The writing did not come easily to Philneia Timmons. She offered details about her childhood (she was hit with belts and extension cords) and tricks she has learned for calming her anger (she thinks of snow).
But again and again, her drafts came back with the same question: Why, exactly, did the Administration for Children's Services take your two children away?
So one day she sat down and wrote the whole story:
Her 10-year-old son, grieving over the death of his grandfather, "was getting in trouble just about every day in school. He wasn't working and he was being disruptive. I was running to the school so often that I had to quit my job. I felt so frustrated, I didn't know what to do.
"Eventually I started to hit him, even though I don't believe in hitting kids. One night I hit him with a belt because his teacher had called to say he had cursed in class. He screamed so loud when I hit him that I stopped, but the damage was already done. The next day the school informed me that they had found bruises on my son's body. ACS came that night....
"Mrs. R. handed me a paper and asked to see my children.... She said, 'We received a call from your school that your son had bruises on his arm and upper thigh.' Mrs. R. insisted that I lift my children's clothing. When I did not comply, Mrs. R. asked her assistant to lift them and then she took pictures of the bruises on my son's left arm and thigh. Then she told me my children were being removed.
"As they left the house, I felt like a piece of my heart was being ripped out."
Timmons, 35, is a tiny woman -- she wears a size 0 -- who has her children's initials tattooed on her biceps. The three of them are together again, living in a two-bedroom apartment painted the colors of citrus fruits. On a recent evening, Jeffrey, now 15, and Tanasia, 10, were piled on the couch, bickering companionably. It would have been easy to pretend they had never been separated.
Instead, Timmons has published her story. It was printed this spring in an unusual journal called Rise, written by and for parents who have been drawn into New York's child-welfare system. It was unnerving for Timmons to publish her essay. "If you have a closed mind," she said, "you would think I was a horrible parent."
But she knows what a difference it would have made, during those awful weeks after her children were removed, if she had gotten to read other mothers' stories.
"You think you're the only one," she said.
For 2 1/2 years, the parents who write Rise have gathered weekly in a quiet room at the Child Welfare Organizing Project, an advocacy group that teaches parents how to fight for the return of their children. They are women, mostly, who spent months or years undergoing urine tests, showing up for therapy, enrolling in parenting classes -- whatever they had to do to regain their parental rights. In a city that is periodically seized by stories of catastrophic child abuse, they offer a counter-narrative that is both more ordinary and less often heard.
The result is a magazine. Rise comes out three times a year, and its 6,000 copies are distributed free to social service agencies and individual subscribers. The nonprofit organization that produces it, Youth Communication, has been publishing the writings of teenagers -- including teenagers in foster care -- since 1980. Even so, Rise feels like a venture into uncharted territory, because parents are generally so wary about sharing their stories, said Nora McCarthy, the magazine's writing coach and editor.
"I can't even believe that they publish their stories. I mean, I can't believe they write them," she said. But in the end, most of the parents are driven to explain what happened to them. They want, McCarthy said, "to write a story of enough complexity that it shows who they are. Who they are has been so obfuscated by the demons we lay on top of them."
Sylvia Perez, 37, froze a little when she heard her first assignment: to write about how the ACS came into her life. She had found ways to blur the truth over the years: she would say Lydia was her first child, not her seventh, or she would say Lydia was staying with her godparents, not a foster family. Perez looked around the room at the other mothers. They were all sitting there in front of blank sheets of paper. When the hour was over, one woman had only written two sentences.
"We all had that same issue of feeling guilty and having everyone else judge you," Perez said. "It's like, you don't open too much because they might use it against you later."
So it came as a surprise when the words began pouring out of her. Perez wrote about how she checked into the maternity ward under a different name so that her past neglect cases would not come up; the knots that twisted in her stomach the day she began smoking crack again; how she would lie next to the baby, after that, and cry with regret. How, when the ACS finally removed Lydia, as it had removed her six older children, she felt not a hint of surprise.
"I knew I wasn't being a mother," she wrote.
Violet Rittenhour, 33, wrote about how the fear never left her children, even after they were returned to her custody. She described their faces when a knock came on the door at 11 p.m.
"It's amazing how a hard bang on the door can only mean one of two things in certain neighborhoods -- police or ACS.... I've learned a lot about how to handle these cases," she wrote. "Instead of answering the door and letting strangers enter my home, look in my cabinets and frighten my children, I stayed silent and waited for the note to be slipped under the door."
At first, Perez found the memories so wrenching that she couldn't read her essays aloud to the group. But the workshops were so quiet and peaceful, and she began to look forward to them. "I feel like I am a stronger person for writing," she said. "I know where I've been."
Lydia was returned to her after Perez had passed five urine tests every week for a year. Perez now has five notebooks full of stories. They describe ordinary things like doing Lydia's hair in the morning, and bringing her a cup of cold water after she lies down for bed, and how she looks when she is sleeping. McCarthy has thrown her hands up; there are too many stories to edit.