In the context of child welfare, the statistics on drug addiction and recovery are often ignored. Family-court judges regularly order parents to enter some kind of treatment program—anything from a meeting a couple of times a week to a month-long residential program. And the assumption is that once that program is completed, children will be reunified with their parents. The number of times they have relapsed in the past or the likelihood of relapse in the future often goes unconsidered.
How many chances do parents get?
Let’s take the case of Kara, whom I met at the Village Church in South Lebanon, Ohio, out- side of Cincinnati. Her story is difficult to hear and frustrating even in retrospect. Kara started smoking pot and drinking before she was sixteen. Her father died when she was ten, and she recalled a line of strange men coming in and out of her house. She was a “social user” of cocaine and acid into her twenties. But when her oldest son, Marcus, was born in 2007, she was prescribed Vicodin and Percocet. When those ran out, she became addicted to heroin. When her oldest was a year-and-a-half old, she was found guilty of theft and forgery. She spent 180 days at the Monday Program, a rehab program run by the Ohio Department of Corrections. She stayed clean for almost two years and then moved back home. “And then,” she reports, “it just spiraled out of control.”
She went back to rehab, and then during a brief stint where Marcus’s father was home from prison, Kara got pregnant again. She went off of drugs when she was pregnant with Jade and for a year after that. At that point, she started buying Suboxone off the street. “At least I wasn’t doing heroin,” she told me. A year later, she was pregnant with Will. But unlike with the other two, she didn’t get off drugs and didn’t go in for any prenatal care.
“I lied to everybody. I made people think I was just taking Subutex [a drug used to wean people off of opioids], but I was getting high. You could go to any street corner in Dayton or Cincinnati and get drugs.” Someone called CPS. She acknowledges lying to CPS about her drug use, about having a job, about her car breaking down. “They were not good lies at all.”
By the time she went into labor with Will, CPS would not let her take the baby home. Her mother now had custody of her three children, but Kara was living with her mother, so it was not really much different. There was a protection order against her boyfriend, but he wasn’t complying with it. She took a garbage bag and left home when Will was two months old. She has no recollection of him as a baby. “I don’t know when he started crawling. I don’t know when he started walking. I didn’t know any of that about my third child because I was an addict.”
Will was six months old when she got pregnant with Max. Kara’s fourth child was the one she says she never talked about. She and her boyfriend were living on the street in a town outside of Cincinnati, shooting heroin daily. “We never felt my belly. We didn’t talk about what he would look like or what we would name him,” Kara recalls. “It’s not that it wasn’t there, but we just knew that this baby was not going to be ours.”
When she went into labor, a friend came and picked her up and took her to the hospital. Her boyfriend was in prison by that point. There was cocaine and heroin in her system when Max was born. And he was born addicted too.
In a tragic coincidence, a couple who was waiting to adopt another infant found out that the mother had committed suicide, killing herself and the baby. Kara’s friend contacted her pastor about Kara’s situation, and the pastor contacted other pastors, who eventually told Kara about this couple. They agreed to adopt Max.
After leaving the hospital, Kara started using again immediately. “They discharged me, and I went out and got high.” For the next two months, she says, “I went harder than ever.” Max’s father, Richard, got out of prison, and while he was at work, she would steal or do anything she could to get drugs. She was in a store with her mother and three kids when she stole someone’s purse. On the run from the police, she and Richard both had warrants out for their arrest. He went to prison for seventy days and got out and then proceeded five weeks later to die of a heroin overdose. Kara got a furlough to go to his funeral and then went to rehab for 152 days.
The judge let her move back in with her mother and her children again, this time wearing an ankle monitor, and two years later she got custody back. She finally realized: “I can’t let my mom raise my kids. I can’t let her bury me.” She has gotten her mother to trust her again. Max is being raised by his adopted parents, but as long as Kara stays sober, she can continue to see him. She goes to a Celebrate Recovery program at the Village Church, and her kids attend a program there at the same time. She has a good support system and has had custody of her other three children for the past two years. She doesn’t like to tell people that she had her kids taken away from her or that one was adopted. “I wouldn’t even say that’s the cards that were dealt to me. That’s just how I play them.”
Getting clean is something she says she had to do. “Grandma is getting old. Richard is in the grave. David [the father of her oldest child] is in a county jail.... Who else do the kids have?”
The end of Kara’s story might seem like a happy one. And one can only hope that she stays on this path. But for almost a decade, she was incapable of caring for her kids, going in and out of their lives, exposing them to men who were in and out of prison, leaving them with her mother, who was not well and had difficulty caring for them, and even engaging in criminal activities while they were with her. Her older three children have never known from one year to the next, or even one day to the next, whether there will be a safe place for them to live, whether their mother will be around, and if she is around, whether she will be sober enough to understand what’s going on in their lives. She has been gone or effectively gone during the formative years of brain development and attachment. Kara presents her story as one of success, but frankly, it seems more like the failure of a child-protection system. Her children represent years of caseworkers and judges making decisions to give Kara one chance after another, with little regard for the effect it will have on them.
Editor’s Note: This essay is excerpted from Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new book, No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives (Simon and Schuster, October 2021). It has been reprinted here with permission. *The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.