“I love my Mom very much…She has a heart so big every body in my family in her heart..” ~ Letter from my daughter, “JJ”.
Raising my voice, to share how failures in Hennepin County, Minnesota’s family court system and Guardian ad Litem program have negatively impacted, and hurt, my family.
The Hennepin County Family Court placed my children in the sole custody, and care of an allegedly abusive parent who has over a dozen documented abuse allegations against him, with both children suffering from PTSD related to abuse and trauma. I lost custody after a trial that lasted barely two hours, and had no legal representation. I was wrongfully stripped of custody, and now am being alienated from my children by court order. There is nothing in my background that would merit this – I have a stable home, am gainfully employed in the healthcare field and have a long history of volunteering and community involvement. My children love me, and want to come home.
The custody ruling, and subsequent orders limiting parenting time, caused significant trauma for my children. My children also suffer tremendous grief and loss as their relationship with their mother, and our cultural and religious heritage, has been removed from their lives. They have been robbed of their childhood, and learned maladaptive ways to survive. To replace the love of the mother that has been removed from his life, my son talks to strangers on the internet. He created a new family by engaging in role-playing games, which he spends all of his time on (and I have no control what my son is doing online because his father has sole custody). My daughter is dissociating, it has gotten so bad that the school held a special meeting on how to reach her when she retreats into herself. What is happening in their father’s home that is causing these ongoing problems? What are my children reacting to?
During a visit with my daughter, “JJ”, we sat on the couch, eating ice-cream. We giggled about how much Dora the Explorer has grown up (Mom, she’s a teenager now! She wears make-up!). We talked about her favorite books. I knew those books, and their characters, because I spent hours in the juvenile section at the library, reading. I curled up on a lumpy beanbag chair that smelled like cotton candy perfume, several sizes too small for my adult body, to read the stories that my daughter loved; it became my way of keeping her close.
For a moment, we were just like any other mom and daughter… looking at us you would never know that my abusive ex controlled every aspect of my parenting time schedule, and routinely denied visits with the children. JJ begged to come home until her voice was hoarse. She heard “no” so many times that she just stopped asking. I had battled in family court for almost a decade to have this one moment with my daughter.
Everything was going so well… then, without warning, JJ became withdrawn. Something unknown triggered her. There are so many unknowns to my daughter. I have been excluded from JJ’s life for so long. There are blank spots where a mother should have been… questions to ordinary things that go unanswered… Whatever made JJ upset was not something I could detect. There was no argument. No rainy day. We were eating ice-cream… And without warning JJ ran into her bedroom, slamming the door. When I got to bedroom she had shut herself in the closet and would not come out. I knew JJ was having troubles at her father’s home, and in school, she didn’t make friends easily… but other than that I had no information. My ex does not communicate or share information about the children, and the family court refuses to intervene.
I pointed the CD player toward the closet, putting in Colbie Caillat, a favorite album. I hoped the music would soothe JJ and coax her out. Several songs played but none touched my heart that day so much as “Capri“.
Colbie gently sings:
And things will be hard at times
But I’ve learned to try
Patiently, oh Capri
Baby inside she’s loving
Just like your mother…”
The gentle ballad prompted an invisible dance between my daughter and I. Slowly the door cracked open. I slid a book through the crack, a diary style novel about a quirky teenager. JJ passed the book back to me without a word; one page was marked, a message sent. In small steps JJ slowly emerged. I was relieved to see her shy smile. Her brown eyes averted mine. I offered my love and acceptance, and didn’t ask questions. The rest of our visit was quiet but peaceful.
I did not realize until later what the closet represents for JJ. Seeking answers, I stepped inside, sitting on the same spot in the soft carpeting where JJ once sat. My head rested against the back wall, softened by the folds of a light blue princess dress with bell sleeves and a ruffled neckline. JJ loved to wear that dress when she was a toddler. However, she wasn’t a delicate princess. JJ loved to run and play in that dress, not concerned if it got dirty or torn. At my side, are shelves overflowing with dolls, trinkets, and more books. I saved every drawing JJ made since pre-school, neatly stacked in binders. JJ has an ability to find stray foreign coins, and kept her prized collection in a box painted like a treasure chest. I found a worn photo album and flipped through the pages, tearful as pictures portrayed JJ growing from a gaped-tooth toddler wearing a princess dress into a somber young girl.
I began to understand JJ’s need for space, for time alone. The closet holds so much of JJ’s life with me, before she was taken away. The closet also holds her treasures, her hopes for the future. The closet is JJ’s own space; it has not been altered, or taken from her. So much turmoil had happened in JJ’s young life, decisions made by adults who held power over her and failed to listen to what she wanted or needed. JJ often expressed that she felt misunderstood, or not listened to. But this one space, the closet, belongs to her alone.
I would hold this space for JJ and not force my way in. Or judge her need for it. I prayed one day the door would open, that I would be able to share much more than a closet with her. That finally we would be able to share our lives together, without interruption, as mother and daughter, and be a family again.
~ Emily Court, © August 2016