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This Is Me: The unconventional family
It's been 10 years since Monica Spielgel spoke to her parents
Name: Monica Spiegel
Hometown: Medford Lake, N.J.
Major: Social Services
Monica Spiegel and her three siblings were doing what most children do during their summer vacation: nothing, and having a great time. But suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Spiegel answered hesitantly, opening the door to a police officer, who asked if her parents were home. When Spiegel said no, the policeman barged in, followed by a dozen more officers.
“I was more scared than anything. I had opened the door for strangers and I was too scared to comprehend what was even going on,” Spiegel said.
The police walked into a horrific scene. Spiegel and her siblings wore tattered clothing, and were left unattended in a house that a police report vividly described as “reeking of urine and excrement.” Mounds of dirty laundry, decaying food, two dogs running wild, two ferrets barely alive in the basement, and prescription drugs within reach of the children were everywhere that day in Langhorne, Penn. in 2000.
Police took Spiegel and her siblings away in an ambulance. After bathing and changing them into clean clothes at the hospital, a doctor gave the children check-ups. His biggest concern being Spiegel’s youngest sister Marisa, who weighed 17 pounds and couldn’t speak at 2 years old. After being cleared and released from the hospital, the children spent the night in Pennsylvania-state foster care.
“I don’t remember much about that first and last night in foster care,” Spiegel said. “I remember my sister, [Marisa], crying the whole time and the staff complaining about how noisy she was being. It was horrible and I didn’t want to stay.”
Help came just in time as Spiegal’s maternal grandparents, Mary Lou and Robert Horrocks, returned urgently from their vacation to Maine after authorities contacted them.
Spiegel and her siblings were taken to court the next day where they were issued a social worker, Deidra.
“Deidra was a super nice woman,” Monica said. “She was very helpful. She set us up with family therapy and remained in contact with us until she knew everything would be alright.”
Spiegel’s half-brother, David, was granted the right to live with his biological father. The remaining children went to live with their grandparents. The Horrocks were given the title of legal guardians over the children.
“Those are my grandchildren,” Mary Lou said. “There was no choice. In my mind, it was the only thing to do.”
Spiegel’s story isn’t uncommon. The latest Census Bureau data estimates that 7 million children in the United States are living with at least one grandparent. Reasons for this include the biological parent(s) being unable to tend for children financially, substance abuse, incarceration, and, in extreme cases, the loss of one or both parents.
Monica’s father pled guilty to four counts of endangering the welfare of children. Her mother, a former teacher, pleaded guilty to recklessly endangering other persons. The couple was ordered to undergo counseling, with psychiatric reports of their progress to be submitted every three months. The judge also requested officials of Bucks County Children and Youth Services to notify him if they were considering transferring custody of the children back to the Spiegels. But that day never came.
“I remember sleeping on the pullout couch in the family room the first week at my grandparents’ house because they hadn’t set up our rooms yet,” Spiegel said. “I remember wondering if we were ever going to go live back with our parents.”
Spiegel’s family received calls every weekend from their parents for about a year. “They would call every Sunday to see how we were doing. Eventually those calls became less and less and eventually [my brother] Zack and I stopped asking why those calls stopped,” Spiegel said.
Spiegel, her siblings and her grandparents haven’t spoken to her biological parents in more than 10 years.
Recalling the events of those few days during the summer of 2000, Mary Lou said there was certain amount of disbelief.
“I was worried about the children. [There wasn’t] a lot of understanding of what actually happened,” Mary Lou said. “I didn’t have all the facts. And eventually there was anger. This shouldn’t happen to any child, never mind my own grandchildren.”
Through the years, some questioned why or how the Horrocks didn’t know about the situation at Spiegel’s house.
“They lived in Pennsylvania,” Mary Lou said. “They would always come here to our home [in New Jersey] for holidays and outings so we never got to see them in their habitat.”
The Horrocks, in their late fifties, were faced with a new set of challenges as they raised young children once again.
“I had never heard of Spongebob,” Mary Lou said with a laugh. “It kept me young. Raising the children exposed us to more current things and involved us in a whole other generation.”
Along with becoming more current, Mary Lou bragged about how blessed she is because of her grandchildren.
“Everyone says they’re so lucky to have us, but in reality we’re lucky to have them,” she said. “They have brought so much joy into our lives.”
Mary Lou, a retired schoolteacher, still marvels over the series of events.
“I had taught kindergarten for 28 years. You always hear stories of children being abused and your heart always goes out to them,” Mary Lou said. “Never in a million years did I consider that could happen to my own grandkids.”
Looking back on the years with her parents, Spiegel said she doesn’t recall bad times.
“We were young and we didn’t know any better,” Spiegel said. “Neglect is a form of abuse. Growing up we had no idea that we were being abused. We didn’t know the difference between right and wrong. It was the only life we had ever known.”
Growing up without her biological parents didn’t bother Spiegel. However, there is something that still nags at her emotions.
“I miss the fact that I couldn’t actually say the words ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ to someone,” Spiegel said.
Spiegel, a senior studying social services, wants to become a social worker and give back to the system she went through as a child. She said she thinks everything happens for a reason, and these events allowed her to be and love where she currently is in life. Spiegel also has no reservations about sharing her story.
“I am not ashamed to speak about what happened to me,” Spiegel said. “I am proud to say I made it through and I am living my life.”