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There is the woman whose ex-boyfriend came to her house in January, fought with her, and broke her arm. At the hospital, she got a phone call informing her that her two children, neither of whom had seen the attack, had been taken by ACS. The city claims the woman failed to protect the kids from witnessing this isolated act of domestic violence. It took her three weeks to get provisional custody of her kids; six months later, the neglect case is still pending.
There is the woman who went to court 23 times over the last four years, filing orders of protection and pleading with officials to keep her husband out of the house and to force him to pay child support. When he punched one of the children, the city took all five kids away from her but never arrested him. She didn't get the kids back for almost a month, and the neglect charges are still pending.
There is the immigrant woman whose enraged husband slit her throat one day in the midst of a furious argument. The woman survived, but ACS took her baby away. Even though the infant slept through the entire incident in a separate room and the mother had no intention of ever returning to her husband (and even testified against him before a grand jury), the city used the failure-to-protect law to put her baby in foster care. "When I encountered her in court, her throat still bandaged, she was sobbing uncontrollably," recalls Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the Center for Battered Women's Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families. "Having her child removed was as traumatic to her as being slashed by her abuser." Leidholdt listened as a translator interpreted her client's anguished questions. "She wanted to know why, if she's a victim, is she being treated like a criminal. She kept saying, 'I don't understand this American system.' "
Consuelo's case, too, defies all logic.
"They charge me with neglect because we engage in disputes in front of the kids?" she asks, incredulous. "And anyhow, it wasn't like they [ACS] say. There was no physical hitting. We're arguing sometimes but then we go into the other room, or I'd tell the kids to go downstairs to my mother-in-law's." Consuelo, an Ecuadoran immigrant who worked as a financial analyst in her country, struggles for a moment, searching for the right words to describe her frustration. "But it doesn't seem to matter what really happened."
Consuelo's troubles with the city began shortly after she left her husband. She had been living in a domestic violence shelter for almost a month when she inadvertently initiated a disastrous chain of events by calling ACS and asking for help.
On August 27, Consuelo learned that Shuber may have exposed his penis to her seven-year-old daughter, Rosa (not her real name; the names of the children in this article have been changed). Consuelo says she heard about the incident while discussing a booklet on sexual abuse that her 15-year-old daughter, Patricia, had brought home from her Big BrotherBig Sister program. Rosa was coloring pictures in the booklet as the family discussed the book's content. A little bit later, Rosa penned the following words in pink and green Magic Marker:
Shuber made me look at his vagina. . . . we 3 [Rosa and her two half sisters, Shuber's biological children] wer playing nintendo. Then he called me. I stoped the game. I put it on pause. He told me to look at it. I didn't want to look at it. I said no. But he keeps on saying look at it, look at it. I looked at it for 1 min. I went back to play.
Worried that something more had happened, Consuelo spoke to her counselor at the domestic violence shelter, who helped her call ACS's Emergency Unit. Two days later an ACS investigator arrived to question Rosa. Consuelo followed up with a second call to ACS, asking that her daughter be examined and receive counseling. On September 1, Consuelo took Rosa and the two younger children to their family doctor to make sure there were no physical signs of sexual abuse. The doctor found none.
(Shuber declined to speak to the Voice about these charges, but he has denied them all along.)
Consuelo says she met with two ACS caseworkers on September 3 and showed them her Order of Protection against Shuber. Questioned, she explained that she'd left home after arguments and verbal abuse. Two weeks later, ACS slapped her with the neglect charge.
After that, Consuelo's case seemed to snowball. Charges were added and language was hyped in a way that domestic violence advocates say is quite typical for families who, having entered "the system," find everything they do under ACS scrutiny. Consuelo watched helplessly as Shuber's "spankings" became "beatings" in the neglect petition. Then watched again, as ACS amended the original petition and added a new charge against Consuelo: This time, even she was blamed for the beatings. Consuelo says a conversation she had with a social worker was twisted until her avowal that she refused to spank any of the kids and that she and Shuber even argued about spanking became proof that "she admits to being present when Respondent Shuber Fontaine would beat the child" and that she "failed to protect the child from being beaten."