we pulled up to the clinic in the car.

When I placed Justin on the scale, he would grab my hair and hold on for dear life while his older brother stood by, crying and yelling at the nurse, "Why are you hurting my brother?" We would all leave the clinic in tears, even though Justin's improved weight would be dutifully noted on the small piece of paper I held in my hand. "Just a few more times," my caseworker said.

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Justin had to see the pediatrician once a month. He would seem to be in good spirits while playing with the toys in the waiting room, but as soon as the nurse called his name, the screaming began. His doctor is a wonderful man -- patient and caring. He and I would sit for nearly an hour, distracting Justin while he tried to sneak the stethoscope on his back to listen to his healing heart. Most times, he didn't weigh him. I would bring in my little record of weight gain from the clinic instead. When Justin had gained about 5 pounds, the doctor "graduated" him to yearly visits. "I don't want to see this boy again until he is 2," he said, smiling. I thanked him tearfully.

But the weekly weigh-ins continued. Every month I called my caseworker to ask if we could stop. Each call was more difficult. I was afraid she would interpret my request as a sign that I was hiding something. Each time, she'd say: "Just a few more times."

I began looking for a therapist. But every time I set up an appointment, I canceled it at the last minute. I was afraid CPS would see my therapy as a flaw, as evidence that I was not emotionally fit to be a parent. I was stuck in a cycle. The more CPS leaned on us, the more fearful and irrational I became. And the more I showed my emotions to those around me, the more suspicious I looked to CPS.

Finally, in November, just three months after Justin's first birthday, my caseworker called. She had been contacted by the nurse who was in charge of Justin's weigh-ins at the clinic. The nurse told her that, in her professional opinion, subjecting my family to this traumatic weekly ritual was setting us up for a severe obsession over Justin's weight. She said that she no longer wanted to be involved in our case because it was too painful to watch. She told her that it was not healthy for me to worry compulsively about whether or not my son had gained a few ounces each week. My caseworker talked to her supervisor and informed me that once Justin reached 20 pounds, we would be released from the clinic visits. He weighed 19 pounds, 11 ounces the day the nurse called.

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Because Justin was gaining rapidly, I went to the clinic for what I believed would be my last time. The nurse told me of her conversation with my caseworker, and smiled as she assured me it would all be over soon. Then we began our small talk as I undressed Justin for the scale. He had been crying, and now gave in submissively. We talked about how he had suffered from the horrible cold that was going around. I wiped his crusty nose and we placed him on the scale. She had the scale marker ready at his previous weight. The scale didn't tip. I looked at the nurse in terror. She took my hand and, with her other hand, slowly moved the scale marker backward. Justin had lost 5 ounces. I started sobbing. In my mind, this was all the evidence CPS needed to take him from me.

I called my caseworker's office when I got home; I was going to be the first to tell her. I would also be the first to dare her to take my children away from me. But she wasn't there. Her receptionist informed me that she was on a weeklong vacation.

I hung up the phone and called the nurse at the clinic. "Free up Friday," I said, "we are going to weigh him again before she gets back." She tried to comfort me: "Every child loses a little weight during an illness," she said. We were not going to let it affect the case -- not when we were so close.

On Friday, we weighed Justin again. The scale read 20 pounds exactly. The nurse and I embraced. When I got home, I went into the bathroom, picked up our scale and calmly carried it to the garbage bin in the driveway. It was over.

I received a letter in the mail from CPS about two weeks later. It stated that "no conclusive evidence of neglect was found at this time, but we suggest you continue to follow our recommendations for six more months; your cooperation with our office will be taken into account should we receive another referral."

I tried desperately to allow the letter to be a comfort, but instead, it was a direct reminder that no matter how well I care for my children, no matter how wonderful a parent I am, I have been investigated by CPS. And no matter what I do, I cannot prevent it from happening again.


Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams is a freelance writer living in Montana. Her work has appeared in Pregnancy Today and Parenting Magazine, among other publications.

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