When I got pregnant in January, 1999, my husband told me I needed to stop smoking crack if I wanted this baby. Four months later, I finally stopped.
I’d had four children before Little Mama, and lost them all to foster care. I was determined to do right by my daughter. Before I went to the hospital to give birth, I even changed my last name so that when the hospital social worker cleared me for discharge, my past ACS cases wouldn’t come up.
My Little Angel
When Little Mama was born on Sept. 22, I was so happy. She was 7 lbs. 7 oz. and born clean.
That day I made a promise to Little Mama (that’s what I call her) and to myself that I would always take care of her. I knew it would be hard because my craving for crack was always in the back of my head.
It turned out to be a lot harder than I’d thought to keep that promise. But I still think of Little Mama as my little angel. I’ve been able to make my life much better since she was born.
When I was 5 years old I was abandoned by my birth parents and adopted by a couple who changed my name to Lori Anderson and physically, sexually and emotionally abused my sister and me. I had no memory of my birth family. But when I was 10, my sister told me my real name was Sylvia Perez.
Alone and Ashamed
I started using drugs when I was 11 years old. First it was alcohol and cigarettes. By the time I was 14 I was sniffing cocaine, smoking marijuana and drinking. I was thinking a lot about why my real mom left me. Soon I ran away to look for my mom.
Over the next few years, I ended up in a shelter, different foster homes and girls’ homes, and locked up for nine months because I stole $2 from a social worker’s purse. By the time I was 17, I’d come to New York City with an abusive boyfriend. We started smoking crack and dealing it as well. I used because I never felt loved.
Every year on my birthday I feel so alone, without a mom or dad to call and say, “Happy birthday. I love you.”
My birthday came when Little Mama was about a month old. I felt anxious and depressed. My husband and I thought it would be OK to use just that once, because we could leave Little Mama with his sister and have a fun night that didn’t put her in danger.
So we took the train to Harlem to buy the drugs. It was dark and on the way to the building I was nervous, with my stomach twisted in knots. I spent $150 in one shot. Then we jumped in a cab to go to a hotel.
Weak With Temptation
I regret that night ’til this day. Now I see that I was weak with the temptation, and that all that money went to waste. I could have spent it on the baby, buying her clothes or little toys. But I let my selfishness and addiction take over.
After that, I started smoking again. I put myself first. I didn’t really take care of my daughter anymore. I sold her WIC checks (for buying milk). and changed my food stamps for money. All I wanted to do was go to the streets and sell myself for drugs. I always felt like garbage when I finished smoking the crack. I would lie next to her and cry. I knew I wasn’t being a mother.
When ACS came to get Little Mama and put her in foster care, I was not surprised. Still, it was a wake-up call that we needed to get ourselves together.
I will never forget her little face on the day of our first visit. I could see that she was tremendously hurt. All I could do was grab her and cry with her. I was so sad that my selfishness hurt her so much. That day I made a new promise that I’ve been working hard to keep: that I would never again be selfish in a way that would hurt her or my family.
After Little Mama got taken, my husband and I were desperate to find out what we had to do to get her back. We went to a conference at the foster care agency. My husband and I had asked my sons’ adoptive mother, Tamara, to come with us. I hoped that Little Mama could be placed with Tamara instead of with strangers.
The caseworker asked Tamara if she could take Little Mama that day. “Yes, as long as Sylvia and my husband do what they have to do to get her back.” Tamara said. I was so relieved.
Treated Like a Criminal
After that we discussed the case plan. We had to complete a drug treatment program, do domestic violence counseling and my husband had to go to anger management.
I felt angry at the conference. It felt like ACS treated me like a criminal. The caseworkers never looked at me directly. They were hard on me about my drug abuse, and they made my husband and me sign a contract saying that we would meet their demands.
I was very angry at myself, too. It was just unbelievable that I had put myself through this ordeal again.
I Am a Good Person
After that meeting, my husband and I went to Lincoln Recovery Center (an outpatient program) in the Bronx. We were required to do a urine test every day for one year, five times a week.
In the beginning of rehab I was totally uncomfortable being with other addicted women and their attitudes. But I learned a lot in recovery. I learned that my addiction was a disease and that my focus in treatment was to learn more about myself.
I learned that I am a good person and can be responsible. I realized I could stop prostituting and lying all the time, and that my husband and I could begin to trust each other. I felt good about myself for the first time.
Showing My Love
In parenting classes I learned that I could become a real parent to my daughter and have family activities with her and my husband. I learned about unconditional love and how to show Little Mama my love, so she knows that I do love her.
In May 2001 we got unsupervised weekend visits. For those two years, I couldn’t wait for Fridays.
I got anxious by Wednesday. All I could think of was kissing and hugging her. I loved talking with her on the way home, planning what we would do together for the weekend.
On Saturday we went to Bible study. I loved being there with her, letting her know that God loves us. For the two hours that we were there, I felt that everything was OK.
Some afternoons, my husband and Little Mama would color together, and she made sure he stayed in the lines. They watched Nickelodeon together and talked, little conversations about what was going on with each other. He’s a very protective dad with her.
Keeping My Sobriety
By Sunday it was time to say good-bye. Then I just waited for Fridays again.
As time passed, I became so proud of myself. I have come so far, learning how to be a responsible mother and an honest wife, and keeping my sobriety.
After two years and 11 months of fighting to turn our lives around, my husband and I got Little Mama home. On March 25, 2004, we went to family court. My heart was pounding. I was praying, “God, please give me a chance.”
The judge told us, “Stay away from drugs if you want to keep her home, and don’t want to face me again in this courtroom.” My God, all I could do was cry. I couldn’t believe that she said the words I’d been waiting for so desperately.
Then the judge joked, “Please advise your client not to cry in my court room.”
My lawyer laughed and said I was going to make her cry, too.
I thought that once Little Mama was home for good, our family would feel perfect. But for the first couple weeks she gave me a really hard time. She didn’t want to brush her teeth or wash her hair. She totally refused to pick up her toys. I had to tell her, “Go to your room.” This little angel had a bad side I’d never seen.
Sometimes we had arguments and we both ended up in tears. Our arguments scared me. I didn’t want every little thing to turn into a fight.
Luckily, ACS required us to go to family therapy every week for a year after Little Mama came home. So I discussed it with the therapist. He told us to make little steps with her. He reminded me that my husband and Little Mama and I are all going through changes.
The therapist said it would take time for Little Mama to adjust to our home and our different rules and schedules. He was right—it took a long time for Little Mama to settle down. But there has been so much to celebrate, too.
I love getting Little Mama ready for school every day, especially doing her hair: putting the gel in, pulling it into ponytails and then braiding them. When I was on crack, I honestly didn’t care about Little Mama’s hygiene or how she looked. I also wasn’t loving her like a real mother should. I never took her out—not to the park, or shopping.
Being a sober mom is 100 percent better. I make sure she eats well and that I have food in the house, and that she takes baths and washes her hair. I take her to the park. We play together—hide and seek and follow the leader—and then we get an icee and sit in the grass watching soccer or baseball games.
I feel grateful that the judge finally gave my husband and me a second chance to be parents, and proud of myself for going through drug treatment, therapy and parenting classes so I could bring her home.
Giving and Caring
My parenting has gotten a lot better in the months since Little Mama first came home. We eat dinner every night now, sitting together at the table to discuss our plans for the next day.
We bake cakes, make arts and crafts projects and talk about little things she’s thinking about. I love her personality. She’s very giving and caring.
When she acted up, I had to realize that Little Mama’s not a perfect angel, but she is a good kid. We still have difficult moments, but I’m getting better at staying calm.
Little Mama’s bedtime is the best time of the day for me. At about 8:30 p.m., she and I go to her room and read fairy tales. We hug and kiss and she says her prayers. After she lies down, she always calls to her daddy for a cold cup of water.
We are all together as a family when we put her to bed. She looks like an angel, protected by God, when she sleeps.