Keeping families together: Spotlight on BxD’s “Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies” project

Recognizing the pain and trauma of family separation, The Bronx Defenders advocates tirelessly in Bronx Family Court to ensure that our clients are given fair access to justice and that their children are not removed merely because their families are over-policed and prosecuted for being poor. Responding to this reality, we launched our Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies (“HMHB”) project in 2013 to address the needs of a particularly vulnerable client group: pregnant mothers with open child welfare cases for older children who are at risk of losing custody of their newborn children at birth. HMHB, which works to strengthen families and protect infants from the trauma of separation from their mothers, has helped 133 mothers since it started. Through the preventative advocacy and interdisciplinary teamwork of the HMHB project—and with the committed support of our friends and donors—mothers are able to keep their children in their care and remain intact as a family.

Here is a story of one of these families:

In August 2013, two-year-old Jessica* and three-year-old Jeron were removed from the only mother they ever knew. Their mother was being accused by the NYC Administration for Children’s Services (“ACS”) of being a victim of domestic violence and of not receiving needed mental health services. Instead of providing the family with the needed services, ACS removed the children from their mother and placed them in foster care where they were able to see their mother only twice a week for two hours of supervised visitation at a foster care agency.

Their mother, Marisa, was devastated. During the course of her children’s experience in foster care, she watched them suffer; their speech, ability to sleep, and behavior deteriorated. Marisa suspected that the children were being abused in foster care, only to discover that her daughter received a serious burn on her face and the foster mother had no explanation. During this time, Marisa learned that she was pregnant. She now feared not only the fate of her two children in foster care, but also the prospect that her new baby would immediately be taken from the hospital upon birth by ACS.

Once Marisa informed her Bronx Defenders Family Defense Attorney that she was pregnant, her attorney knew that her current involvement with the child welfare system would put her at high risk of losing custody of her newborn at birth. As a preventative measure, Marisa was referred to The Bronx Defenders’ HMHB project where Marisa was assigned a social worker and parent advocate to address these specific needs. Marisa’s HMHB advocates provided her with high quality referrals to services, advocated for her and her children, and supported her during this difficult time. The Bronx Defenders also connected Marisa to mental health services, domestic violence counseling, and play therapy aimed at repairing her relationship with her children and helping them recover from the trauma of removal and placement in foster care. Marisa began attending the HMHB support group where she was able to form positive relationships with other similarly situated women.

After nearly a year of zealous legal advocacy and social services support from the moment her children were removed, Marisa’s two children were at last returned to their mother’s care. Marisa’s social worker, attorney, and parent advocate supported her throughout the transition of her children’s return from foster care. They also connected her to a doula who provided Marisa with birth support during her labor, postpartum care, and lactation consultation. Thanks to the ongoing support of The Bronx Defenders, ACS did not intervene when Marisa’s baby was born.

Today, Marisa and her family are together and doing well. Marisa continues to work to repair the relationships that were severed during her two older children’s year in foster care. She also continues to attend the HMHB support group and other treatment services.

Marisa’s is one of a number of similar stories. Her reunification with her two children and her ability to keep her newborn safely in her care after giving birth were possible only thanks to the unwavering generosity of partners, supporters, and donors like you who have contributed to The Bronx Defenders. To continue to support this important work, and to help other women like Marisa, consider making a donation here.

*All names have been changed in this client story.