Last month, an article in the Spanish press discussed circumstances that forced a pre-adoptive family to return the child they were raising to his biological mother. According to the article, child protection services and judges stated that there is now sufficient evidence, four years after the birth and immediate separation of the child from his mother, to demonstrate the biological mother’s ability to provide an upbringing with both emotional and material security.
This article has a much greater relevance than to this one particular case. It has shed light on the institutional incompetence that victimised the biological mother, the child, and the pre-adoptive family. Even more importantly, this case demonstrates the institutional violence that people living in poverty and social exclusion endure.
Following this article, the pre-adoptive family’s suffering — undoubtedly unnecessary — was widely shown on TV channels, in the press, and via social media networks. We have repeatedly seen the pain written on their faces, and we have witnessed the compassion spoken by those who, in one way or another, identify themselves with this couple.
However, amidst all of this, there exists something worse — much worse. This is the pain that thousands of poverty-stricken mothers and fathers in Europe must bear in the name of “child protection”. It is also the pain that thousands of children must endure when they are brutally separated from their parents. This separation is often definitive. It is backed only by preconceptions made by child protection services and with those services’ inability to understand the circumstances surrounding a poverty-stricken upbringing.
During my eight years working in London, at the heart of the ATD Fourth World movement in the UK, together all of us came up with numerous projects to challenge this seemingly inevitable type of violence. The violence we speak about here is a situation that has plagued the majority of children with parents living in poverty known to ATD in the UK: a situation whereby children are taken away from their parents’ custody and handed to adoption services against the family’s will.
Working with these mothers and fathers, we came up with ways of showcasing their positive accomplishments despite their adverse circumstances of poverty. We worked with them to develop their parenting skills and make visible their initiatives to ensure their children’s well-being. We also collaborated with them: to construct ways to resist institutional violence; to provide them with the necessary language and tools to defend themselves in court; and to offer them protection strategies for living in poverty.
However, despite all our efforts, I saw with my own eyes and heart the broken faces of mothers who had to watch their children leave, often as newborns. I saw the broken faces of the children who were separated from their parents. Those pained and helpless faces – that can only be described by the anger and tears returning to me now – never appeared in the media. These faces were never the object of public compassion or empathy. They never caused the media or ordinary citizens to point their fingers at institutional incompetence and violence. Today in Spain, society recognizes the pain of the pre-adoptive family’s pain; but we never saw the biological mother’s pain-stricken face four years ago over the same child’s removal and handover to an adoption agency. It is bloodcurdling when we realise to what point the suffering of people in poverty is ignored.
It would be fair now for me to bear witness by detailing everything I saw — but I just don’t have the strength. I console myself by believing that ATD did as much as we could to strive for justice during all those years I worked in London, and that the London ATD team continues to do so today. However, since the moment I read the recent article that has pushed me to write this now, there is one particular night that has been going through my mind repeatedly.
Let me tell you about Anna. Anna was 22 years old. As a child, she herself had been removed from her mother and brought up in an institution. A few years earlier, her first child, Mary, was also taken away by social services. Nevertheless, Anna still wished she could bring up and provide for her own child. During Anna’s first pregnancy, the same social services that had taken Anna away from her own mother to “save” her hadn’t even considered that she had the potential to be a good mother. They never gave her the chance to try. When Anna got pregnant again, a few months later, I got pregnant with my first child. Very early on, Anna asked social services what she had to do to keep custody of her child. However, even before the birth of Anna’s baby, the whole process was set in motion to end her custody. As happens with so many mothers in poverty, it was during the pregnancy that the final decision was made that the newborn would be removed and made available for adoption.
For Anna, every day of her pregnancy brought her a day closer to giving birth, and to losing her baby. It was another day closer to the end, not the beginning. It was very difficult for me to be close to Anna. From the very beginning of my pregnancy, I often felt the need to abandon her in her pain so that I could be alone to bask in my own excitement at becoming a mother.
Anna’s due date passed, but the baby had not yet been born. Any reason for this seemed to come from a supernatural wisdom beyond our understanding. One evening, almost two weeks past her due date, Anna’s mother called me to tell me that Anna had given birth to a girl and wanted me to visit them that night. This was on the only night they would ever spend together. Of course, my heart didn’t want to go through with it. I arrived at the hospital when it was already nighttime. I came with a camera, a little present for baby Sarah, and some flowers for Anna. I spent a few hours with them and took lots of photos – loads of them. At Anna’s invitation, I also took Sarah in my arms for a few minutes, holding her on my belly, pregnant with my own daughter, Lucía. Every second I held Sarah felt like I was stealing something from her and Anna, but Anna insisted that I hold her. And I too wanted my photo taken together with Sarah.
I’m not sure whether it was in that very moment, or on my way home, or a few days later that I came to understand: Anna wanted me to go to the hospital that night to make me a witness. She wanted me to create memories to be able to tell others that this had happened: Anna gave birth to Sarah; she became a mother; she gave her daughter a name; Sarah had come into the world.
The next day, Anna left the hospital without her child. Sarah had been removed to the custody of social services that very morning. I don’t remember anything that Anna and I had said to each other the first time we saw one another after that incident, but I won’t forget her face, stricken with pain and humiliation. Over the following years, around my own daughter born soon afterwards, Anna asked me many times to talk with her about her night with Sarah, the night I had witnessed. She wanted us to talk about that night so that her birth, maternity, and pain would not be forgotten.
That is why I’m writing today. I am writing to protest the pain of people in poverty that we ignore. I am writing to strengthen our shared humanity.
The photo above is a screenshot from Ken Loach’s extraordinary film “Ladybird, Ladybird”. I saw the film in Madrid when it first came out in 1994. That was six years before I moved to London. At the time, I thought that the filmmaker must have been exaggerating the situations. Later I found that reality could in fact be much harsher.