Book Review: A Place Called Home: a needed antidote to the dominant narrative

It’s Christmas in Manhattan, and five-year-old David Ambroz (then called Hugh), six-year-old Alex and seven-year-old Jessica trudge through the freezing nighttime streets. “I’m only five,” writes Ambroz, “and all I know about Christmas is the stories I’ve heard at the churches where we go for free meals.” “Mom, we’re close to the Port Authority, can we go inside?” asks Hugh. “Walk straight. They’re after us” is the reply he receives. “There’s a calculation I make whenever I talk to Mom: Will she hit me, and is it worth it?” Ambroz explains.

So begins David Ambroz’s harrowing account of life with a mother, Mary Ambroz, whose mental state varies from manic to apathetic to floridly paranoid. A former nurse who was once married to a doctor,* Mary has been in the grips of her untreated mental illness for as long as Hugh can remember. The family bounces back and forth between New York City and Albany, eventually relocating to Western Massachusetts. The children are condemned to a life of sleeping at all-night Dunkin Donuts shops, dining on tiny cups of creamer mixed with sugar packets, and eating out of dumpsters, interspersed with short periods of relative normalcy when the family finds a temporary home. Those periods last until Mary decides the CIA or other pursuer is back on their trail. Some years the children don’t go to school at all, other years they change schools one or more times due to their frequent moves. The children don’t receive medical or dental checkups or vaccinations and visit the occasional clinic only for emergencies. When Hugh breaks his arm at the age of four, he is taken to the emergency room to have it set but never brought back to have the cast removed; when it starts to smell, Mary removes it with a kitchen knife.

Over the years the family has been investigated many times without getting any help, reports Ambroz. Mary Ambroz usually manages to convince authorities that she is a good mother, although she has lost custody more than once–one time when she threw a shoe at a judge in eviction court and was carted off to a psychiatric ward. The children went to a friend’s mother, but were returned to their mother as soon as she was released.

When she finds work as a live-in nurse for an older woman who allows the family to live with them, Mary instructs the children to call their benefactor “Aunt Flora.” Hugh is thrilled to live in an apartment where he can take a bath and to be enrolled in third grade only a month into the school year even though he missed most of second grade. In an apparent effort to ingratiate the family with “Aunt Flora,” Mary tells eight-year-old Hugh he is Jewish, renames him David, and immediately takes him to a doctor to be circumcised. But she does not bring him back for follow-up care and the wound becomes infected. Mary refuses to seek medical care despite “Aunt Flora”‘s pleas, rippimg off the protective mesh that had become stuck to the wound. Dismayed at Mary’s refusal to seek medical care for her son, “Aunt Flora” expels the family and they are living in Grand Central station again.

Even during relatively stable periods, when they are able to rent an apartment in Albany with the help of public assistance, life is far from normal for the children. Mary Ambroz doesn’t cook and when the food stamps start to run low the children have strategies for getting fed, like sneaking into Ponderosa Steakhouse by pretending to be part of a family that has already paid. A kitten they were allowed to adopt during a good period starves to death despite David’s attempt to steal enough food to keep him alive. “He ate his own shit and died,” his mother tells him. “Enough whining, David. You should have taken care of him,” she said, putting the body in a trash bag along with the cat toys and the litter box.

Mary Ambroz uses a gift of $500 to take a taxi to Boston, and the family ends up in a domestic violence shelter in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Shelter staff try to help her get back on her feet and David tries to assist, accompanying her in selling vacuum cleaners door to door. The children are enrolled in school But that situation falls apart when Mary accuses a 65-year-old staffer groundlessly of sexually abusing David, after beating David up for allowing it to happen. “Nobody wants to tangle with my mother….And so, at this shelter for abused women, the response to our mother’s unhinged behavior is to move us to an apartment where they won’t have to witness the abuse.” And that is the same story, reports Ambroz, that repeats over and over again in their lives. Adults intervene with temporary kindnesses but don’t take steps to rescue the children from what is clearly a dangerous situation.

The children are thrilled with their new apartment, but Mary grows worse, alternating between almost catatonic apathy and violence. Twelve-year-old David realizes that foster care could be his salvation. He and his siblings been have been hiding their bruises for years at their mother’s demand but he finally understands that he must reveal his injuries in order to be saved. He shows his bruises to a DARE officer visiting his school. Two weeks later, two social workers knock on their door. “David, does your mother hurt you?” asks one of them, in front of his mother. As often happens when children are asked this question in the presence of the abusive caregiver, David retracts the allegation and the case is closed.

Mary Ambroz’s violence continues to escalate. She beats Alex severely with a curtain rod when he refuses to make a list of all the men with whom he has had sex. The children hatch a plan: 14-year-old Alex will ride a stolen bike 40 miles over the hills of Western Massachusetts at night to get help from a friend’s mother in Albany. The children gather $40 worth of food stamps, candy, and snacks and Alex is off. The family hears nothing for three weeks, and then the police call. Alex had made his way to Albany and disclosed the abuse to police and social services and is now in foster care. Once again, David is interviewed in front of his mother. Once again, denies the abuse. Once again, the social workers leave him and Jessica at home.

Just a few days later, Mary throws David down the stairs of their apartment building and then kicks his head, and everything goes dark. Covered with blood, David drags himself into the nearby courthouse and collapses into the arms of a bailiff. Finally David has had enough. From his hospital bed, he tells the investigating social worker what happened. His mother insists that he fell down the stairs, but the doctor opines that “it is not impossible, but these are pretty extensive injuries for a fall.” The CPS worker, unbelievably, tells David that while the investigation proceeds, “we think it’s best that you go home with your mom.” But a week later, the police knock on the door. A social worker tells David to pack his things. As he drives away from the apartment, David thinks, “This is it. I’m free.”

And now starts David’s life in foster care, which is only slightly less harrowing than his life with his mother. Jessica is placed in the foster home where Alex is living, but the home is not open to David and he knows why; the social workers can tell that he is gay. David spends his first night in foster care sleeping in the Department of Social Services (DSS) office, an experience of many children in foster care today. Then David is brought to a facility for juvenile delinquents, after being told by a social worker that it was not the right place for him but “we don’t have a place that can accept your kind.” At the facility he is called “fag” and “Ms. Ambroz” by a staffer, loses privileges for talking back, and is beaten up by other residents at the apparent instigation of the homophobic staffer. David’s illusion of safety is gone. “I am destroyed. It took everything I had to escape my mother. I thought nothing could be worse, but now, at twelve years old, I feel like this is it.”

David quickly cycles through several foster and group homes. He is finally placed with his siblings in the home of Buck and Mae, a couple who should never have been accepted as foster parents. After the children go to bed in their basement, they are not allowed upstairs for any reason, not even to go to the bathroom. They can’t use the shower without an escort, they can’t go into the kitchen except for mealtimes, and no snacking is allowed. Abetted by a succession of therapists, Buck and Mae try to suppress David’s homosexuality, forbidding him to close the door to the bathroom all the way and designing “manly” chores like clearing a swamp and digging out a backyard swimming pool. He is sent out to hang up wet laundry in the winter without gloves. They say he is too fat and put him on a starvation diet, and now he is hungry again and scrounging for food.

Thanks to a high school friend of David’s siblings, he is hired to work at a summer camp, and that summer changes David’s life. He bonds with the camp director, Holly, and her small daughter, a camper. Holly senses that something is wrong in David’s home. Knowing he needs support, she visits him weekly after camp ends but the visits eventually stop. Later David learns that Holly stopped visiting him after Mae became furious when she bought him new clothes. Holly called David’s social worker and asked to become his foster parent. She and her husband were working on receiving their foster care license until the social worker told them that Mae and Buck insisted it was better for him to be kept with his siblings.

Finally, Jessica and Alex run away. They disclose abuse at the foster home and refuse to go back. But there is no room in the new foster home for David, and DSS keeps David with Buck and Mae even while recognizing their abuse, requiring them to do additional training and not allowing them to take on new children. (Holly is never told that David is no longer with his siblings or invited to apply for her foster care license). Mae restricts David’s food even more while citing his obesity, even though he is dangerously underweight. Nobody at school appears to notice or care. Even when David faints in school, he does not explain that he is starving and no red flags are raised. Buck and Mae begin taking him out of school to work for an acquaintance, pocketing his pay and that too raises no concerns at school.

The torture escalates until one spring morning in 1995, Mae tells David he is staying home from school and David decides he is not going to take it anymore. He leaves the house and tracks down Holly, learning of her attempt to have him placed with her. Finally, David is placed with Holly, her husband Steve, and their two small children. He cannot believe that he is allowed to freely roam upstairs, or that he is allowed to eat whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Steve teaches David how to drive and laughs when he destroys their mailbox, saying he never liked it anyway. Holly ensures that he, Alex and Jessica get the braces that Mae refused to let them get since her kids could not have them.

David always loved school, but the dislocations imposed by his mother, and the hunger and absences posed by his foster parents, often affected his grades. One he is stable and fed, he gets straight A’s. As a high school junior, he joins the Foster Youth Advisory Council and begins attending annual meetings in Washington. But even with loving foster parents, David is tired of the system. He emancipates himself with the help of a fictitious custody arrangement with his siblings’ father and goes off to Spain for a miraculous year of healing and fun with a loving host mother. He applies and is accepted to his dream school, Vassar, with a generous financial aid package.

Even with his financial aid, David struggles to buy books and to survive during school breaks. (It is not clear why he does not ask Holly and Steve for these things or return to them for the holidays; it seems to be a matter of pride or reluctance to burden them.) He eventually gives up on fulfilling his mother’s dream that he become a doctor and switches his major to political science and his plan to law school, remembering his experience as a White House intern the summer before. At a meeting of the Foster Youth Advisory Council, he agrees to be a liaison to a collaboration working to help gay foster youth. That’s when he comes out as a gay man. The story ends with his graduation from Vassar in May 2002. He is on his way to UCLA to study law and public policy. Now, Ambroz works for Amazon as head of Community Engagement (West) and is the founder of Fostermore.org, an organization that encourages those in the entertainment industry, businesses, and nonprofits to raise money and heighten awareness about the needs of foster children.

A Place Called Home provides some important corrections to the prevailing narrative in child welfare. That narrative features struggling parents who are doing the best they can, and who are being persecuted by an evil “family policing system” that is dead set on removing their children. Clearly, that is not the story of David Ambroz and his siblings. At every stage of the child welfare process–reporting, investigation and reunification–the deck was stacked against the children’s interest in safety and stability and in favor of their mother’s keeping them. While it has been some years since David Ambroz was an abused child (he does not give his date of birth but we know that he graduated from Vassar in 2002 and we can assume he was born close to 1980) the problems he identified are very familiar to those with knowledge of the system and indeed some of them may even have worsened due to the current ideological climate in child welfare.

Failure to Report: The number of people who knew that David and his siblings were suffering but took no action to help them is truly staggering. As Ambroz puts it, “Priests, rabbis, teachers, shelter directors, church members, welfare employees and Aunt Flora have all been witnesses to our bruises and lice, our hunger, a ceaseless tide of neglect and abuse.” David acknowledges that reports were made and the children were even removed once or twice, but the vast majority of people who witnessed their abuse apparently did not report it. We often hear similar stories in the wake of a child’s maltreatment death. For example, eight-year-old Dametrious Wilson was killed by his aunt in June 2022. Though he missed 60 days of school in the year before he died, his Denver Colorado school never reported his absences as required by law, even when his aunt said she was keeping him home “for few weeks” as punishment for his behavior!

And yet, today there is a groundswell of opposition to mandatory reporting and serious proposals to eliminate it, mostly on the grounds that children of color are disproportionately reported. It is true that a staggering proportion of Black children are investigated by CPS; it has been estimated that over half of Black children experience a CPS investigation by the time they turn 18, compared to 28 percent for white children and 37 percent of all children. It is possible that reporting is overused in some communities and underused in others. But it seems more logical to address these problems directly (and also educate ordinary citizens about the need to report suspected maltreatment) rather than eliminating mandatory reporting itself.

Flawed investigations: Even when reports were made, the investigations were often flawed. Ambroz states that “Over the years we’ve been investigated many times without getting help. Mom always fights to keep us, and it’s a battle she’s mostly won.” So what went wrong? Ambroz gives us part of the answer when he explains that social workers and police interviewed him at least twice in front of his mother. Both times he recanted and denied the abuse he had alleged earlier, knowing that he risked severe punishment for telling the truth. It seems obvious that children should be interviewed away from their parents since either love or fear or both will lead them to lie. Yet, this clueless and dangerous practice of interviewing children in front of the alleged perpetrator contnues in many jurisdictions. In Minnesota, a young woman named Maya, who was forced to report her fathers’s sexual abuse while he was listening, worked with an advocacy group to draft Maya’s Law, which required that Minnesota children be interviewed privately regarding allegations of abuse. But like the previous attempts, Maya’s Law failed. Instead, the language was revised to read “When it is possible, and the report alleges substantial child endangerment or sexual abuse, the interview may take place outside the presence of the alleged offender…” Sadly, many “advocates” for Black and indigenous children argued against the requirement for private interviews, fearing that it would increase disproportional involvement of these groups in child welfare.

Unwarranted reunifications: Even when David and his siblings were removed from their mother briefly, they were returned at least twice with no indication they would be safe. When Mary returned from the psychiatric ward after throwing a shoe at a judge, “nobody cared that we are being put in the custody of a homeless woman who’d recently thrown a shoe at a judge in a court of law.” We know that many children are reunified with their parents despite a lack of evidence of any change in their behavior or capabilities. In Lethal Reunifications, I wrote about two such cases that ended in a child’s death, but clearly that is just the tip of the iceberg. We never know about the children left to suffer in silence, unless they decide to write about their experiences.

Necessity of foster care in some cases: The current narrative holds that foster care is almost never necessary. But David Ambroz’s story reveals the stark truth that some children must be removed in order to be saved. Of course every effort should be made to help parents conquer their problems while monitoring children for safety in the home. But in cases of chronic maltreatment, ingrained patterns may be impossible to change. As Dee Wilson put it in his briliiant commentary on chronic multitype maltreatment, “Chronic neglect is marked by the erosion or collapse of social norms around parenting resulting from chronically relapsing conditions.” There is no better example of such collapsed social norms than Mary Ambroz, who had completely lost any sense of responsibility to keep her children clothed, fed, and housed, not to mention to avoid abusing them. In such cases, it is wrong to sacrifice the well-being of the child or children for the general value of family preservation.

Ambroz’s story also provides a needed antidote to the current trope that what child welfare describes as neglect is actually just poverty. The confusion of poverty with neglect is a pernicious misconception being perpetrated today by those who wish to eviscerate the child welfare system. David’s story clearly shows the difference. He says of the mother of friends they make in Albany: “Aurora and her sons are poor like us, and yet she still manages to take care of them. She feeds and clothes them. She cares about where they are when they roam around at night. She gives them a home that is stable in all the ways I’ve never dreamed.” And there, in a nutshell ,is the distinction between poverty and neglect.

The dominant narrative portrays foster care as harmful for children and even abusive at times. That part of the narrative is accurate for the first part of David’s time in care, when the system proved incapable of keeping David and his siblings safe, let alone meeting their needs. Among the major reasons for this failure, Ambroz draws attention to the lack of qualified foster parents and overwhelmed social workers.

Lack of Qualified Foster Parents: David fell victim to one of the scourges of our system, insufficient numbers of good foster parents. For this reason, he was initially placed in a facility for juvenile delinquents where he was abused for being gay, and then in a totally unsuitable home. In Buck and Mae, David provides a classic example of a couple who become foster parents to make ends meet. The foster care payments they received helped Buck and Mae keep their house and clothe their children. It is not surprising that such foster parents exist: some foster care agencies leave recruiting brochures in food stamp offices and laundromats; one that I worked for advertised in in a publication called the PennySaver. And yet, even when David’s siblings ran away and their abuse allegations that were taken seriously enough that the agency decided to send no more children to this couple, they were allowed to keep David. One reason, as Ambroz points out, is that there are not enough foster parents, especially for large sibling groups, so the focus is on finding any “bed” for a child. As a foster care social worker in the District of Columbia, I knew many foster parents who were motivated mainly by money. My recommendations to fire such foster parents were never accepted because the agency needed the beds.

To address the shortage of good foster parents, Ambroz recommends recruiting more middle and upper-income foster parents with higher education degrees. In order to do this, he suggests providing benefits that might attract such parents, such as government pensions, participation in the federal employee health plan, and access to free or subsidized tuition and state colleges and universities. I’m not confident that any of these benefits will attract more educated foster parents, and financial incentives also pose the risk of attracting more educated versions of Buck and Mae. Perhaps the lesson of David’s story lies the willingness of Holly and Steve to be his foster parents and the unresponsiveness of the system to this request. There is now a big push to locate kin who can care for children who are removed–and this may be happening much more frequently than when David and his siblings entered care. Perhaps agencies can do more to find unrelated adults who may have bonded with children as their teachers, parents of their friends, mentors or employers, who might serve as foster caregivers. This is certainly done; I myself agreed when asked by CPS to provide a temporary home to a friend of my son’s. If most children who are removed could be placed with adults known to them, it would be easier to fire the Bucks and the Maes and reserve the great foster parents for the children for whom no known adults are available.

Overwhelmed social workers: One reason David’s social worker did not jump at the chance to move him to Holly’s home may be that she was overwhelmed. “I have a rotating cast of social workers, who don’t have the bandwidth to pay attention to anything but immediate and obvious problems,” Ambroz reports. Based on my experience as a social worker in foster care, I could not agree more. Foster care, especially for older and more troubled children, is plagued with constant crises. With caseloads in most jurisdictions far too high, social workers have no time to deal with anything besides the latest crisis. Contributing to the problem are frivolous paperwork and metrics that have nothing to do with child wellbeing. Between the foster parents who did not perform the most basic parental responsibilities, and the caseloads that were too high for me to pick up the slack, I could not spend the time I needed to ensure that each child received the care they needed to thrive, and I eventually left the job.

David Ambroz recommends attracting more and better social workers by decreasing their caseloads and increasing their pay and benefits by either a salary increase or alternative compensation such as student loan forgiveness and home loan assistance. These are excellent ideas. There are other ideas worth considering, such expanding and publicizing the current Title IV-E social work education program that provides tuition assistance for social worker students who want to go into child welfare. Also worth considering are recruiting among populations that do not traditionally seek these jobs, such as military retirees, and perhaps changing education requirements for social workers in child welfare to allow other backgrounds besides social work.

Flaws in the Analysis

While David Ambroz’s story is powerful and carries many important lessons, his acceptance of the current child welfare zeitgeist may have prevented his drawing the conclusions that logically flow from his story. First, he buys into the currently popular misconception that parents are being found neglectful when they are simply poor. Second, he misses the opportunity to advocate for strengthening child protection services, not weakening them.

Poverty vs. neglect: While I’ve already described how Ambroz’ story contradicts the currently popular assertion that “neglect” is synonymous with poverty, he unfortunately repeats that same trope. Describing the domestic violence shelter staff’s decision to place the family in an apartment after observing Mary Ambroz’s abuse of her children, Ambroz states that “[T]his is a pattern that is repeated across the country–children in poverty are given kernels of assistance but are rarely rescued from their circumstances.” But David and his siblings were abused children, not just children in poverty. As mentioned above, he acknowledges that other poor families were not like theirs. By confusing poverty with maltreatment, Ambroz loses a key opportunity to clarify the difference between these problems and to explain that eliminating maltreatment requires more than just economic assistance .

Child protection failures: In his list of policy prescriptions, included in an appendix to the book, Ambroz does not address any of the problems with CPS that were revealed in his memoir. He focuses mainly on foster care, as if his earlier experience as an abused child did not have policy implications. Ambroz could have thrown his weight behind mandatory reporting in light of the movement to end it and could have argued for education of all citizens on the need to report suspected abuse. He could have supported reforms requiring that children be interviewed away from her parents. But these such policies are opposed to the current climate in child welfare which favors hobbling or eliminating CPS and minimizing interference with families. Ambroz appears to be determined to stay within the mainstream, saying “the best way to reform foster care is to decriminalize poverty and help families remain intact whenever possible with wraparound support–be it jobs, mental health care, or whatever is needed.” If abused and neglected children can remain safe with wraparound support that is clearly the best option, but to receive this support, these children must be identified through reporting and investigation. It is unfortunate that Ambroz did not recognize the discrepancies between some of the lessons of his story and the dominant narrative in child welfare and missed the opportunity to spell them out.

Despite its flaws, Ambroz’s story takes its place with other haunting memoirs of abused children, like Stacey Patton’s That Mean Old Yesterday, Regina Calcaterra’s Etched In Sand, and most famously Educated by Tara Westover, which put the lie to the current narrative of good parents vs. the evil state. If only Ambroz had recognized the conflict between his narrative and the dominant one, his book would be even more useful. But the story speaks for itself; the commentary is secondary. David Ambroz’s story is a must-read for anybody who cares about the abused and neglected children among us, including those who are in foster care.

*The doctor was the father of Alex and Jessica, but Mary Ambroz never told David who his father was.