“They were pulled out of my arms,” said Connie Smith, 38, of Littleton, in Aroostook County. “I think my son knew what was going to happen because he grabbed his teddy bear and didn’t give me a hug. My girls clung to me.”
It was Oct. 21, 1998, when state Child and Family Services took Smith’s son and three daughters and put them in foster care. Smith’s husband abused her, and it wasn’t a safe place for children. But she hadn’t known how to leave. She said she hadn’t yet found her voice.
“It was really hard for me to have an abusive husband in the home and try to keep my kids safe and try to leave him, too,” she said.
It wasn’t until her children were taken that she found the way to get out. She was 24 at the time and had already experienced more than she should have, including a childhood in Houlton filled with neglect and times in the foster care system herself. She had met the man who would become her husband when they were teenagers, and she gave birth to their first child at the age of 15. They married when she was 17.
Without her children, “I knew then that I’m ultimately alone,” she said. “I just remember looking in that mirror and saying, ‘Who am I?’”
Fourteen years later, she knows who she is: a survivor. She’s not afraid to share her history, she said, because otherwise how will people learn? “I know that I’m one of the survivors. I know that I’m one of the people that has overcome a lot of the obstacles. A lot of people just give up,” she said.
That’s why she represented the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians on a committee to select the five commissioners who will serve on the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Those commissioners will be officially sworn in on Tuesday in Hermon and will later begin their work to learn about what happened to Wabanaki children and families who were involved with the Maine child welfare system in the past.
The commission’s process will mark the first truth and reconciliation effort in the U.S. that has been collaboratively developed between Indian nations and a state government.
It’s an endeavor Smith is proud of. “I finally get a voice,” she said. Many people have kept their painful experiences a secret. “It doesn’t have to be a secret any more.”
Smith acknowledged that having her children removed from their home “is what needed to happen for the time.” It led her to finally put her children’s father out of her life and enter a program to address what she called codependency, which can be characterized by a need to help others even when they are manipulative.
But getting her children back took too long. The state separated her four children into three different homes, she said. She worked weekends, so she could see her kids during the week, driving hours to visit them. It took a year to get back her eldest daughter, a couple years for her other daughters and five years for her son.
“It was just a long, hard battle,” she said.
She was ultimately successful and loved having her children return home, but “it wasn’t necessarily easy. There were a lot of heart-wrenching moments.” She said the difficulty didn’t come from her children but from the pressure to do everything right. She didn’t want to lose them again.
She’s now remarried, has another son and works for the tribe’s housing authority as a resident counselor. She has overcome much pain but still mourns the years away from her children and the things they experienced growing up.
“I know it was hard for them,” she said through her tears. “And it still is.”
But they’re each pursuing their own path. They don’t leave her house without a hug and a kiss on the cheek. And they don’t hang up the phone without saying, “‘Mom, I love you,’” she said.
And they do get to see that their mother now has a strong voice.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.