The first time I visited my son in foster care, I walked into the same CPS office that I’d sat in as a child. I saw my son looking at me with tears running down his face the same exact way I’d looked at my mom. As I walked through the halls of the same courthouse I watched the designs on the floor just like I used to. I was livid that child welfare was back in my life. I never would have been able to get through it if my son hadn’t been on the other side.
My son was 8 when child protective services took him from me. I never hated myself more than I did right then and I wanted drugs to help me escape that self-loathing. But I knew my son had to feel pain, so how dare I take that pain away from me.
I was shocked to find that this time through, though, the system actually helped me.
My Son Saved Me
The years I spent in foster care in Texas left me feeling never good enough. I switched homes and schools. Always the new kid, always alone. I never understood why I couldn’t go home to my mom and siblings. It was all I wanted. It was my every prayer.
I got pregnant at 17 and my son saved me. I was determined to give my son what I never had. I also had absolutely no idea how to do that.
Lots of times I ran to the hospital because I didn’t know who else could teach me to parent. When I couldn’t figure out why my son’s legs were blue, the hospital showed me I had the diaper too tight. When I thought he had an ear infection, they showed me how to get the wax out of his ears. Another time the hospital showed me how to clean out his nose. I laughed when they showed me the suction nozzle. I had one that I’d been using as a toy to blow air in his face.
The only thing I knew how to do was love my son and even that seemed unnatural because it was new to me.
The Wrong Savior
But I still had a void inside. When my son was 5, I tried not only to find a father for my son, but God, a savior, a family, a husband and anything else that would fill the void. All those things I needed but the man I chose was all the wrong person. He introduced me to a drug whose hypnotizing spell at first took away the pain and soon after took me to a depth of pain I cannot describe.
I would hide in my room getting high for days, crying because I just couldn’t stop. I prayed that if I died my son wouldn’t find me. Over a two-year period, I lost my job, my house and eventually my son.
When my son was placed in foster care, I didn’t think the system could do anything but harm me. But my son and I were lucky to have a supportive caseworker. We were lucky, too, to be sent to therapists who understood addiction and understood us. While I worked on forgiving myself and finding peace with my past, my son was able to let out the anger he’d been keeping from me, and talk about the fear that his behavior could lead me to use again.
When my son finally came home I begged our caseworker to keep our case open. I was just too scared of not having anyone hold me accountable.
At home, I would watch him laugh and play. Later I would hide and cry and think of using because I didn’t feel I deserved to enjoy him. It was painful, too, to see his fear. He would constantly check to make sure I wasn’t drinking or using drugs.
The support of my son’s godmother helped me through this difficult time, and slowly my guilt and my son’s fears began to recede.
Joining the System
A year after my son and I reunified, I ran into the caseworker who had originally investigated my case. She was proud of me and encouraged me to join a group of parent advocates from across Texas called the Parent Collaboration Group. After I became a parent advocate and began helping other parents while improving the system, I realized that my defective life was also an asset. Those of us who have been both child and parent of the system can be a powerful resource to improve it.
I also joined a workgroup to bring understanding of addiction and quality addiction services to the child welfare system, two things that are hugely lacking. I was lucky to get good supports and services, but too many parents do not. It’s unethical to break apart families without them.
Today I try to show other parents what I finally learned—that their future can be different from their past. I also try to give them the kind of support that I received from the system. If I don’t use my pain to help others, I would have felt that pain for nothing.
One time, my son came to a support group for parents with children in the system. He bravely stood in front of the group and shared how my addiction affected him and what our lives are like now. Many parents thanked him and explained that they had been ready to give up before hearing him. They felt defeated and felt so much guilt. But my son gave them hope. He told them that he had to have the addicted me to get the me I am today.