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SANDY BANKS

Fighting to be a mother again

For women trying to get their children out of foster care, it's more than becoming a better parent and kicking drug habits. It's contingent on finding safe, affordable housing.

October 24, 2009|SANDY BANKS

It took her 15 years -- one stint in prison, several passes through drug rehab, months of weekly parenting classes.

But this week she had good news to share at her Parents Anonymous session in South Los Angeles: "They said I can have my daughter back."

They are the Los Angeles County child welfare system. Her daughter is a teenager now, flirting with the same fast life her mother led. And the mother is a recovering drug abuser, trying to repair the damage her addiction left.

"Fifteen years ago, I lost my parent rights," she said. She sought to regain custody of her child twice -- in 2004 and 2007 -- but authorities turned her down both times. Then last week, she was summoned to court and told her rights would be restored.

"I never gave up," she said, as the mothers in the room applauded.

Like her, they have all lost children to foster care. And they're trying to become better parents because they want their sons and daughters back.

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More than 70% of the parents whose children are in Los Angeles County's foster care program have substance abuse problems. Many also have experienced domestic violence or suffer from mental health problems. Before they can regain custody, the vast majority must attend counseling or parent education programs.

Some programs offer little more than a sign-in sheet and list of dos and don'ts:

Don't fill your baby's bottle with Coca-Cola. A time-out is better than a smack across the face of a defiant toddler. A bag of Cheetos is not an appropriate breakfast for a kindergartner.

But other sessions provide a forum for discussion, and often unearth deeper problems -- such as the buried anger of a mother who was abused when she was a child, or the need to earn the trust of resentful children who have seen Mom relapse too many times.

"These parents need a place where they can talk in confidence, without being judged," said Barbara Hill, the facilitator at the Parents Anonymous session I attended. The meeting took place at Broadway Village, a complex built by her agency, Beyond Shelter, which pairs social services with subsidized family apartments. I'm not using the parents' names because the program promises anonymity.

The two dozen parents at Tuesday's meeting had all been mandated to attend. Most were single women, but there was one couple, a few lone men, and a teenage girl there to support her mother. This was their monthly role-playing session, in which they had to offer solutions to scripted parenting dilemmas:

They all agreed that they probably would not call authorities on a mother threatening to beat her misbehaving son in the mall. Instead, they'd confront the woman and warn her to lighten up "because people are watching," one mother said.

They'd have no qualms lying to police about a daughter suspected of selling drugs. But if the allegations were true, the private punishment they would dole out might make jail seem like a walk in the park.

And they would say "no" to a sleepover with a friend whose mom keeps a filthy house, uses drugs and has boyfriends in and out -- even if they liked the mother. Her homegirl's feelings matter less than a mother's responsibility to her daughter, they concluded.

The back and forth about right and wrong was not much different from the conversations I've had over coffee with my own friends from the time our kids were small.

When is it OK to spank? Are the girls old enough to go alone to the mall? What to do about our clueless friend who doesn't know her 14-year-old drinks alcohol?

And I was struck by how universal the challenges of parenting are. And how hard it must be for a struggling mother who knows that her wrong answers in a parenting class might keep her child in foster care.

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In last Saturday's column, I vented my frustration about drug-using moms who have multiple children in foster care. This week, I visited the counseling and rehab programs because I wanted to know whether parenting classes can help a drug addict become a responsible parent.

I didn't realize that for some women, finding affordable, stable houses is a bigger obstacle than pregnancy or relapse.

"Women come in here crying all the time because they don't have a safe place to live with their kids," said Gina Johnson, a counselor at New Beginnings Recovery Treatment Center. "The housing issue is the main focus women have when they want to get their children back."

Several factors contribute -- the high cost of housing in Los Angeles; the women's history of instability; their lack of education or skills; and burned bridges among family members who might have been willing to take them in.

But it's also an institutional Catch-22. Drug-using moms who lose their children often lose their government-subsidized housing. Housing aid, their only means of paying rent, is based on family size.

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