The Stratton Family of North Carolina
No one touched their food until Mama had said the simple grace that began every meal. “Dear God, bless our family, keep us safe as we live with You. Amen.” The back yard was an acre of places to play, hedged in with black berry bushes. The family had planted strawberries as well and when they were in season breakfast was frequently enlivened by the preproduction of the berry crew, lead by Mama out into the morning light to pick berries that still carried tiny droplets of mist on their shiny surfaces. The back yard also held the very minutely examined growth of cucumbers and tomatoes that were both supplement for the table and part of the ongoing educational process of the curriculum of the Mitchell School. Mama became used to the discussions of how red a tomato must be to be ripe. She found uses for those that really were too green but came in clutched in excited little hands anyway. Mama loved that moment when they were all together eating and settled in, talking about everything under the sun. School was serious fun. In the beginning it was Da-Da who was their main teacher with Mama doing the reviews each morning to ensure they remembered their lessons. Every day had been hectic and amazing, full of lessons learned and work completed until the day the Department of Social Services walked in and took them. Later Helen had felt as if her heart had been clipped out and frozen. But right then she had just frantically wanted to talk to someone, someone who would tell her that this couldn’t be happening, that it was a mistake. The fat, bulging eyed agent from the DSS had pushed her way into the house, refusing to explain herself. A row of vehicles waited out there. Men in uniform stood at the women’s back like bodyguards. Helen had begged them not to take her children. When it was clear that they would take them by force if necessary she pulled herself together and helped the children, bewildered and big eyes, crying and afraid, to dress. The next to littlest Maggie, just two and a half, had clung to her while they dragged her from her arms and coldly strapped her into the car seat. The bulgy eyed woman had been terse and threatening. Helen stood there watching after them until the last vestige of the cars carrying away her life disappeared in a distance muted with dust. No one would help. No one could help.
September 11,2001 - On the Road to Raleigh, North Carolina
John Mitchell had fired their attorney the week before. They had paid him every cent they could lay hands on over the last year, but still the Department of Social Services refused to even consider giving their kids back. Now John was determined to do it himself. He had written and rewritten the writ, painfully reading through the Black’s Law Dictionary and studying the rules of law. He had found others who had managed to go into court Pro Se and defend their rights; he would do it too. This week he had prepared the writ that now rested in the neat manila folder in the back seat, three copies; one for the Judge and another for the court record; one for himself. None for the DSS; they could whistle for it. They had not stayed for long in the house from which the kids were taken. It hurt too much to walk in hoping somehow to hear their voices. Now they were living closer into Charlotte where they could get to the courthouse and DSS faster. John had not worked in months, instead spending his time poring over law books. He and Kathy had acquired an old Crown Victoria from friends. It worked; that it was less than beautiful did not matter. Kathy leaned forward and snapped on the radio. It still worked, too. She smiled a little. They had spent so much time listening to music together and then with their children. She was looking for something relaxing, but all of the frequencies carried one message. Shocked, the couple listened. John’s first reaction later shamed him. He felt like he had been hit in the gut with a stab of despair. He had called the media, asked them to come in and listen. Some had promised to show up. But the disaster at the Twin Towers would swamp the year long agony of his family, he knew that instantly. He had worked so hard to assemble these papers for the court. The folders in the back seat represented not just a painful assembling of evidence entirely refuting the DSS’s claims, they were his sweat and time and hope for the last six months. When they pulled into the parking lot across from the courthouse, it was obvious that nothing was as usual. Grim faced military men were patrolling the outside. John reached over and squeezed Kathy’s hand. No matter what, they would keep on keeping on.
Charlotte, North Carolina
John and Helen Mitchell had managed to see Ezekial very occasionally, despite their exhaustive efforts in court and in the media. The two oldest boys were initially being warehoused in a group home with ten other older children with emotional or behavioral problems. Sometimes it was hard to recognize their happy, easy going second son in the frightened and withdrawn face of this young man on the edge of an uneasy adulthood. Charles, the oldest, always developmentally challenged, had been returned to them after Herculean efforts the year before. Ezekial had been joyously buoyant and outgoing until he was into his 13th year. He had never liked reading, unlike the other kids, but he had moved beyond addition and subtraction, deducing the rules of multiplication and division when he was very small. Sensitive to sounds, he disliked loud noises and spent time thinking and watching the world around him. His differences had not been a big problem before the DSS took the kids. But incarcerated in the system he had struggled and then retreated into his shell. Then he was raped in foster care. The older boy who Ezekial reported had committed this atrocity both on himself and his older brother, Charles, had a history of violence and sexually inappropriate behavior. No one called them when the attacks occurred; Ezekial told them the next time he was permitted a visit. Helen and John found that out whom the rapist was through their own sources. They had learned to do their own investigations. Two weeks after the assault the brothers were abruptly split up and placed in separate ‘homes.’ They would not see each other again for a long time. DSS had not wanted to return Charles, but his inability to relay what had happened to him made it safe to do so and so when he aged out of the system he was ‘released.’ There was no longer a profit in holding him as no federal dollars could be claimed in his name. Ezekial was another issue, of course. Ezekial knew what had happened and reported it in detail. Therefore Ezekial was a danger and a potential liability. The DSS always protected itself no matter what it cost in the sufferings of others. As this began to dawn on the Mitchells many other things also became clear. At first there had been tremendous problems with Charles when he returned home. Fearful that someone would come and take him again he trembled when the doorbell rang. Sometimes he would go looking around the house to see if he could find the siblings he still missed. Sometimes he asked his mother when they were coming home, too. His world would not be complete until that happened. Fixing his favorite apple pie Helen told him as he helped her roll out the pastry for the pie crust, that her world was waiting for the moment, too.