Black, Male, Addicted–and Underestimated
The child welfare system assumed I didn’t belong in my children’s lives.
By JEFFREY MAYS
|Jeffrey Mays with his family.
Child welfare came into my life in 2000. At the time, I was married with three children, ages 14, 11 and a newborn. I was also an addict.
I used anything that got me high: glue, coke, heroin, valium. I started getting high to belong with the bad guys in the neighborhood and I continued for 35 years.
Because of my drug use, I could not hold a job for long and at times I was an embarrassment to my children. One day I had to go to the school and the principal said I smelled like wine. I made a scene and called her all kinds of “bitches” and “hoes.”
I couldn’t always provide for my children adequately, either. When my kids were taken into care, they were staying at my brother-in-law’s because we had no gas or electricity.
An Addict and a Father
Despite my drug use, I took my role as a father seriously. So many Black men are in prison, or don’t have a job and can’t pay child support, or have baby mama drama. They may want to be in their kids’ lives but because of all of the obstacles, they just move on. My own father never left us, though. He told me a real man takes care of his family.
I made sure I was an important part of my children’s lives. When my kids needed someone to talk to, they would come to me and we would take a walk. They knew they could tell me anything.
The problem was the child welfare system didn’t see me that way.
Child protection took our children when our last baby was born positive tox. The night my kids were taken was the worst night of my life. My oldest child just started running. I told her: “Be strong. I am going to get you back. I love you.” I felt terrible that I had let her down.
After that, I entered rehab on my own. I knew I had to do this for my children. But when the social worker came to the house, the first thing out of her mouth was, “Who are you?”
I told her, “I am the children’s father and this is my wife.”
She asked, “What are you doing here?”
I said, “I live here.”
After that, she ignored me and went on to talk to my wife. My wife was addicted, too, and the social worker said they would help her get into inpatient treatment. The case plan didn’t involve any kind of services for me.
Maybe the social worker assumed I would never get sober because my wife told her that I had been in and out of treatment for 35 years. But in my mind she saw me as just another deadbeat Black dad, rather than seeing me for who I was: an addict, yes, but also someone my wife and children looked to for love and support.
I Didn’t Belong
After my wife went into treatment, the only way I found out about my children’s case was from my wife’s drug counselor. (I wasn’t allowed to visit my wife while she focused on recovery.)
I would show up to appointments and the workers, lawyers and judges would ask me how I found out about them. They never told me that I couldn’t participate, or that I couldn’t see my kids. Still, the message seemed clear: I didn’t belong.
I felt such mixed feelings during those months: mad, sad, wanting to die. A lot of times I wanted to give up. But I asked God to help me and I kept going to the rehab program I had found for myself.
Every time I showed up to visits or appointments, I’d bring a clean urine. At first that didn’t seem to make any difference. But I kept coming. After eight months, they finally started including me in the case plan.
Over time, I saw the ways I hadn’t provided my children with security. When we had meetings to attend, the kids would always take it on themselves to remind us. It seemed like they were the parents and we were the children.
My wife and I tried to make things better by buying our children’s love or letting them do whatever they wanted. But over time we realized we needed to be stronger so they could be free to be kids. After 18 months, our children came home to both their parents.
Fathers’ Love Is Important
Part of me can understand why some caseworkers overlook Black dads. For many reasons, a lot of Black men aren’t there for their kids, and some fathers are a part of the problem.
Still, as a parent partner in the system today, I see that too often the first question caseworkers ask is: “Are you sure you’re the father?” Or, “Are you late on child support?” The message they seem to be sending is: “Your love is not important to your children’s well-being.”
Today, my oldest child is 28 with two children, in school to earn her associates degree. My middle child is 25 and a manager at the fast food restaurant where she started working in high school. My son is 14 and a Boy Scout. And I am someone my family is proud of and other parents in the system turn to for support.
It would have been a terrible loss for me not to have been around to see my children grow up, telling them to never give up. It would have been a terrible loss for them, too.
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