I watched her sit in court. Her legs crossed at the ankles, a black and white dress, a cloth coat and her hoop earrings catching light as she waited in an otherwise sterile courtroom where black is still king and sentences which change lives are short and declarative.
The judge looks bored. Social workers shuffle in their chairs and struggle to get names right. Attorneys make quick appearances and are interested in plea deals as they juggle stacks of files.
She wore rubber rain boots. In Oregon this is a must. Yet I got lost in those boots for a minute. I pictured her as a little girl splashing in puddles. “Mom! Look at me.”
I see her with her strong face to the wind and rain pushing through the rural roads and mountains clinging to her children alone in her determination. I see her seeking understanding, wishing for that moment of being seen and whole.
Now all that strength is used to hold her upright as the court prepares to make her life’s work null and void. There is nothing worse than telling a mother she is no longer a mother. There are few blacker days than a strong woman humbled by a court which cannot calculate the nights awake and the flu and the struggle of subsistence carried alone.
Thursday mornings in child custody court is the place for souls to travel alone and to be shuffled through a system more punishing than most. The women wear the best they have, they do not speak or look at each other. Losing a child is a death born by few, but the list grows longer on this day and on this day the courtroom is quiet. They have been told the rules of compliance.
She has not done the things others have. She has no drug use, no history of crime and she is an educated woman who has conquered the history of incarcerated parents, abuse, rape and marginalization to be the mother she had hoped for. Now, however, she is told her rules are too harsh. Her daughter wants nothing to do with her strict determination, her refusal to soften her stance when a boyfriend who would not meet her appeared. She is told that it is over. Her daughter will not be coming home. It is her fault.
She is only thinking of her two smaller children at home. “I must do everything I can to keep them safe and with me. Whatever it takes.”
She is lowering her head now. Tears are flowing down her jaw and into her scarf neatly wrapped around her neck. It’s creamy whiteness compromised by tears. Her long dark hair falls around her face. She has no one but a lawyer she does not know at her side. She is sitting in the chair after the young mother who’s two children are gone. “Lilly and Aiden are doing well in foster care. The mother had no stable home. She has now secured an apartment. If she is able to remain stable we will revisit.”
Poverty of pocket echoes in the chamber.
There are so many. Every seat is full and occupied by a woman alone. Where are the fathers and grandfathers? Where are the ministers and priests who told these women being a mother was their God given job? They are not present as the weeping begins and ends.
Some women have no tears and no expression. They are pale, thin, flat like paper.
She whispers to me, “This courtroom is full like this every Thursday. Without us to prosecute, to take our children, none of these people would have jobs.”
It is hard to take the fight of mothers who have had their children removed. Mothers who fail are no one’s cause. As I sit holding my friends hand, feeling the coldness of her as she keeps blood flowing to her broken heart, I have a new view.
Is this about failure as a mother or failure as a capitalist?
There are no middle and upper class women here with their privately retained attorneys and husbands. There is not a single designer purse in the room on this day. The women’s attorneys talk about their failure to find work and housing and childcare.
Sometimes no matter what you do the math doesn’t add up. If you make ten dollars per hour and have to pay childcare out of that, there is no rent money. If you don’t have the rent then your children’s home isn’t stable and you wind up here. There are not enough programs to deal with this reality as it increases by the thousands month after month in America.
The girl with the hoop earrings grew up in a nice house until her embezzling parents went to prison. Then she was homeless and forged records to stay in high school. In her desperation and loneliness she attended a party where she was raped. A young, single mother she still made it through college. Now she is here. Being told she is wrong. There are court aids to speak for the child. But, I wonder, who speaks for her?
Is there going to come a time when women are heard and helped? Will the day come when this girl might be met by support rather than derision?
I told a Catholic priest one time to stop talking about the sin of birth control until he and his church were willing to support mothers and children from the cradle to the grave. He told me I was right. Yet nothing has changed but one priests homily. It is not enough.
If we want women to use their most powerful force on earth to reproduce then we need to support them with childcare, jobs, food and housing. It is cruel and hypocritical to force women to give birth and then offer no support and one day steal their children from their beds.
I don’t know how the girl in her rubber boots survived what I saw that day. But she did survive because she is strong.
Still, she needs a new day when she can also be seen and heard, when she is housed without juggling the bills and biases and judgments and when her children can be looked after while she works. Her entire life is spent juggling. While I am home sipping wine and listening to music she is on her third shift pushing through despair to keep her two remaining children at home safe.
This is the reality for the fastest growing group of homeless people–mothers and children.
Until we support mothers we cannot support children. Until we support the future we have a grim trajectory.
On this Thursday in a single courtroom lives are ending. The worst day just got worse and no one dare make a scene. Compliance is a basic expectation.
The girl in the hoop earrings adjusts her dress as she sits across from me. “I have to find a way to play the game. I just have never been given any pieces to play it with. How do I do it?”