Forced, Rapid Adoptions Are a Weapon of the Drug War

    I hate myself.” The words slipped out of my youngest child’s mouth with a casual levity. Only 5 years old, her voice still carries that bright, fluted tonality unique to young children. The first time she said it, she was sitting in a little pink play-chair set against the wall in her grandmother’s living room, where she’d been living with her sister.

    “I’m ugly,” she added. “I’m dumb.”

    These aren’t things that she or her 6-year-old sister have been told at home—at least not that I’ve heard. Since the moment she was born and placed on my breast, where she immediately latched on and nursed contentedly for almost an hour, she’s been showered with love and affection. Neither child has ever experienced anything resembling abuse or neglect.

    But in early 2018, a little over a month after I hauled my family from our home in Seattle to my in-laws’ home in Broward County, Florida so their father could recuperate from mental illness, he and I were removed from the home—and our daughters from our custody—by child services.

    This followed an argument I had with my in-laws, after which they made allegations of abandonment and drug use against me. The abandonment charges would eventually be dismissed, and the claims of drug use negated by slews of tests. But by that point, my daughters were already living with them, I was already homeless in a strange state without resources, and we were ordered to complete numerous requirements within 15 months. When their father and I did not complete those mandates in time and to the court’s satisfaction, our parental rights were permanently severed. Our daughters were adopted out to their paternal grandparents.

    When the removal first happened, my youngest had just been weaned from my breast; my sudden abduction from her daily life broke an unspoken covenant of love and trust between us. She has never received an explanation that she can understand. It’s become clear to me that she is doing what so many children in this painful situation do: blaming herself, and transmuting the pain into self-harm.


    Traumatic Separations Within Our Borders

    Sadly, what my babies are experiencing is not uncommon.

    “I hated myself. There’s a lot of self-loathing because you feel like there’s something wrong with you. It’s like trying to fit a puzzle piece into a puzzle where it doesn’t belong,” recounted Pennie, who asked that she be identified by her first name only. Now 51, she was adopted out of the foster system by a Mormon couple at the age of 11, while her mother was undergoing psychiatric care.

    “I don’t think [the adoption] was right. I feel my mother was vulnerable and they just kind of redistributed me to a wealthier [family] … [but] you need more than clothes and food as human beings and human children.”

    The public is familiar with the concept that wrenching children from their families is harmful and wrong. When news broke about the Trump administration policy to separate children and parents at the Mexico-US border as a de facto punishment for seeking asylum, media responded with a flood of stories describing the extreme trauma inflicted.

    These articles widely failed to address the parallels between the separations at the border and the separations within our borders.

    The Associated Press reported children’s symptoms ranging from inconsolable crying, to chest pains, to delusions and night terrors, with the possibility of growing into depression or cancer in adulthood. Child psychiatrist Dr. Gilbert Kliman told the AP that he predicted, “an epidemic of physical, psychosomatic health problems that are costly to society as well as to the individual child grown up. I call it a vast, cruel experiment on the backs of children.”

    Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, was quoted in an article published by the University of Michigan School of Public Health: “We know very young children who are exposed to this type of trauma go on to not develop their speech, not develop their language, not develop their gross and fine motor skills, and wind up with developmental delays.”

    But these articles widely failed to address the parallels between the separations at the border and the separations within our borders. Through the so-called child welfare system, children are not only wrenched from their families suddenly and without regard to their needs and desires; they are also funneled through an expedited adoption scheme that leaves children forever wanting their parents. These adoptions are often conducted in less than two years, even when the only issue facing a family was poverty or substance use.

    “A huge problem in our field … is that in our obsession to achieve ‘permanency,’ we are often forcing families into arrangements they don’t want,” Vivek Sankaran, clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School and director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic, told Filter. “This is particularly acute in situations involving substance use, where it does take, as we all know, time for folks to heal and to recover and to address the trauma that might be contributing to an addiction.”

    As Sankaran observed, this timeline realistically leaves very little space for recovery from substance use disorder.

    Enormous monetary boons, built into the foster system via the Clinton administration’s Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), require agencies to file for termination of parental rights once a child has been out of home-care for 15 out of 22 months, or else risk losing funding. Exceptions exist, including when a child is in kinship care, like mine were; or when it is not in the best interests of the child to sever ties to their parents, which some argue constitutes the majority of cases. But agencies are not obliged to make those exceptions.

    The severing of children from their families takes place in a whirlwind procedure paraded as an act of necessary saviorism. “To me, adoption is ownership … Your birth certificate is like a title to your car, a deed to your house. I feel like I was literally signed over like a product. It turns children into commodities,” said Pennie.

    And, as Sankaran observed, this timeline realistically leaves very little space for recovery from substance use disorder, which often involves the need to address co-occurring or pre-existing trauma and mental illness, and rarely results in total abstinence right away (if at all).

    In fact, recent research out of Canada found that the act of separating mothers who use drugs from their children increased the incidence of chaotic substance use and non-fatal overdose. This was compounded for Indigenous mothers, whose overdose rates were doubled within the study’s cohort.

    Pennie’s story offers another example of the extreme harm imposed by child services on parents who use drugs; although her mother previously struggled with mental health concerns and used substances, it was only after losing her child that she became addicted to heroin.

    They were silent for a moment. What do you say to someone who is telling you that they would prefer to endure rape again, rather than what you’re doing to them?

    Having undergone the violence of child removal and rapid, forced adoption, I know intimately how damaging the adoption system is to parents, particularly those struggling with trauma or substance use. During my required mediation prior to the termination filing, I looked the attorneys in the eye and told them that this was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. Worse than the sexual and physical violence that caused the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that they had trotted out as proof of my parental unfitness.

    They were silent for a moment. What do you say to someone who is telling you that they would prefer to endure rape again, rather than what you’re doing to them?

    Then, in a rather sheepish tone, the attorney for the state, a stand-in from the drug court system due to staffing issues, admitted that before the ASFA timeline, parents with addiction had “a chance.” But not anymore.

    “Kids want their parents, they want their mother … This system has been allowed to develop to be a hammer and treat every case like a nail,” said Tracie Gardner, vice president of public policy at Legal Action Center and a mother who has been directly impacted by this system. “There is no subtlety, no assessment, preventative services that are weak, and there are few tools to deal with families where there is a parent struggling with their drug use. It’s zero-tolerance, it’s abstinence-only, it’s punitive and it’s scorched-earth.”


    Widening Circles of Lasting Harm

    Of course, the harms of these forced adoptions extend well beyond the child’s youth, and hurt other people besides the child and parent. When children are adopted outside of their family, they lose contact with their ancestry.

    Pennie describes her birth certificate, which still bears the names of her now-estranged adopters, as a forgery. Though she’s been able to reconnect with her family as an adult, she was raised apart from her sister and extended relatives; people who may not fulfill the role of a parent or primary caregiver, but still make up an important part of one’s identity and growth.

    Their adoption was committed with no thought to the network of love it would sever.

    “When children’s rights are terminated as to their parents, and parent’s rights terminated as to them, we put the memories and history of a child in the hands of a system that knows nothing about that family and compiles a scrapbook through government records,” said Erin Miles Cloud, a former parent attorney and one of the co-founders of Movement for Family Power, a parent advocacy organization that did some pro bono work on my case. She described these physical scrapbooks, such as those created by workers in the New York City system, as an issue that is “enormously under-discussed.”

    “I have always wondered what memories they create about [the child’s] family member, their parent, and how they navigated the War on Drugs,” she continued. “It perpetuates this insidious pathology with no actual healing and also no actual agency in the reckoning of memory, especially for young children who then become incredibly reliant on these other people to help them sift through some of their memories.”

    When children are forcibly adopted within families, as with my daughters, it permanently alters the topography of that family. My daughters often discuss missing their Aba, my mother, and their elder half-brother; both live across the country, where we had planned to return once their father stabilized. My aunts constantly mourn their inability to see them, and my daughters have virtually no relationship with my father, who also lives across the country. Their adoption was committed with no thought to the network of love it would sever.

    Dinah Ortiz is a grassroots harm reductionist and parent advocate in New York City, who has written for Filter about the structural racism of the child welfare system, which includes disproportionate targeting of Black, Indigenous and Latinx families for surveillance and removal. Ortiz lost her own daughter to forced adoption in Florida 18 years ago. She had planned to place her newborn daughter with her brother and his wife while briefly incarcerated. But child services removed Ortiz’ baby immediately after birth due to concerns about her substance use, and ultimately mandated adoption by her brother against her will.

    Ortiz described returning to drug use after her baby was taken as a means to numb the pain.

    “We were really, really close. That’s why I made the arrangement with them because we were very close, me and him and his wife,” Ortiz recalled. Now, however, she no longer considers him family, opting to call him simply “my daughter’s adopter.” She has not spoken with the couple in almost two decades, since they cut off contact with her child.

    Fortunately, her daughter sought her out at the age of 16 and they are working to rebuild their relationship. But nothing can undo the trauma and wreckage of those lost years. Ortiz described returning to drug use after her baby was taken as a means to numb the pain.

    The foster system “destroys families, destroys lives, destroys the very children they claim to be protecting,” said Joyce McMillan, a directly impacted mother, activist and founder of JmacForFamilies—an advocacy organization geared toward the abolition of the child welfare system.

    “The violence of snatching a child from their parent as they scream mommy; the trauma of that gets forever sketched in their souls,” she said. “We talk about when people get shot and the hole it leaves; when a child gets removed from families it doesn’t just leave a hole in the heart, it leaves shrapnel… [in the form of] depression, in some cases mental breakdown, fear, loneliness [and] isolation.”

    For my family, this gruesome violation hangs over everything, all the time. When I am apart from my daughters, my life feels like a small, windowless room. When I am with them, I feel like a ghost, haunting a life that is no longer mine. I can look at them, hold them, smell them, play with them, but nothing I say or do really matters, because their lives are now dictated by someone else, someone whose values are completely at odds with my own.

    I can also see the hurt of my absence, how they try to reckon with it quickly so they can squeeze as much enjoyment as possible from our few hours together—but it still spills out in declarations of self-hatred, or accusations that I don’t love them.

    Now my daughters have been given the same message: If you, too, struggle, you won’t be worthy of parenthood, agency or a full life.

    On the morning after a rare holiday sleepover, my elder daughter woke up crying relentlessly. Her eyes were wild with fear and pain. For nearly half an hour, no amount of comforting could quell her loud, frantic tears.

    Finally, I was able to calm her enough so that she could croak out a single explanatory sentence: “I don’t want a new mommy.” A few minutes of hugs and reassurances later, she finally revealed that she’d dreamed her father and I were taken away, and I was replaced by a stranger.

    When the state took my daughters, they confirmed my worst fears as an abuse survivor: that I was made lesser by having been the victim of sexual and physical violence, and am no longer worthy of participation in regular society because of it.

    Now my daughters have been given the same message: If you, too, struggle, you won’t be worthy of parenthood, agency or a full life.

    What if, instead, they had been allowed to share in my recovery, to watch me struggle and work and overcome? This could have been an opportunity to teach them about resilience, resolve and recovery. Instead, it has become a powerful lesson in self-loathing. The state chased permanency—but the only permanency achieved is the grief that now permeates all of our lives.


    Photograph courtesy of Elizabeth Brico

    • Elizabeth is a journalist from the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in publications including Vox, Tonic/Vice, TalkPoverty, HealthyPlace and The Establishment. She has an MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University. She also writes about trauma, addiction and recovery on her blog, Betty’s Battleground.

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