Rachel Street said goodbye, possibly forever, to her two youngest children this summer during a supervised visit at the McDonald's restaurant on Colman Street in New London.
A juvenile court judge in April granted the state Department of Children and Families' petition to terminate Street's parental rights to her two sets of twins, ages 5 and 6. The decision allows two waiting foster families to move ahead with plans to adopt the twins.
The DCF, which had taken custody of the children 31 months earlier after their father was arrested for battering Street, had arranged for Street to have a "closure visit" with her younger twins.
"It was heartbreaking, because they didn't know it was their last visit," Street, a 37-year-old who has lived in southeastern Connecticut her whole life, said during a recent interview. The children's foster parents had given them a "light version" of the visit's purpose.
"My daughter got a Happy Meal. I said, 'Do you want cookies?' She said, 'No. I'll have cookies next week.'"
Street brought the twins plush teddy bears.
"I said, 'Hold them when you miss me,'" she said. "My son said, 'I'm not going to miss you.' Whether he meant it or not or somebody put it in his head or he just came out with that on his own, it is what it is."
Street did not get to say goodbye to the older twins. Social workers terminated their contact with Street in October 2012 after they continued to melt down during visits, according to court documents.
Street does not have a criminal record, and she says she is not a drug addict. But she is the victim of domestic violence at the hands of the children's father and previous partners, and says she suffers from mental health problems, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression.
The DCF took the children from the home due to their repeated exposure to domestic violence. The agency made efforts to help Street reunite with the twins, but moved to terminate her parental rights when social workers determined she had not improved enough after two years. Street said the agency does not understand domestic violence victims and punished her for speaking up when she didn't agree with social workers.
Street has two older children who live with their fathers. She said she lost custody of them because she didn't have the money for lawyers and was suffering from depression. She said she is rekindling her relationship with both children.
Street says she feels revictimized by the child welfare department, which gave her hope that she would get the twins back. The department helped Street pay for a three-bedroom apartment where she lived while undergoing therapy and participating in supervised visits with the children. But eventually, social workers determined Street had not progressed enough to safely care for the children and recommended that the court terminate her parental rights.
Street said she was only allowed to see the kids once a week and that the agency didn't allow for her and the children to grow and heal together.
"The same thing he (the children's father) did to me, they were doing," she said during a recent interview. "The pressures of doing what they wanted to make me do, that's what he did in the relationship. Everything was forced upon me."
Street says she thinks about the kids every day.
"Now somebody else gets to make my kids brush their teeth in the morning and give them breakfast and take them to the park," she said. "I'm missing out and it's not fair."
Since the decision, she resigned from a part-time job she had started earlier this year, saying she couldn't handle it "emotionally and mentally." She lives with her boyfriend and is attending school and counseling with the hope, she said, of turning her ordeal "into a positive." Street had dropped out of high school in 10th grade. Her parents were divorcing and "I wasn't handling it well," she said.
While Street's child custody case was pending, former state Supreme Court justice Joette Katz became commissioner of the DCF and said the agency would focus on helping troubled families rather than "snatching and grabbing" their children. But Katz has also said she is committed to finding permanent placements for children rather than letting them languish in foster care limbo.
Briefed on the subject matter of this story by department spokesman Gary Kleeblatt, Katz issued a statement.
"Children belong with their families whenever possible consistent with their safety and well-being," the statement says in part. "Unfortunately, there are still some instances when we cannot maintain children in their home because of safety concerns despite the best efforts of our staff, the private providers we rely upon to render services, and others involved. Sadly, the State must then consider other ways to provide a family for the children. We continue to work hard to reduce child removals and to reunify children where the home is safe. But there remain cases in which the care and safety of the children can't be sacrificed and children cannot remain in that home."
Katz also indicated the department has expert resources and is committed to helping families overcome the trauma of domestic violence.
According to court records, the DCF took custody of Street's children after their father was arrested for assaulting her on Sept. 9, 2010. Street reported to police that the father woke her up, put his hands on her throat, told her he would kill her and began to punch her multiple times while accusing her of cheating on him. All four twins were sleeping in the bed with her. She suffered severe bruising to her arms and chest. The father was convicted of third-degree assault and second-degree threatening. He remained incarcerated until earlier this year.
Street admits she stayed in the relationship while the abuse continued and that her children, then ages 2 and 3, often witnessed the violence. She said she never understood before why women stay with batterers. You have to go through it to understand it, she said.
"You're sick, and the guy you're with is even sicker," she said during a recent interview. "I think I did pretty good under the circumstances. I kept my children alive and I kept myself alive."
Superior Court Judge Michael A. Mack presided at a parental rights trial in Waterford's juvenile court in November 2012 and wrote in a 78-page decision, issued April 23, that the DCF has proved, by clear and convincing evidence, that it had made reasonable efforts to reunite Street and her children. The court had already terminated the father's parental rights in March.
According to the decision, Street's attendance at various counseling sessions was inconsistent. She refused to talk about her upbringing, did not give providers full permission to share information with DCF and persisted "in not taking responsibility for any of the trauma that her children witnessed while in her care."
"DCF has neither the power nor the authority to force an individual to engage in a program that the individual resists," Mack wrote. "It can suggest, cajole, encourage or promise, but it cannot force. Although mother denies she is or was resistant, her actions over a period of two years speaks volumes, tragically so, as her children were forming attachments to their foster caregivers as that time slipped by."
Mack wrote that the children witnessed a staggering amount of abuse and that Street has a history of relationships consistently involving domestic violence, which affected her children's safety. While the case was pending, Street became involved in a new relationship. Her boyfriend, Eddie Kirby, testified on her behalf at the trial.
"Although he has a serious criminal background, the court finds him to be credible, caring and concerned at once for the children and for mother," the decision says.
According to public records, Kirby has convictions for larceny and possession of drug paraphernalia. Street said he has been sober for two years and works with people who have substance abuse problems.
Judging domestic violence cases
During her 6½-year relationship with the children's father, Street turned several times to Safe Futures, the New London-based agency formerly known as the Women's Center for Southeastern Connecticut, that provides shelter, counseling and other services to victims of domestic violence. Street is featured in a Safe Futures video and on its website and has spoken at Safe Futures events.
Catherine Zeiner, executive director of Safe Futures, declined to talk specifically about Street's case, though Street authorized the agency to speak, because Zeiner said the center wants to assure all victims that their cases will be kept confidential. Zeiner agreed to speak in general terms about domestic violence cases in which the Department of Children and Families becomes involved.
"It's always discouraging for us when we see progress and know there's the capacity for continued progress, but a case in DCF's mind has to be closed," Zeiner said. "Sometimes the journey takes what it takes, and it's always a shame when a family can't be healed together."
Zeiner said she has seen DCF investing time and resources in understanding domestic violence and responding to it differently. She said she would still like to see the agency become more involved with mainstream domestic violence providers, such as Safe Futures.
"There was a time when DCF was holding the non-offending parent responsible for putting the children at risk," Zeiner said. "We know that's not the case. We know there are times when a parent chooses to stay. It's because she believes she's protecting the children. More often than not there's a mom who wants to be brave and believes she's doing the right thing."
Street was represented by attorneys Lorna Dicker and Scott Sawyer of New London. Lyme attorney Priscilla Hammond served as the children's lawyer, or guardian ad litem. They declined to comment due to the confidential nature of the case.
Street provided access to court documents and shared her story, she said, because she wanted the public to know what she and other domestic violence victims go through. She said she felt that she was unfairly judged by social workers and others who were "dismissive" of her concerns.
"I am always going to be a work in progress," Street said. "I will never be perfect and that's what they want from you. Even when I started to do everything they said, they still weren't satisfied."
She wants her children to know she loves them. She hopes they seek her out when they are older. She also wants to help others who find themselves in her position.
"I feel real empty most of my days," she said. "But I have to get myself prepared and motivated to fight for other mothers and other children."