By Joe Fausey
Art by Shena Han
My sister looked to her right at the vegetative blob in the passenger seat. My face remained unchanged — she had to redouble her efforts.
“Ah, fuck!” she groaned, throwing her arms in the air, reading her lines straight from the mental teleprompter. An unconvincing performance, but she gained my attention. I unstuck my gaze from the hot asphalt outstretched before us, and I faced my sister, whose hands hovered above the steering wheel as if suspended by marionette’s string.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, to be answered by the navigation system. We missed the exit; the last exit. In the rearview mirror, the corrugated metal sign shrank into the horizon, and I examined the GPS. The next exit wasn’t for another fifteen minutes — meaning we were now expecting arrival at 12:36. Twenty minutes after my flight home, to Dartmouth college, was to depart.
A smothering silence took over the car as the coming reality of airline bureaucracy and overburdened, under-enthused gate agents entered our minds. My sister launched into a series of apologies and mea culpas. I waved them away. I had already forgiven her. I forgave her when I saw her glance at the GPS before the exit; when her eyes turned back towards the road ahead, unwavering, and my own sealed themselves in feigned sleep. Another day, another few hours, another fifteen minutes — any amount of time, any additional moments together, would be a gift, accepted without fear or consideration of consequence.
My sister was born from the same mother, but I’ve never met her father. She lived with us, our mom and my own dad, until she didn’t. Our family unit never stayed unified; whether people were ejected entirely or separated by conflicts and continents, the shape of our house was under perpetual transition. As I got older, the certainty of her presence in my life dwindled — fate’s threads pulled us in every direction except together. Often, we were faced with prolonged droughts of connection, separated for days to months to years due to circumstances beyond our control. In that spare moment, by my sister’s side, salvaged from the highway’s shoulder, I remembered those droughts, and drank.
It was a short trip — neither of us were ready for it to end, so we abated its conclusion. Even as I scrolled through the airline’s app, searching for future flights and finding none, considering the extra hours — no, days — no, week — I would be stranded in Daytona Beach, I was overcome with excitement, not trepidation. A few extra hours, a couple days, another week, forced by fortune’s hand. More time to spend in the oasis, away from the isolation of Hanover’s scorching desert, away from the status quo of disparate kin and broken ties. The change in itinerary would ruin my plans; my move-in date was approaching, and the college’s bureaucracy required my presence. I wasn’t upset. I never thought to be. If she had intentionally let the exit slip by, it was from her own love and fear of drought. It was her humanity, her empathy, that would have led her to gift me that extra time. And it was because of my own humanity, my own love, that I accepted it with ease.
For much of our lives, such expressions of humanity were irregular. Inhumanity defined our relationship. Not from our own lack of feeling or ambivalence — rather, it was an inhumane world, a world of unfortunate circumstance, met with callous policy that drove a stake between our childhoods. My father, an Air Force man, was sent to build empire in Afghanistan, which meant a year with Grandma for me and, for my sister, a year with her biological father. A few years later, when my father left again, this time of his own accord, the story repeated. Providence continued to mangle and untangle our unmade threads. A summer with Mom for her, a summer with Dad for me. I get home at 4:00; she waits tables at 4:30. Our world was opaque, and only barely could we discern each other’s presence through the tinted glass. Although we could find each other in the cracks, the moments between the scarcity, there remained an ever-present fear of separation, always hanging above us by fretted string.
When things only just began to become hard, such cracks were rare. More than rare — they were hidden. Hidden behind stacks of red tape and merciless policy. These bureaucratic systems, perpetually manufactured and maintained by the unfeeling state, comprised much of the extrinsic factors that broke our relationship. In a society where people are treated as little more than capital, the only relevant relationships become economic, and those fiscally unproductive are made invisible. This underlying philosophy of the capitalist system materializes in a wide variety of contemporary practices, echoes of which ring through my own history. My father’s role in the Air Force required our routine uprooting and relocation. The justice system perpetuated the same cycles of household disruption. My sister had to fight tooth and nail for phone time, and her letters sent to me and those I love were under constant scrutiny and denigration. The intrusiveness didn’t lessen with her release from jail. A parole officer, a new member of the family, visited every weekday, making sure none of us were ever too used to life unmuddled.
One of the most egregious violations of family we experienced came from direct, supposedly well-meaning, intervention by the state. Child Protective Services: the authority on parental competency, the auditor of broken homes and unfit habitation. My aunt and uncle, upon visiting our house for the first time since my father’s departure, took one look, and decided CPS needed a call. My mother was gone, and I was being watched by my sister and her boyfriend — bad influences, “druggies,” as I’d overheard my uncle and aunt call them. The next day, I was pulled out of class and taken to my not-home, with my not-mother. I was ferried off, recognizable landscapes turning unfamiliar as my driver attempted to assuage my concern, explained the situation, and stared straight ahead. When the exit arrived at Titusville, my uncle’s city of residence, the driver did not hesitate to take it.
I spent six months there. My sister was left with her dad. I never saw her. While the court proceedings continued, unearthing recent traumas for the purposes of familial decomposition, I was sequestered from those who I’d survived alongside for my entire life. My mother, the supposedly negligent perpetrator, visited once a week. She had to work, taking up more hours to cover mounting court fees, which made seeing each other with any kind of regularity impossible. The distance to my sister was prohibitive. Despite my requests and his own empty promises, my uncle never found time to drive to see her. He didn’t seem too concerned, laughing off my gathering tears with assurances of the situation’s impermanence. I would be able to see my sister again, he would vow, once the dust settled. When that would be, he had no answer.
Six months later. The case was thrown out and our family was reunited. The time apart left its scars. Our first dinner together again was quiet. My mother made us our favorite meal, planting her hands warmly on our shoulders as we ate, never taking a bite for herself. Although the experience affected us deeply, our result was relatively benign. We were reunited, allowed to remain as one family unit. Results can, and often do, differ. Child Protective Services was constructed to punish families which deviate from the white, heteronormative, patriarchal model of the American family—the more egregious the deviation, the harsher the punishment. These policies were put into place not to bring families closer to this prototype, as for many, it is inherently unachievable—their exclusion from the norm is by definition. Instead, the system was built with deliberate subjugation in mind, ensuring that the worst outcomes of modern family policy fall on the backs of those already marginalized by class-based, race-based, and gender-based oppression. Thus, once the overly-saccharine explanations of the system’s bureaucratic necessity are peeled back, the implicit directive of the organization—to deconstruct and decompose nontraditional family units—becomes clear.
My family’s untraditional, anti-normative composition made us a prime target for the excesses of Child Protective Services. We had no father figure, our patriarch separated from us by time, distance, and iron bars. My mother, thus, took upon herself the mantle of caregiver, despite her struggles with neurodivergence and our precarious economic situation. She worked long days into long nights, leaving me in the sole care of my eldest sister. With no explicitly male breadwinner at the center of our household, and an evaporated patriarchal foundation, our deviancy from the accepted norm was clear. From the perspective of the underpaid, often inexperienced, institutionally misguided and overburdened social workers, our separation was quintessential. In reality, we were happier and healthier than we ever were under my father’s supervision, prospering under the absence of his dominance and abuse. This truth was invisible to CPS. We did not follow the patriarchal and classist expectations set upon us—and we lost our right to family.
Although outcomes such as these are seen by many as incidental, inadvertent injustices in a broken system, in reality they are the desired result. Family policy in this country is based on the ideal of a certain kind of nuclear family: white, heterosexual, and strictly patriarchal. Any deviation from this norm is viewed as problematic and worthy of undue scrutiny. It is not an accident then that families of color, families without fathers, and families of the economically disadvantaged are targeted disproportionately, with harsher adjudication than families which fall under the idealized nuclear model. In my own experience, our lack of a father was sufficient grounds for a prolonged separation which contributed to a significant disruption in our familial bond. While this disruption may have had lasting negative psychological effects, for a time, it freed up my mother and sister to be good laborers; good, seemingly productive members of American society, unencumbered by the supposed burden of simultaneous child care and economic provision. Thus, the natural conclusion of contemporary American family policy ends in the purposeful destruction of marginalized family units, whose compositions are categorized as necessarily, and irrevocably, inferior. This frees up parents—like my single, working mother—to devote their bodies to economic production instead of child-care and moves children into environments that continue to perpetuate cycles of poverty and exploitation.
The evidentiality of this situation is disheartening. Like most of modern America’s injustices, it is realized not solely through individual action or institutional direction, but a combination of the two, dialectically relying on and enforcing one another to create the robust machinations of systemic abuse performed by Child Protective Services. The social workers I encountered had good intentions and wide smiles, but it was their hands who led me away from my family, and it was their lawyers who challenged us in court. With one breath, they offered condolences for our breaking home, and with the next, they testified to the necessity of its decomposition. Their hands were tied. Their individual agency had succumbed to the institution’s will.
When I arrived at the airport, I eked out a half-goodbye, fully expecting to return to my sister’s car shortly, as the odds of getting on a flight had at that point diminished to impossibility. I ran to the gate, my mouth running faster, words clumsily tumbling out of my mouth as I tried to explain the situation to the gate agent. Three-quarters of the way through my ad-libbed presentation, she held up a hand, using the other to punch at her keyboard. Moments later, she handed me a gate pass. My flight was yet to depart, but airport regulation stated that passengers weren’t allowed past security twenty minutes before their takeoff time. Of course, with a gate pass, usually given solely to those accompanying others to the terminal, I could pass through security and board the plane uninhibited. The gate agent smiled as I accepted the ticket. I was hesitant. The extended vacation had evaporated from possibility, and I would be fulfilling my agreement with the college, finishing my move-in on the date they provided. I committed to fulfilling my institutional predestination, while my sister—and the gate agent, for that matter—let their humanity guide them, let them forgo their preordained roles and allow their empathy to shine through the cracks. I regret it. The oasis dried, and the college’s bureaucratic will coerced me back to the desert.
 Danielle Broadway, “CPS Has a Systemic Racism Problem — and Black Parents Are Losing Their Children Because of It,” Parents, August 25, 2021, https://www.parents.com/news/cps-has-a-systemic-racism-problem-and-black-parents-are-losing-their-children-because-of-it/; “Our Systems Meant to Help Are Hurting Black Families,” National Institute of Children's Health Equality, October 2, 2018, https://www.nichq.org/insight/our-systems-meant-help-are-hurting-black-families#:~:text=Mandated%20reporting%20is%20meant%20to,anonymity%20to%20do%20so%20freely.
 Dara Lewis and Philip Young P. Hong, “Incapacitated Fatherhood: The Impact of Mass Incarceration on Black Father Identity,” Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice & Criminology 8, [Issue 3] (April, 2020): doi.org/10.21428/88de04a1.09b4b7aa.
 Rosa Daiger von Gleichen and Zachary Parolin, “Varieties of Liberalism: A Comparative Analysis of Family Policy and Poverty Outcomes Across the 50 United States,” Social Policy & Administration 54, no. 6 (2020): 933–51, doi.org/10.1111/spol.12617.