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Chapter 7: When Liberty is Not Freedom

I received a phone message from CPS the day after Grace’s re-admission.

If you have never had an encounter with Child Protective Services, it goes like this:

They show up unannounced at your house or your child’s school or call you. They tell you they have received a call or a report and must investigate. They do not tell you who the call was from or what the report was. If they come in person, they flash a badge indicating authority. It is presented as a matter of urgency; you need to talk to them or meet with them right now.

You will answer questions about your parenting and your children and your day-to-day routine with someone you don’t know and your children don’t know, but who has clearly inserted themselves as the child’s advocate because you, the parent, must not be. And they work backwards: guilty until proven otherwise.

It is intimidating.

The last time I thought about CPS was during our evaluation at the psychiatric hospital when I was told they would be called if I did not leave Grace. I was not sure how they now were involved. I called stepdad to tell him about the message I received. We immediately disagreed over how to respond. I planned on being compliant and calling the caseworker back right away (because you now have a case number – hence she is our caseworker). Stepdad believed we should talk to an attorney first.

I called our therapist next and she recommended me talking to CPS as soon as I could. So, I called the caseworker back and she said she was coming over right away.

It is not hard to understand 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. Who knows what the case worker was expecting to find.

The caseworker arrived and I invited her in. I quickly realized I was on trial. I was defending my entire parenting life apart from the previous weekend that possibly precipitated the caseworker calling. She asked things like, do I feed the children? If so, what? Do I pay my electric bill? Where do the children sleep? Do I clean my house? Do I make Grace go to school? I now know these are standard questions they must ask as part of the investigation, and they were not all specific to Grace, some involved my other and older children. 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 food?

She asked me to describe the weekend and I did: the things we did immediately after discharge to get the house ready, the movie night, the next day and the chores/activities, the jello, the running away, the swearing, the cutting, the locking herself in the bathroom, the removal of the door, the soap, the attempt to choke herself. She didn’t ask me any follow up questions at all about the above, but she did need me to give her three references who could vouch for my parenting, and they could not all be family members. She then pulled out a “parenting plan” for me to sign. It was presented as a legally binding document and one that was compulsory. I don’t recall what all was on it but it didn’t matter; I was going to sign whatever I needed to show I was compliant.

I next had to call the three references I gave to the case worker and tell them what happened over the weekend and let them know they would be getting a call from CPS. I had not told anyone about the weekend, but my parents and my boss knew that I had been working with Grace and getting her help. At least they were not entirely unaware that there were problems so when I told them they would be getting a CPS call involving Grace they were not completely surprised. It seemed like as much as I was trying to “contain” or control each situation, the more elusive it became. If I wanted to keep things private, between myself and therapists and stepdad, and move forward as best I could, something else would happen to make “management” impossible.

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 humiliating. And, I learned later – they had pulled Caroline out of school, without my knowledge, to talk to her. It was a singular surprise to me that the state can go talk to your children without your knowledge. The school administration and likely her peers knew before I did.

Stepdad also received a message. He called his attorney who recommended he talk to CPS but that he record his conversation. And the CPS worker was not happy when he told her this as they were sitting down to meet in our dining room. 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. I did not stay in the house while they talked; I went outside.

I was worried and fearful. I did not know if this investigation meant I might lose Caroline. 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.

I was doing all the things we were told to do by health care professionals: medication, therapy with Grace, therapy with just me and stepdad, two stays in a psychiatric hospital; I was in a healthcare and legal loop in which they had more authority and power than I did.

After the second day of her being back at the hospital, I get a call from Grace:

"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.

And here’s what eventually happened:

The initial charge for me was parental neglect and for step dad it was verbal abuse (due to the jello demonstration – me not preventing the demonstration, and step dad doing it). Recall, 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 believed that he did want to help her.

At our next therapy session which was our first time to tell our therapist, in detail, what happened, we find out that CPS had 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 specifically about it.

Stepdad talks about how he wanted her to see that talking about killing herself was a real thing; not some video game. He held this position 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.

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.” Grace drew two pictures, he later said, that led him to think that shooting the red jello jug was a good idea was on a large 22” x 16” sketch pad piece of paper. One was simply the words, “I want to die” written in broad black paintbrush strokes. The second was a gun with the words, “All you have to do is pull the trigger.” The more the days passed, the more he built reasons for why what he did was correct. In hindsight, I think the truth is somewhere between the above and the fact that he had a new gun, and had just received his license to carry, something he was quite proud to have. What better way to make use of his new gun than for an instructional purpose? Except for the obvious: you’ve just demonstrated suicide for someone who has suicide ideation.

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. There was a clear and decisive record of all the resources and therapies I was pursing on behalf of my child. I also discovered that the document, the parenting plan, I was told to sign was neither compulsory nor legally binding.

Our therapist 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 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. During this second time of hospitalization, I keep Grace’s school informed and continue to make sure work is getting to Grace and returned to the school for a grade. I also start to explore the idea of 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 her self-harm, or how her behavior affects others. The psychiatric hospital therapist tells me that Grace was “hypo-manic,” meaning she was super “up” and “bouncy,” and wanted to tell her what happened over the terrible weekend at the house. The therapist said that she thought it was so that Grace could plant her side of the story early, before any discussions with me. But then right after sharing with the therapist, Grace would get really down. The therapist further said that the doctor re-evaluated her and noted he would need to be very aware of boundaries with her because Grace really likes him. At present, they believe she has inappropriate sexual demonstrations and manipulation/lying as ingrained behavior. She said Grace appeared to be overly-interested in what was going on with CPS and that she wanted to make sure nothing was going to happen to stepdad, myself or her bio dad. The therapist told Grace it was out of her hands.

At the in-person visits in the hospital, Grace reminds me about the girl who snuck in a Ouija 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 pay bills. I take care of the yard. I am a parent to my other three. I go to my hair appointments and on one of these appointments, I tell my hairdresser, Monica, 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. We don’t really know anyone in the same circles so I am “safe” in telling her; there will be no risk to my job.

Monica was an inspiring person in her quest to always self-improve. She was a daily Bible reader and her routine consisted of getting up at 5 a.m. each day to be able to make sure she had time to read Scripture. I admired her dedication to make reading such a priority that she got up 2 hours before me every day, just to read the Bible! Over the years our paths crossed at unusual times, outside of the usual every 4 weeks or whatever the schedule was for me that month. Two days after learning my brother committed suicide, from the beginning of this story, I had arrived in California to start the process of gathering his things. She called me because I missed an appointment. I blurted out what happened. She was the first person who I had told that he committed suicide. It stuck with me because it was the first time I had verbalized his suicide to someone over the phone, and outside the family. After a suicide, you remember your “firsts,” in a way that is wholly different than if someone had passed from another cause.

Another time, just in responding to a general, “what have you been doing?” question while getting my color ready, I was telling her about a three-student graduate writing group I had been in and how one of the members had lost her battle with brain cancer and her funeral was today. I was a little shocked by the death because she seemed so well the last time I saw her. Monica asked me her name and when I told her, it turns out my friend was one of Monica’s teachers at a community college a few years prior! Monica said that my friend had missed a couple classes early on due to the diagnosis, and she often wondered how she was doing.

Monica is quiet as I am telling her about what all I’ve been through with Grace. And with stepdad. How hopeless I feel. No way out. She empathizes, 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. She tells me her friend also does counseling on her own but it is private pay and she wishes we could start seeing her. She tells me that her friend can call me and talk to me at the very least if I can’t do private pay. I say ok, even though I am about sick of counselors and the mental health care field. And I really feel like I have all the “experts” I need in my life right now. But, I know Monica wants to help and she texts her friend while I am still at the salon to see if she’ll talk to me. I kind of feel obligated to talk to her now that Monica has reached out to her.

Her friend, Jennifer, does call me the next day while I am on my way to work. She talks to me for a bit about this intensely private and tumultuous journey I am living with Grace - even though she is in a car with her husband. I don’t put much weight on this call because it is not a “real” session; it just ticks the box of Monica trying to help and us making contact. I give her an abbreviated version of what is going on and where we are at. She recommends a book for me, and is encouraging to me as a mom, which was nice. She tells me a little about what she does at the psychiatric facility. The call is uneventful, except that to this day, I recall where I was when I took the call. I was pulling into the parking lot at work, and I can even tell you what street I was on when my cell rang. Why that detail has stuck with me might be an indicator of how important this person would be later.

A 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 your child. Online reviews and newspaper articles about the facilities are easy to find; what is not easy to find is peace at 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? In my mind, it started because I pulled her cell and laptop from her for one day, and she went to the psych hospital where she was exposed to far worse things. Now, we get out of the psych hospital to go to a residential treatment facility, where she will be exposed to even 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. And obviously, Grace was having difficulty before I pulled her cell and laptop, but their removal was the bridge to the wider juvenile mental care system. I just did not understand at the time.

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 compare; 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 Grace begin to be compliant. The therapist, once again, directly 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. I am not respecting his authority. We leave this counseling session at an impasse.

On many levels, I too, want us to have what is the traditional evangelical Christian 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 Biblical standard, might be the thing that is the worst, especially if it is bound up in cherry-picked Scripture.

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 straitjacket 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 willingly 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 from the rest of the group. 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 yearning for 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 thought of having relief, however, is not strong enough to offset the sadness that will come 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. However, 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 back to the outpatient school, which is required, and which, don’t forget, is coincidently 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:

continued cutting,


harming others,

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, insurance involvement, back on the carousel.

It as, as the therapist said when Grace 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. For as much as I had pursued getting Grace in a residential facility and as much as stepdad wanted her out for whatever his reasons were, my parents did not. They were worried, like we all were. They thought it would be life-altering. However, they could more readily remember the happy child who did Easter egg hunts in pinafore dresses, who danced around in a tutu, who invited them to grandparent’s day at school and drew pictures for them. It was getting harder for me to remember that child was the same one I was seeing now.

Next: Chapter 8: Paper Parenting

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