Because they are our neighbors and friends, I have changed the names of the mother and children in the story below to protect their identity.

Tears streamed down her face, which was just inches from her son’s.

“I love you so much, Jose,” she said, squeezing him tightly against her. “I love you with everything that is in my heart. My whole heart. I would do anything for you, son.” She shudders and closes her eyes with every word. I’ve never seen anyone mean anything so sincerely.

Her tears were joyful tears. She was hugging the son that just minutes earlier she thought she might lose. In fact, she left her house with her 3-year-old son that morning knowing that she might not return home with him. The courts had caught up with her and sent a DSS social worker to her home with orders to be in court at 9 the next morning. The social worker made sure to remind Sylvia that she could have come with the Boston Police and taken her son away from her. Amazingly, Sylvia held it together through the unexpected visit, the intimidation, the fear.

OK, the other side of the story. It’s long, of course. A story full of abuse, allegations, missteps, coping mechanisms, and pain — lots of pain. Sylvia has six kids, only two of which she has custody of. Jose, the aforementioned 3-year-old, and Penelope, who is 2. She unjustly lost the other four, all older, several years ago, because unsubstantiated claims were made about her and her children. She had Jose just after she lost her other kids (three of whom, she found out last week, are now adopted and will never again be in her custody). He wasn’t supposed to live, and was in fact expected to be stillborn or have major birth defects.

But when he was born healthy, Sylvia called him her “miracle baby.” She also knew she couldn’t allow this miracle baby to be taken from her, as her other children had. This is where things get fuzzy: The short of it is, though, that for the next three years, Sylvia intentionally flew underneath the radar of the courts and the DSS that would rather her not become a mother again. She knew better, after all — she was a good mother. She gave Jose to her sister when things became too rough to manage. She had only done drugs as a way to cope with her children being taken from her. She was getting help for her anger. Everything she did — good or bad — was with them on her mind and heart. She knew she was no match for the bureaucratic juggernaut that is the Justice System, so she subverted it. Whether this was right or wrong, maternal love and instincts always win. I’d challenge any mother in a similar situation to say, without a doubt, that they wouldn’t have done the same thing.

But Sylvia was alone.

Her husband was unsupportive at best and malicious at worst, and would eventually — after giving her little Penelope one year after Jose — end up in prison. His family made outrageous claims to DSS about Sylvia’s competence as a mother and, to this day, stands as her main barrier to that quiet, undisturbed life with her children that she so desperately desires. Her family was downright backstabbing. When Sylvia refused to sell drugs for her dealer dad as a way to provide for her children, her father basically disowned her and turned her entire family against her. Dysfunction defined.

To this day, Sylvia has no family support to speak of.

But last Tuesday, a family stood beside her in an airy courtroom before a cynical judge as advocates for the woman and mother Sylvia has become. In situations like this, the chips are stacked against poor, Hispanic, single moms with no education or family. The only hope, as Sylvia knew when she prayed the night before in her living room, that God be the judge, not man.

The family that waited with her for five excruciating hours in court, and stood next to her in front of a judge wielding the power to destroy her life, was not a blood family, but a hodge-podge collection of neighbors who showed up to say that Sylvia is a good mother. She loves her children and would never hurt them. She has made mistakes in her past and has so far to go, but goodness gracious, so do I. So do we all.

But Sylvia is a wonderful mother. Jose is in Head Start and takes special classes for a slight speech impediment. They both are up-to-date with medical and dental care and eat about as well as WIC children can. Sylvia prays with and reads to Jose and Penelope before bed, takes them out of the house despite the difficulty, and is working toward her GED in order to go back to work. She is completely sober (over a year now) and has a 24-7 support system comprised of what might be the best neighbors on the planet. “It takes a village,” after all, right?

None of that mattered in front of that judge last Tuesday, though. “Is this Jose? Where has he been the last three years? We’ve been looking for him,” the judge called down callously and condescendingly. This judge had never visited Sylvia at home, seen her children happily playing on the living room floor or bouncing along on a pumpkin patch hayride. She had a limited scope of what had happened in the previous years and only had one concern: Where has Jose been the last three years and is he OK now? A fair question, but one deserving of a complete answer. If only Sylvia could sit down with the judge and tell her story as she had told us the previous night, with the same tears. Then, maybe, the judge would rule with compassion, or at least treat her like a human.

The judge’s ruling was that Sylvia will have temporary custody of Jose until the next hearing in January, when she’ll get to do it all again. The waiting, the praying, the crying, the confusion, the judge. In January, after home visits and reference checks, a final decision will be made as to Jose’s final destination. He’ll either stay with the mother who has said she would sacrifice her own life for his or go into the custody of the cold, bureaucratic State. Tuesday’s tears and emphatic declarations of love for her son were a result of two more months with a son with whom she thought she had just a few more hours. That’s grace.

You haven’t seen agony until you’ve seen a mother awaiting word on whether or not she’ll keep her child. There’s no description befitting of that scene, and no mother on Earth — I don’t care what she’s done — that deserves it. For the last two years, and for at least the next two months, Sylvia tucks two angelic children into bed each night, but every time with the sobering knowledge that four more out there are going to bed without her touch. As happy as she is to have Jose and Penelope, Sylvia yearns to have all her children underneath one roof, eating at her table, growing in love for each other and her.

Sound familiar?


3 responses to this post.

  1. We’ve met people in similar circumstances and the thing that hits me so hard is the total love of the children for their families, no matter what odds and at times abuse that they face. I have a friend who worked at a woman’s shelter who saw the state sweep in and tear apart families time after time and she saw that it can cause more damage. The best solution is community and working with the whole family. We are too judgmental of the struggling parent and need to help them overcome their faults so that everyone will benefit. Thanks for sharing “Sylvia’s” story. May grace abound and love conquer all.


  2. Posted by ConcernedEngineer on November 13, 2007 at 5:06 pm

    “There’s no description befitting of that scene, and no mother on Earth — I don’t care what she’s done — that deserves it.”

    This is simply not true. If a woman is causing her children physical harm (and I’m not talking about spanking – which I support) – but if a woman is physically abusing her children, then the state not only has the God-given authority, but the responsibility to take the children away.

    That doesn’t appear to be the situation in this case, but you went too far in that particular comment.

    I hope and pray that everything turns out well for Sylvia. I think it is great that y’all are reaching out to her, and going to bat for her.


  3. Posted by Daniel Gray on November 14, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    CE — Just a compliment… you’re really good at decontextualizing things…


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