Names have been changed.
The first time New York City’s child welfare agency, ACS, leeched itself onto my world, I was 15.
I was dozing in a chair beside my mom’s hospital bed. Then the curtain was pulled back, and a stylish woman clutching a small leatherbound notebook to her chest walked in. Another insurance worker double-checking information, I thought.
The scarily energetic woman introduced herself as Ms. Taylor, then said “ACS” and “children,” confusing me. Then she asked my mom, “Is there anyone to take her home?”
My mom looked as puzzled as I was. “I can call her uncle,” she replied tentatively.
My mom later explained to me that someone had told ACS, which stands for Administration for Children’s Services, about her alcohol addiction.
I assumed the hospital made the call because my mother’s alcoholism had gotten so extreme she’d been to the hospital to detox 10 times in just a few months.
My mom realized she could lose her kids. She was provoked and afraid—feelings that she dealt with by drinking.
Ms. Taylor had told us the worst possible outcome was foster care. But she didn’t say much about it, which helped me believe we’d never get to that.
Ms. Taylor first came to our home a week after we met her in the hospital. She greeted my mom and me excitedly before turning her attention to my 9-year-old sister.
“Hi! My name is Ms. Taylor,” she enthusiastically waved. “What’s your name?”
In a quiet voice, my sister said, “Evelyn.”
Ms. Taylor complimented her name, then our house. She asked our plans for the upcoming weekend.
I wondered, if all ACS does is talk about trivial things, then how do they fix my mom so she could take care of us like she used to?
Ms. Taylor asked where we slept, what we ate, and how we got to school. She looked in our refrigerator. I didn’t like the scrutiny, but I had to admit it made sense. If her job was to find signs of child neglect and malnourishment, she needed to do this.
But she asked the same questions over and over again, which made me feel like I had something to be guilty about.
After a few meetings, she asked to speak to me alone. In the spare room, she asked quietly, sympathetically, “Do you ever see your mom drinking?”
“Not with my own eyes, no.”
“Do you know where she drinks?”
“No,” I lied. I knew she drank at the garage that my dad ran before he died. Since his death, my mom had taken over the paperwork and managing the employees. It was right near our house, and my Uncle Barry, my dad’s brother, worked there too.
“How often do you see her drunk?”
Could ACS Help?
“Like…” I decided to tell the truth because I wanted ACS to help my mom. “Most of the week.”
She wrote that down and asked, “Does she ever hit you or your sister?”
“No.” I answered, thankful I could be honest about this. “Never.”
Ms. Taylor met with my sister afterwards. My mom sat me down immediately after Ms. Taylor left and asked me in a whisper what she’d asked me and how I answered. I lied to my mom so she wouldn’t be angry.
After that, Ms. Taylor told the three of us that ACS was doing a 60-day investigation. And after those 60 days, it was clear my mom was addicted.
We now had an “open case.” The possibility of being taken away from my mom had become real.
I went online to research ACS. Its website says it works hard to keep families together, and Ms. Taylor said repeatedly that was her goal. But my mom said their job was to tear us apart.
Four months after the case was opened, another family services organization, Sheltering Arms, came into the picture. Mr. Khan of Sheltering Arms also asked me questions, but seemed friendlier than Ms. Taylor.
“Do you have any careers in mind?” Mr. Khan asked.
“I want to be a wildlife vet when I grow up.”
He smiled and told me about his friend who went abroad as a veterinarian. He seemed calm, and surprisingly, I felt the same way talking to him.
Ms. Peterson from Sheltering Arms was like a kind but strict grandmother. She waddled into our home with her small purse and hugged us like we were her long-lost family.
She seemed to care about our well being. She didn’t scribble things in a notebook after each sentence or examine our house. I didn’t feel judged.
Mr. Khan or Ms. Peterson came over on Sundays, and I didn’t filter my speech the way I did with Ms. Taylor. Even when we did discuss my mom’s addiction, I never felt the need to lie. Talking to them was easy and I felt safe afterwards instead of stressed.
The Sheltering Arms people made it clear that our mom needed to stop drinking. But they didn’t threaten the way Ms. Taylor did.
Ms. Taylor would tell my mom, “Your children will be remanded if this keeps happening,” or, often, “The judge decides what happens based on what they see, and it’s not looking too good.”
Sheltering Arms required my mom to get regular blood tests, and those tests kept proving that my mom still drank. I didn’t know that failing them was worsening the case.
Then she had to attend court-ordered counseling and treatment sessions at an addiction clinic near our house.
Those did not help because (1) my mom does not believe in the power of therapy; and (2) healing from a severe addiction needs to start physically. My mom would shake and have other withdrawal symptoms if she went two or three days without a drink.
One night, my mom accidentally called Ms. Taylor, then drunkenly handed the phone off to me.
“Hello?” I said in the most normal tone I could conjure up.
“Kiara, what’s going on?”
“I’ll ask yes or no questions. Can you respond to them?”
She asked enough questions to understand that the kids were home with their drunk mom.
She drove to our house, smelled my mom’s breath and smelled all the perfume my mom had coated herself in before Ms. Taylor arrived.
She called my Uncle Barry, my father’s brother, and waited for him to take my sister and me away.
I felt incredibly guilty for being relieved that I could sleep peacefully that night, without any yelling in the middle of the night.
And that was when ACS officially removed us from our home and we moved in with Uncle Barry. It wasn’t officially kinship foster care, but he is my legal guardian. He doesn’t get paid to take care of us.
After my mom lost custody, I saw Ms. Peterson from Sheltering Arms change from tolerant friend to angry authority.
“What are you doing?” she snapped at my mom one Sunday during our supervised visit. “You don’t care about these kids?”
Shocking as it was, this warning still couldn’t override my mom’s urge to drink.
Then another ACS social worker began to visit me at school. It was embarrassing to be pulled out of the room by my guidance counselor. I worried that other students would start thinking, “What’s wrong with her?”
I was pulled out of class five times in two months. I hated the curious stares of my peers when I walked back into class. I could not regain my focus after I got back, obsessing instead over the questions I’d been asked. “Did I answer them correctly? Did I forget anything? What if she thinks I’m lying?”
I would get texts from my friends in the class, asking if I was OK. I felt like the damaged friend, and I just wanted to be normal. These visits at school made me feel much worse.
Ms. Taylor explained that some kids feel pressured by their family when they’re asked questions in the house, and that’s why workers were coming to my school.
For me, speaking alone in another room in the house was enough privacy. I wish I’d gotten to choose.
Still, the efforts of ACS were clear. They weren’t the bad guys. They were trying to get my mom detoxed and mentally stabilized, and they were trying to keep my little sister Evelyn and me connected to her yet safe while she kept relapsing.
After a tough meeting with about 10 people, my mom was sent to 28-day inpatient rehab. I was asked my opinion, and though it was hard and my mom was furious, I said I thought she needed the rehab. All other strategies had failed.
She was detoxed and got therapy and counseling without access to alcohol. She came back healthy, apologetic, her old self, and I was so happy.
She relapsed again.
What ACS Could Do Better
I think ACS is right to leave us with Uncle Barry until my mom finally sobers up.
If I were making the decisions, I would try longer rehabs—two months or maybe even more. Keep trying until the person no longer relapses. Programs out in the world where my mom has access to alcohol haven’t worked.
As far as how workers talk to us, Mr. Khan and Ms. Peterson from Sheltering Arms both ask questions like we’re having a normal conversation.
I can let my guard down around them, and so they get more insight into my condition. They can tell whether I am as joyful as a teenager could be or if I’m silent because I’m hiding things. This way, they’re better able to decide what’s best for Evelyn and me.
The aggressive questioning of ACS shuts me down, and I don’t tell them what’s happening.
I also want the workers to give me more information—about ACS, about foster care, about addiction.
When my mom was going to the hospital every other week, I did my own research to find out what happens in detox. What I found online left me crying about how physically messed up my mom is. The word “death” appeared a lot.
I wish someone had talked to me about detox and addiction and how they relate to my mom.
I think 14- and 15-year-olds deserve to know more about what’s going on, but it’s trickier with a younger child, like my sister. She’s seen more than she should have.
It saddens me that this is her childhood: losing her dad at the age of 6 and then having to deal with an alcoholic mother.
I don’t think she needs talk therapy alone, which would force her to acknowledge everything at such a young age.
I’d like her to get something more creative like music lessons or art classes where she can express herself in a positive way and create her own happy place.
I wish ACS or Sheltering Arms could advocate for her to have something that she can remember happily and carry with her as she grows up.
My own thoughts on therapy have shifted lately. I think kids should be offered therapy starting around 8th grade, just before they enter the world of high school where multiple stresses start to weigh everyone down. Therapy could be a lifeline for middle-schoolers.
I wish I had realized this sooner and ignored my mom telling me that a shrink would be pointless.
For years, I ignored everything building up inside of me and thought lying was the best way to protect myself and my family.
It’s terrifying to tell the truth when everyone around you is telling you to “stick up for your family” and that telling the truth will rip you away from your loved ones.
Everyone copes in their own way. Getting help doesn’t only mean telling everything to social workers or a therapist.
ACS and Sheltering Arms offered friendly conversations and the suggestion of group therapy (which I don’t believe would work for me because socializing makes me anxious).
I would have preferred an internship or access to something that would give me exposure to animals.
Being around animals feels therapeutic to me. I got an animal care internship through my STEM program. Spending quality time with an introverted hedgehog and an egotistical rabbit helped me feel special and useful.
Providing opportunities to join a community doing something they love could give ACS-involved kids pride and purpose, at the same time it gets us out of the house and into a more comfortable environment.
My main advice to ACS is, help us grow as people at the same time you’re listening to us and sharing the truth about what’s going on with our parents.
K.G.’s Tips for Helping Children of Addicted Parents
- Mandate longer rehab periods if an addicted parent needs more time. Keep trying until the parent no longer relapses.
- Give kids more information about how the foster care system works, and about how addiction affects parents. Being kept in the dark increases our anxiety.
- Avoid aggressive questioning of kids. Invest time in getting to know us as people rather than children of addicts, and building a relationship with us. That will help us feel safe and comfortable, and it might keep us from shutting down when something is wrong.
- Give foster care-involved kids access to a wider range of therapeutic activities, not just talk therapy. Especially for younger kids, things like art therapy and art and music lessons can provide an outlet for difficult emotions and something positive to focus on, rather than constantly reminding us of family problems.
- Offer older kids and teens opportunities to get involved in the community in creative ways. Internships and volunteering opportunities can help build our confidence, provide a social outlet, and remind us that we can have a life separate from our family problems. These opportunities also help us prepare for adulthood.