A life of trauma keeps compounding for mother fighting addiction

Published on
September 21, 2018

I first met Gabriela at the hospital right after she gave birth, and then saw her once again in following weeks in her apartment. As a case manager, I made monthly visits with mothers, with the goal of providing them with resources and the education to help them be better moms. With Gabriela, we had only had two visits, since she kept cancelling or wasn’t home. I was forced to close her case.

The next time we met three years had passed. She stepped into my office pregnant. Gabriela said she and her boyfriend were homeless and living in a skid row shelter in downtown L.A. I asked her about her children and she said that they were taken from her by the Department of Children and Family Services and were currently living in different homes. She wanted me to help her obtain custody of two of her five children.

Mothers who have experienced trauma and live stressful lives often make bad choices. Being a good mother and keeping their children can be a difficult task to achieve. A question I often ask mothers is, “Why where your children taken away?” 

Gabriela told me that after she gave birth three years ago, she became pregnant two more times. The last pregnancy resulted in a baby girl, which died as a newborn from SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). The baby was sleeping on a couch at the time of her death, which is not an appropriate sleeping area for an infant due to the risks of asphyxiation and sudden death. Suitable sleeping areas for infants are one of the common subjects I covered with my clients. Most of the moms I visited lived in crowded apartments and did not have room for a crib for their infant. That means there are a number of precautions mothers need to take but might not be aware of. For example, many mothers have cribs or beds full of hazards such as stuffed animals or pillows.

As a result of the girl’s death there was an investigation by the Department of Children and Family Services and two of her children were taken away. This was not the first time Gabriela’s children were taken away. Her three older children were now adopted by her mother; she told me they were taken away years before we met. She later revealed the older children were taken away while she was incarcerated due to drug abuse and prostitution. She had not mentioned this in our previous meetings. People do not usually open up about themselves to strangers. Trust and relationships need to be built in order to achieve this.

As we caught up during our meeting, she cried and said that in that past she had been addicted to alcohol and hard drugs. She had started prostituting herself in order to feed her addictions. Gabriela said that she felt incapable of mothering her three older children since she was a teenager when she had them. The first thing she asked me for — and the court required to gain custody of her children — were parenting classes. Adequate parenting classes were provided that addressed her trauma so she may identify her triggers and find better coping mechanisms.

Throughout her life, Gabriela used drugs to cope, as traumatized people often do. She told me she was sexually, emotionally, and physically abused as a child, often by members of her own family. She said she began using drugs at a young age because she was in unbearable emotional pain and they helped numb her. All of my clients that have had drug addictions have shared that they were sexually abused. 

Last I saw her, Gabriela was due in court soon, where she sought to win custody of her two children. During this time, she was able to keep monthly appointments with me for six months. She was living on her own with her new baby. She was seeing a therapist provided by the state and finished attending the required parenting classes. Gabriela said that she was hopeful this time she would be able to be a good mother.

But my time with her ended as abruptly as it began. I never saw her again.

That’s part of the challenge of this kind of work. We do everything we can to support mothers while they’re with us, but ultimately they stop coming to appointments, or move, or in some cases, relapse into addiction. I often wonder what happened to Gabriela after our time together. I can only hope she’s grown into the mother she dreamed of being.