How a Leaky Toilet Broke Up a Family — And How It’s Being Put Back Together

Tiffani Ashley Bell
Dispatches from The Human Utility
3 min readOct 12, 2017


“I just started crying and I couldn’t stop crying.” — Patricia G.

Patricia G., a 57-year-old Detroit resident, was overcome with emotion. She’d just gotten the phone call letting her know The Human Utility paid $750 toward her water bill. Patricia was getting her water turned back on.

She wasn’t thinking about being able to bathe or quench her thirst by simply turning the handle on her faucet again. She wasn’t reflecting on the countless trips to the store for 10 cases of bottled water, or the walks across the street with two pots in hand to get cooking water from her neighbor Rhonda.

Patricia knew the restoration of water service meant she would soon be reunited with her five-year-old granddaughter, Ja’Lieyah.

Patricia’s granddaughter (5) Ja’Lieyah.

A deeply religious woman, she trusted that God would make a way for her granddaughter to return home.

“When one door closes, another one opens,” she said. “Because when (Child Protective Services) closed that door, God opened another door when y’all (The Human Utility) called.”

Patricia found The Human Utility after a computer search at the library. Within 10 days of going through the application process, her bill was paid. She also made a payment arrangement on the remaining balance with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

And she has a court date set for Oct. 23 in Detroit, in an effort to regain custody of Ja’Lieyah.

Patricia’s troubles stem from the water bill that climbed to $1,400 and led to shut-off in June. Her toilet leaked and she couldn’t afford to fix it. She went without running water in her home for three months.

She had gained custody of Ja’Lieyah in 2014 after someone called Child Protective Services on the little girl’s parents, one of whom is Patricia’s son. CPS granted custody to Patricia, as the next of kin.

But the custody situation became complicated.

Patricia said the CPS case worker assigned to her granddaughter’s case wasn’t fond of Ja’Lieyah’s parents. The case worker also wanted her to get a foster parent license despite being a relative.

But Patricia, a retired auto worker on disability who owns her home, was focussed on taking care of her granddaughter and not on the license.

Patricia said her refusal to get the license angered the case worker, who started doing regular background checks — including on utility payments.

Those checks prompted Patricia to lodge a complaint with CPS supervisors. In the meantime, the case worker was digging even further into her utility payments — where they discovered the water shut-off.

The case worker removed Ja’Lieyah from her grandmother’s home, and sent the five-year-old to a foster home.

Patricia has had an opportunity to visit her granddaughter. Ja’Lieyah is homesick.

Patricia, ever faithful, reminded her granddaughter that she had taught her how to pray. She reassured Ja’Lieyah that they would be reunited.

“That’s why I said to my last breath, I’m going to get you out,” Patricia said.

Written by Arthur Bridgeforth, Jr. in Detroit, Michigan. October 2017.

The Human Utility is a not-for-profit organization founded in 2014 and dedicated to ensuring dignity for everyone, everyday. We pay water bills for low-income families and seniors in the United States to restore or preserve their service. We’ve helped over 950 families get their water turned back on.

You can save lives and reunite families by giving today.



Tiffani Ashley Bell
Dispatches from The Human Utility

Founder & Executive Director at The @HumanUtility. @HowardU @ycombinator alumna. HKS Fellow. Investor. In 2021, at @StanfordGSB. Water is a human right.