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Parent Perspective

A Mother’s Story: Losing My Kids Turned Me Into an Activist

 Sharwline Nicholson

I became an activist when my children were removed because my ex-boyfriend came to my house and attacked me. In family court, I talked to other women and realized that it was normal for poor mothers to lose their kids just because they themselves were abused. Sadly, I also found that women in court were telling each other, “Don’t fight the system. Just do what they say so you can get your kids back.”

I said to myself, “I left my abusive boyfriend. I’ve been taking good care of my kids. I’ve done everything I’m supposed to and I’m still in this predicament.” In court, they were saying, “Admit your guilt.” But I wasn’t guilty, so I wouldn’t.

It was as if a tornado had taken off my roof and everything had exploded. I was destroyed, and now I had to put the pieces together. With a broken arm, fractured ribs and a head injury, I could not for a minute think about the physical pain I was going through from the blows. I put my hurt to the back of my mind and worked on the best way to take care of my children. All my time was spent wondering, “Where are my children? What are they eating? Are they going to school? How am I going to get them back?”

Compared to other mothers in my situation, I was lucky to get my children back after three weeks. But when you’re innocent, having your children taken away even for a day is humiliating and devastating. Three weeks were like three years.

When you’re a victim of domestic violence, you are so stereotyped. People automatically assume that you did something wrong. They think that you must be lying or not telling the whole story. And sometimes the systems set up to help victims turn you away when you don’t meet exacting criteria. For example, when it was unsafe to return to my home, the shelter wouldn’t accept me because I didn’t have the kids with me.

My daughter was a 9-month-old infant and my son was about to turn 5 when they were taken away in a police car with flashing lights. For years after, when my son saw a cop or flashing lights he would literally run. I think he’s dealing with that much better now. In fact, my family is doing superbly. My daughter is 12 and my son is 17.

As terrible as it was, I believe that I had to take this journey. I now advocate for women and try to help them navigate the system. Women feel powerless, and many find comfort by talking to me. After I got my children back, I also became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit to force the New York City foster care system to stop taking children from their mothers simply because their mothers were abused. I was very pleased when we won and our case sparked interest across the country. It was a start.

Nationally, we need to put more thought into how to strengthen families in need. People should not be punished for being poverty-stricken. They should be helped when they’re victims of violence. Our policies should focus on keeping families together. I would love to see balance of harm. Domestic violence is harmful, but it’s also harmful to separate children from mothers who love them.

Several years ago, I got involved with the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), a group of parents who advocate for system change. I was a guest presenter at a meeting, and I could truly sense the anger the parents were feeling and the encouragement and empowerment I had to give. I knew that by joining a group I could have an impact on a multitude of people. Now I’m the president of CWOP’s board of directors.

I do presentations nationwide at conferences on the topic of domestic violence and child welfare. Hopefully, my participation helps to push forward legislation that will encourage more parent voices in the system and will bring about changes for the better for parents and children dealing with domestic violence.

Expanded and reprinted with permission from the Spring 2007 issue of Rise, published by Youth Communication (risemagazine.org).

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Anonymous @ 10/9/2010 2:49:54 PM 
Good for you. I work in a chemical dependenancy progam. Over 1/2 the women here are trying to get their children back. I believe there is a lot of injustice in the system. I speak to broken hearted women on a daily basis. They are terified of the sytem. GREAT WORK!!!
Anonymous @ 7/23/2010 8:06:21 AM 
This true story causes me to read it over and over again.I see victors not victims
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