Life in the Time of Coronavirus is a GEN series where we are interviewing people across the country who have had their lives upended or are experiencing the stress of the unknown.
Nathalie K. is a 32-year-old mother living in a domestic violence shelter in Benton, Arkansas. Her four-month-old son is in foster care, pending an administrative hearing, but the coronavirus outbreak has meant that she hasn’t been able to see him in person.
My son was born in November. His huge dimples and blue eyes greeted the world just after 4:00 in the morning. I was in an abusive relationship at the time with a partner who sold and used drugs, but once I learned I was pregnant, I quit using cold turkey. I’d hoped I could get my partner to join me on my new path, but he didn’t quit, and things didn’t get better. When I went into labor, he didn’t even take me to the hospital; I managed to get there on my own. After the baby was born, he showed up at the hospital, and I felt obliged to go home with him. I should have asked one of the nurses for help, for a way to move forward without him. But I didn’t.
The abuse against me led to my son being placed in foster care. Once that happened, I knew I needed to get away from my toxic relationship. A woman I’d become friendly with helped me find a domestic violence shelter—a place that would support my sobriety and, hopefully, help me get my son back.
I’m supposed to have four-hour visits with my son each week. I hated sitting in the disgusting visiting room at the Department of Human Services. It was small, with one window. Food littered the floor, and it reeked of something awful. Still, I’d sit there holding my baby the entire four hours. But then the coronavirus arrived, and everything changed.
I was supposed to have an adjudication hearing on March 17 to determine whether my son would remain in foster care or if he would be returned to me. It was originally scheduled for February 18 but got delayed. Now, because of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been pushed back another month, to April 21. According to DHS, parents are normally supposed to have the adjudication hearing within 60 days of removal. So far, I have lost two months of being in my newborn’s life because of this.
As if that weren’t bad enough, my caseworker informed me that my in-person visits have been cut. Instead of the four hours per week I used to be able to spend with my baby, I now have to make do with 30-minute to one-hour video chats over FaceTime or Skype. I suspect it’s because my son’s foster mom doesn’t want to bring him down to the DHS office for visitation because of coronavirus fears, but a video chat doesn’t allow for substantial bonding.
I have asked numerous times for my baby to be put into my care at the domestic violence shelter here in Benton, which has put various health and safety protocols in place to safeguard against the coronavirus. But instead of being with me, he’s being fostered by a woman who, albeit nice, leaves him in daycare while she’s at work. They are taking precautions at the daycare; car seats and the children’s personal items aren’t allowed inside. The parent has to walk the baby in, and then the baby is wiped down and given to a daycare worker. Later, when the baby is picked up, the daycare worker brings the child outside to the parent. But it still feels like a health risk to me.
I feel like these impersonal video visits are making me lose my connection to my son. His foster mom can’t make him look at the phone. He’s a baby; FaceTime is no better than watching a video of him. I need more. It’s the worst feeling, not being able to hold him. When we had in-person visits, he got excited at my presence; he knew who I was. I don’t want to become a stranger to my own baby.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.