The more things change, the more they remain the same. This story proves the rule (Houston Chronicle, 9/15/12).
Amy Woodard-Davis was born in Kansas City in 1971. Her 16-year-old mother gave birth to her in her bathroom, took her to the back yard of her house where a barrel of refuse was burning, wrapped the newborn in newspaper and tossed her in. Amy’s faint cries were heard by her grandfather who thought they came from a kitten. He discovered the little girl, rescued her from the flames and called the fire department. With third and fourth-degree burns over 75% of her body, doctors gave the child only the slightest chance to survive, but, nine months later, she was well enough to be transferred to a burn center in Galveston, Texas. And survive she did.
Over the next 20 years, she would undergo countless operations to try to correct the horrible scarring the burns had caused. Eventually, Amy would say “enough.” She was who she was; she would live with her appearance. At 41, she works for Child Protective Services as an adoptions caseworker saying “if you’re helping someone, you can’t hurt them. By any stretch of the imagination, Amy Woodard-Davis’ is a success story, a profile in courage.
Back in 1971, events occurred that are vastly different from what would happen today, but at the same time could have happened yesterday. The difference? Amy’s mother was not charged with any crime. She tried to kill her newborn in one of the most brutal ways possible, but authorities gave her a pass. That would be unheard of today when parents are routinely jailed for allowing their children to be outdoors unsupervised or falling asleep in their parked car with the baby in its car seat. Yes, women and especially mothers still receive a “sentencing discount;” several studies show them to receive more lenient sentences for criminal behavior than do similarly situated men convicted of similar crimes. And I have no doubt that a man committing the same act today that Amy’s mother did would be more harshly punished than would a mother. But no mother who was not certifiably insane would be waved through the criminal justice system the way Amy’s mother was.
But as I said, some things remain the same. Of course, wherever there’s a baby, there’s a father. Where was he during his child’s trauma? He was in California completely unaware that his baby even existed. Amy’s mother hadn’t seen fit to tell him about his daughter, and in fact she never has. That’s not because he was a deadbeat or didn’t care about the woman. Indeed, he later returned to Kansas and married the woman and they raised two children together. With all that, she still hasn’t told him about his child who was born in 1971. That job fell to Amy.
In March 2006, she spoke to her biological father. He was 19 and living in California when she was born. She was surprised to learn he had returned to Kansas City years later, married Amy’s mother, and the couple had two more children, who were raised in the house where Amy was born.So she did. Here’s how the meeting with her mother went:
Amy had tracked down the family’s phone number from old fire department records. Her father didn’t know she existed until the phone call.
He was eager to learn everything about his daughter. So Amy told him a little. She told him about her education, how she was married, but in the middle of a divorce and that she had a beautiful daughter of her own.
But her father wanted more. He asked her to come meet him and their family, including her mother, in Kansas City.
Amy didn’t meet her birth mother in person until the end of her first day visiting. They talked very little, exchanging a few simple pleasantries. They sat next to each other in near silence for about an hour looking straight ahead at a television.So the all-too-familiar tale of a mother who decides to keep a child secret from the father is one that could appear in any newspaper anywhere in the country any day. So could the rest of Amy’s upbringing.
Too nervous to look directly at her mother, Amy stole quick glances of her when she could, amazed at their physical similarities. They had the same head, same full lips and straight teeth. It was the first time, she said, she had seen what she might have looked like without the burns.
After that meeting, Amy asked her mother a few times about what happened the day she was born and how she ended up in a trash fire. But she had no answers. Her birth mother declined to comment for this story.
Amy eventually recovered sufficiently from her burns and Lena Woodard, a burn technician at the Galveston hospital, and her husband became Amy’s foster parents. Soon they adopted her and raised her to adulthood. And that too is a story that could appear in the news today. Where was Amy’s father? We know he was in California and when he was finally contacted in 2006, he was eager to meet the daughter he never knew he had. So why wasn’t he contacted in the early 70s to find out if he could provide a home for his child?
I’m sure procedures were different then than they are now, but the results were the same – Amy went to an adoptive home because the CPS/foster care system decided to write the father out of the girl’s life story. Indeed, the article says that Amy’s mother’s rights were terminated. Were his? How were they? He wasn’t informed of her existence until 2006, so no one gave him notice either of his daughter or of the state’s attempt to terminate his parental rights.
As the Urban Institute has made clear, child welfare agencies routinely refuse to even attempt to contact fathers of children taken from single mothers due to abuse or neglect. In over half the cases, no effort is made to contact the father and ascertain his fitness to care for his child. And so it was in 1971.
As I said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.