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SANDY BANKS

A tough approach to drug-using mothers

October 17, 2009|SANDY BANKS

It was painful to read our stories Sunday about two abused teenagers who died after spending years bouncing around Los Angeles County's child welfare system.

Times reporters Garrett Therolf and Kim Christensen chronicled the tumultuous lives of Miguel Padilla, who hanged himself at 17, and Lazhanae Harris, a 13-year-old girl found stabbed to death last spring.

The stories spotlighted ineptitude in a system charged with keeping children safe. But one passage stopped me cold, and left me angry not just at a system's failures, but also at the frailties of a family:

Lazhanae was the third of nine children of 33-year-old Shamana Johnson, a single mother who had served time in prison and had a history of substance abuse.

Johnson "was always sure she didn't want to raise her kids but never aborted any of them," Johnson's mother told reporters. "She always gave birth and made sure they were placed in safe homes."

I had to read that more than once, to make sure I understood: Johnson knew she didn't want to be a mother. Yet she had nine children, then parceled them out like puppies.

One died as a toddler and two are "unaccounted for," according to a confidential memo by the Department of Children and Family Services. And at least five wound up in foster care.

::

Birth control is a difficult subject for a stranger to broach; an intrusion into a delicate area of family life. But it's become the elephant in the living room of the child welfare system. And it's time for the whispering to end.

Families with more than five children make up only 2.5% of the department's caseload. But their 1,314 kids account for 8.3% of the 15,853 children in foster homes.

Why, I wondered, can't the department add birth control to its services for troubled mothers, along with parenting classes, drug testing, vouchers for diapers and baby formula.

"It's a good thought," said the agency's director, Trish Ploehn, but against the law. "We can counsel or advise," she said. Anything more "would be stepping over our boundaries and infringing on their constitutional rights."

Or, as one social worker told me, "No matter how dismal her record of parenting, you can't go over to a woman and say, 'You're not going to be a fit mother, so we're going to take that right away from you.' "

To that, Barbara Harris says: Why not?

Harris and her husband had three sons when they became foster parents in 1990 to an 8-month-old girl born to a crack addict who had already lost four children to foster care.

A few months later, a social worker asked them to take the baby's newborn brother. Over the next few years, they would adopt four siblings from that same woman.

For Harris, it became a personal issue. And she responded in 1994 with what some considered an outlandish offer: She would pay drug-abusing women $200 to be sterilized.

"Because when they're using drugs, they don't care about the consequences of anything," she told me in a phone interview this week. "The only thing that makes sense is to stop these women from having babies."

Harris -- who lived in Orange County then and now resides with her family in North Carolina -- was castigated by civil rights groups, accused of coercing vulnerable women to sign away their reproductive rights.

But donations rolled in, anguished families sought her out and addicts around the country signed up.

Harris' focus has shifted since then from sterilization to long-term contraception -- IUDs, implants, hormone patches and shots.

She pays a woman $300 for a tubal ligation. For an intrauterine device, a client receives $75 at insertion, $100 at her six-month checkup and $125 at the end of each year, for as long as she keeps the device in.

More than 3,000 women have signed on; 1,200 opted for sterilization and the rest for long-term birth control, according to her website, www.projectprevention.org.

And public outrage has given way to grudging acceptance. "There's not a day that goes by that we don't hear from somebody across the country -- social workers, jails, probation departments, courts. . . . Because it's just so frustrating, and they're desperate."

::

Project Prevention makes sense to me. Although a few thousand IUDs might not make a dent in the problem, the bluntness of the gesture turns up the volume.

And it brings drug-using moms in on the dialogue. Thank you for helping me do the first responsible thing I've ever done with my addiction, one mother wrote in a letter to Harris, who solicits a life story from every client.

"They're not bad women," Harris told me. "They don't set out to have babies that are taken away. They feel regret about what they've done."

She's right. Demonizing the mothers doesn't help. They need counseling, not just contraception. Many were victims of childhood trauma and are prisoners of addiction now.

Some hope giving birth will redeem and stabilize their lives. "It's one of the few things they can do that they have control over," said retired social worker Glynis Morrow. "Then the realities of parenting hit. And they feel like failures. And that pain drives them back to drugs."

And we're right back where we started from.

So we can talk about women's rights or about the privilege of procreation. However we cast the conversation, there is one truth we can't avoid: We are helping mothers heal when we keep unwanted children from being born.

"We have to give them a way to stop," as Harris says. "Or nothing positive comes to anybody."

Least of all children like Lazhanae, whose rights ought to be as important as Mom's.

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com .

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