They wandered lost in the wilderness, alone and out of the way; they found no city to dwell in.
If you have never had an encounter with the Child Protective Services, it goes like this:
They call or simply show up.
They tell you they have received a call or a report and must investigate.
You have no choice.
It is presented as a matter of urgency.
You must now talk about your parenting and your children with someone you do not know, who has clearly presented themselves as the child’s advocate – because you, the parent, must not be.
They do not tell you who made the report.
And they work backwards: guilty until proven otherwise.
It is intimidating and it is scary.
I received a phone message from CPS the day after Grace’s re-admission.
I called stepdad to tell him about the message I had received. We immediately disagreed over how to respond. I planned on being compliant and telling the case worker (because you now have a case number – hence she is our caseworker) what happened over the weekend. Stepdad believed we should talk to an attorney first.
I called our therapist next and she recommended me talking to the CPS worker as soon as I could. So, I called the caseworker back and she came over to my house.
It is not hard to see why they would want to come over. A child, who was just released from the psych ward, was taken to a field, and watched a simulated gun to the brain event.
I soon felt like I was on trial, like I was defending my own parenting. She asked things like, do I feed the children? If so, what? Do I pay my electric bill? Do I make Grace go to school? I now know there are standard questions they must ask as part of the investigation, and they were not all specific to Grace. But – at the time, I thought they were all specific to whoever called or made a report. Someone was saying I did not pay my light bill? I didn't provide groceries?
It is hard as I write this to be impartial. I know that there are countless people who need to have questions like this asked - and the jello incident, in my mind, makes this incident one of those times.
My frustration is that all it takes is a phone call, or a report (the caller/reporter gets the protection of anonymity) for CPS to turn your world upside down and for you to begin to have to answer to them for your parenting and how you will parent in the future. You are asked to sign a parenting plan, saying that you will adhere to what they are telling you to do. I had to give her three references to call who could vouch for my parenting. This then meant I had to tell these people what happened, and to be prepared for a phone call from CPS. The CPS caseworker’s view of your situation is but a snapshot, and they don’t take the time, or don’t have time, to look at the entire album. It is a flawed system. The default position of CPS is that you, the parent, are abusive. It’s unnerving and it’s a bit humiliating. And, I learned later – they had pulled Caroline out of school, without my knowledge, to talk to her.
After the second day of her being back at the hospital, I get a call from Grace from the psychiatric ward.
"Hey mom, how are you?"
She was upbeat and perky, like she was just calling me from a friend’s house. She was fishing for information. Grace never asked how I am. Or how anyone is. I discovered later that she had told someone at the hospital about her experience at the home for those few days and this person was required to report. I was confident the version presented was less than whole, and Grace was trying to determine if anything had happened yet by making a phone call to me.
Stepdad did talk to his attorney who recommended he record his conversation. And the CPS worker was not happy when he told her this as they were sitting down to meet. In fact, the CPS worker stepped outside to call her supervisor to see if stepdad could record. Stepdad was clear he wasn’t talking to them without recording it. And, this made the conversation antagonistic from the start. Their conversation happened in the living room at my house.
We both were worried. I did not know if this meant I might lose Caroline. What would her dad do with this information? Does this go on a record somewhere? What will Caroline’s school do with this information? Not to mention – how this must have made Caroline feel to be pulled out of class to talk to a stranger. Stepdad’s concerns were similar. And – I was doing ALL the things we were told to do by health care professionals: medication, therapy, and my child was in a psych hospital against my initial wishes; I was now in a healthcare loop in which they had more authority and power than I did.
And here’s what eventually happened:
The charge for me was parental neglect and for step dad it was verbal abuse (due to the jello demonstration). Reader, know that at the time I was talking to CPS, I had no idea what my charge was. I wasn’t sure if they were investigating us pulling everything out of her room as we had been instructed or if it was something embellished that came from someone else, or if it was something I said. I thought the jello demonstration was nuts, but I also knew that he did really want to help her.
At our next therapy session, obviously without Grace present because she was at the hospital, we find out that CPS has already called the therapist and spoken to her. They weren’t concerned about the removing of the bathroom door, the washing out of her mouth with soap, but they were concerned about the jello demonstration. The therapist asks us about it.
Stepdad talks about how he wanted her to see that talking about killing herself was a real thing; not some video game. As time would go on, he would come to rationalize his “example” even more, and never backed down from believing it was “the right thing to do,” despite knowing it triggered a CPS investigation for both of us, a parenting plan, and health care professionals and family members uniformly saying this was a colossally bad idea. We were even both asked at the first discharge if there were guns in the home. If so, we had to sign a document that said we would keep them locked up, which we did. I suppose in his mind it meant that if he wanted to get it out however, and have in his possession, he could. I took it to mean – you don’t need guns around this child for any reason.
I don’t recall what all the therapist said; I do know that in no uncertain terms she was very clear with him that this was wrong. I believe to this day he probably still stands by his demonstration; because he really can’t take another position.
There were CPS follow up calls with both me and stepdad individually and with the therapist and the hospital. The case was dismissed after weeks of agonizing over things like: will this cost me my job? Will I have a record? When I go interview for a job, will this be on some record somewhere? What if they find me guilty? Who all have they called to check my credibility? And, CPS moves glacially slow when telling you they have dismissed the case. I understand the alarm at the event; I do not understand the extended scrutiny when I had done everything the mental healthcare providers and system either recommended or outright forced me to do, like admit my child to a psych hospital. There was a clear and decisive record of all the resources and therapies I was pursing on behalf of my child.
And, our therapist eventually let stepdad know that were it not for her ability to say to the CPS caseworker that she did not think he was a risk, that this case would not have been dismissed. She was the most important and critical voice we had in dealing with the aftermath of his visual lesson. And - what got lost in all of this was the focus was taken off of Grace. It was taken off of her continuing to self-harm, continuing to escalate a situation until she got what she wanted, continuing to refuse to let anyone in to help her.
We talk about what could possibly happen next and the therapist tells us about residential homes. She tells us that there are “homes” for juveniles that help them make emotional and behavioral changes. It is not a good option she tells us, and, as with the juvenile psychiatric hospitals, she says there is not one that you want to send your child to.
Since this is our second time at the hospital, I know the routine. I know about the scheduled times to call and to visit. I am much more assertive in my calls to talk to the therapists who are working with Grace. This means, if I don’t get a call back on the same day, I am calling first thing in the morning. If I don’t get a call back in the morning, I call in the afternoon, and repeat – until I get a call back.
At the visits in the hospital, Grace tells me about the girl who snuck in a Ouiji board. Grace said they asked it questions and it moved; she believed it. This girl also told Grace she had power to turn things on and off – and that night, the sink fountain turned on by itself, according to Grace. Grace is enjoying her newest set of friends. My updates from the therapist at the psych hospital tell me that Grace is “normalizing” her behaviors. She sees nothing wrong with anything she has done or is thinking of doing – even when the behaviors are in fact, risky and unhealthy. I want them to “fix” her. But, they can only keep her as long as they can get the insurance company to agree, and I am reminded, they are there just to stabilize.
My other life, my outside life that the world sees continues on. I go to work. I do the household chores. I am a parent to my other three. I go to my hair appointments... and on one of these appointments, I tell my hairdresser what has been going on. I am mentally exhausted, I am tired, I am sad. And I'm not really sure why I chose to tell her - but I do. She empathsizes - and guess what? Her best friend is a counselor at this exact psychiatric hospital. She works in a different area with adults, but she is there. What a coincidence. My hairdresser tells me that her friend can call me and talk to me. I say ok, even though I am about sick of counselors and the mental health care field. Her friend, Jennifer, does call me the next day while I am on my way to work. She talks to me at length, recommends a book for me, and is mainly encouraging. She tells me a little about what she does at the psychiatric facility. Just the fact that I can talk to someone who knows both self harm, and the facility that Grace is at is helpful. And - how nice of her just to call me as a favor to our mutual friend.
During this second time of hospitalization, I keep her school informed and continue to make sure work is getting to Grace and returned to the school for a grade. I also start to research the “homes,” our therapist mentioned, called residential facilities, because now the therapist at the hospital is telling me that Grace might be a candidate, because Grace just does not seem to care about what she’s done, or how her behavior affects others.
The residential facility is a place your child goes to live for a period of time determined in large part by the insurance company and in small part by the provider. These facilities are for youth who have had a history of “treatment failure.” They are incapable of functioning in a regular setting. There are nurses, therapists, and counselors present. They live in a dorm-like setting but without the associated “fun” of being in a true dorm.
None of them are places you want to place your child. Online reviews and newspaper articles are easy to find; what is not easy is imagining your child in an environment in which riots occur, juveniles are transferred in from jail and detention centers, and kids escape. The only way to determine which place to choose is to look at which one is the least bad and is also covered by insurance. I was already concerned about what Grace was exposed to at the psych hospital, I knew this would be even worse. And during the research, your mind always goes back to square one: How did we even get here? When this first began, I was initially worried about her social media behavior. I pulled those elements from her for one day, and she went to the psych hospital where she was exposed to far worse things. Now, we will get out of the psych hospital to possibly go to residential treatment, where she will be exposed to even far worse things than the psych hospital. It’s like the Hydra from mythology: when you cut off one head, two grow back in its place. The entire situation was uncontrollable, made worse, I believe, by the hospital stays – and, of course, Grace’s decision to continue to be oppositional, to continue to orchestrate the drama of it all – or at least that is how it seemed to be playing out sometimes. I just did not understand.
And then – as a mom, as the one who is watching your child from afar, experiencing the things she has . . . you are without hope. Failure was the word that never seemed to leave me: I failed. I had outside people telling me I had failed, but no one was as hard on me about it as I was on myself. I had lost a child.
Grace’s regular therapist made a point to me sometime during Grace’s second stay that was the sole reason the next part of the journey was even bearable: You must protect Caroline at this point. Grace in the home is now a detriment to Caroline.
So, my efforts to save the one child, the resources, time, money spent helping the one have done nothing. You might have to fully lose one to save the other.
When this was made clear to me, I began to put my efforts toward getting Grace admitted to a residential facility for the protection of Caroline. And I felt like I was back in a role I could fulfill – I knew how to research places; I knew how to guide; I knew how to make decisions; I knew how to weigh options.
In our next therapy session with our regular therapist, stepdad thinks I am too lenient. He again makes his analogy with a horse. Only after being broken, can she begin to be compliant. The therapist challenges stepdad that a person is not horse and cannot be treated the same.
I on the other hand, think that if I can just say the right words to her, or illustrate to her what she is doing – somehow get through to her, that she might come out of this. Yet, she ignores me. She hates me. And I am not using the word “hate” lightly. I tried writing Grace emotion-filled letters to behave, I tried reward and punishment, I tried charts.
The counselor underscores we need to come to an agreement on parenting because my parenting and stepdad's are not in alignment. Stepdad believes I’ve been a failure and, again, Ephesians 5:22. We leave this counseling session at an impasse.
On many levels, I too, want us to have what used to be the traditional family: mom, dad, siblings. As I reflect, there was no way that would ever be attainable. We didn’t even live in the same city! And were making no moves toward that. My two oldest were in college at this point; and his three and my two remaining at home did not even get along that well. The very ideals you seek to emulate because they are held up as the standard, might be the thing that is the worst for you.
I call the residential facility that is the least bad and begin initial exploration. I am told by an intake counselor that it sounds like she would be a probable candidate due to behavior and that she is on her second hospitalization, however I need to release records from the hospital to the residential facility before anything can happen. I sign a release at the hospital that day; the hospital neglects to fax over her records – for days. We lost precious time. Why was this window important? It is easier to get your child admitted to a residential facility straight from the hospital versus being discharged, going home, and then getting admitted to residential from the child’s own home. Also, if the child goes straight from the hospital, the residential facility can take a van and pick your child up. Then, the parents can follow in their own vehicle. Or – the parents can take the child from the hospital (if there is no concern of a flight risk) to the facility.
The residential facility and the hospital both thought she would be a flight risk, so the van going straight from the hospital would be the best option for her. In my mind, the scene unfolds with Grace coming out of the hospital in a straight jacket and being placed in the back of a secured van. I am sure it is not like that – but she was going from one restricted environment to another. I say restricted, but yet, she was being exposed to more there than she certainly was at our house. She was hearing about experiences that she could have never imagined. And now, she has them in mind.
I take a day and drive down to the facility to explore it and meet with the staff. It is depressing, no matter how happy they try to make it look and regardless of the name. This facility was in, ironically, Liberty. The setting is like a camp, so the acreage is pretty – but there are reminders everywhere that this is in fact, no camp that a child would willing go. The lobby, where I waited for my appointment, was very nice – like a business reception area. There was a photo album on the coffee table whose contents I remember to this day. There were letters and photos from previous residents, and many of the letters were what I wanted my story to be: My child was oppositional, self-harming, depressed, always in trouble, anti-social, hated his family, and this facility and the counselors turned him/her around. Our lives are wonderful now, we thank you forever. I wanted to be in that album. Letters and cards detailed some experiences that were similar to mine, others that were worse - but the outcomes were all what I wanted: my child back.
I took a tour and in addition to the dorms there is a common room with a white board that lists behaviors that are not acceptable, and who violated what rule that day. There is a bed in the common area for the resident who needs to be isolated. They have classes during the day, but her graduating on time is not likely. There are daily peer group sessions, daily therapy sessions and a very routinized schedule. They are not attached to any religious belief or organization whatsoever. So, a summer camp-like set up, but without the fun and the family love that generally is what sends a child away to camp. Even if she came out as a best-case scenario like in the photo albums in the business center, she will have missed the rites of high school passage: track, friends, proms, movies – all those things that go into the making of so many of our memories and who we are. For her – it will be: residential treatment facility. Not high school.
Yet - there is a feeling of relief that the chaos could be out of my house. I won’t walk in my home and feel oppression and darkness. I won’t walk in my house not knowing what I will encounter. This sense of having relief is more than offset by the sadness that comes in knowing I have a child who won’t live with me. I feel embarrassed that I bombed at parenting. I feel like a piece of me is going to be torn out of my heart and gone forever. I don’t understand where she is.
Records are sent eventually, and it looks like Grace will be approved for residential– and then there is no bed available when it comes time to discharge Grace, 11 days later, because her delayed records meant delayed placement on the list. They suspect a bed will be available in about a week. What do we do with her for a week? She will go to outpatient school, which is required, and which coincidently is run by the same private group of doctors who run the psychiatric hospital. I do wonder, in retrospect, if the hospital intentionally delayed sending hospital records so that Grace was now forced to attend the affiliated outpatient school run by the same private group of doctors. I think it’s a possibility. If I do not send her to outpatient, they will refer me to CPS. Again.
When the admissions counselor at the residential facility told me that there was no bed available for her, he gave me the following scenarios:
Upon discharge, she resumes therapy with our regular therapist. If she starts to backslide, the therapist would be considered the “present provider” and she could make the recommendation for residential treatment that the insurance company would consider. However, the timing on this was tricky. If the insurance company sees a child was discharged on a Friday and by next Monday, the current provider (our therapist in this instance) is recommending residential – then that will raise a red flag that the parents simply want the child out of the house UNLESS the following criteria are present:
exhibiting a need to be monitored in a medical environment 24/7
He suggested that after discharge, that either our therapist can do an evaluation on Grace for referral for residential, or they can do it. This way, they can go to the insurance company and say: She has had 2 hospital stays, 2 out patient school stints, a present therapist referral and a current evaluation from the residential facility.
I asked about “in-between” options – behavior schools for example. The intake counselor said there were “social model programs,” but they were not covered by insurance.
By Grace coming home, it will be harder for her to get admitted to the residential facility. If she shows that she can function in the home – e.g., she goes to bed, she gets up, she goes to outpatient school - then the need for residential no longer exists, and we will have to start all over. What does that mean? It means we wait for the avalanche, the darkness, the expletives coming out of her mouth, the defiance, and finally – the self-harm. Then, we go right back to the psych hospital, and start over. Average 10 day stay, battle over giving her more and more meds, Grace makes new “friends,” Grace normalizing whatever her last event was that got her admitted, 3000.00 out of pocket.
It as, as the therapist said when she first got admitted to the psych hospital, out of my control.
So, outpatient school is what is next for us. For 6 weeks.
Stepdad is angry in general, and angry in specific at me that she is coming back instead of going immediately to residential.
And I am spent.
Next: Chapter 9: Out Patient School
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