Caitlyn Carnahan was a star patient at her MAT program in Oklahoma City, where she attended regular 12-step meetings and passed all urine tests. But when someone from the state Department of Human Services came to question her in 2019 as she cared for her newborn son in the NICU, she felt like all her accomplishments had been erased. The researcher asked her why she had used Subutex, a form of buprenorphine, during pregnancy if she knew it could cause withdrawal symptoms, Carnahan told me. The woman also cited Carnahan’s husband’s extensive record, including three arrests stemming from domestic incidents when she was still using opioids. She asked Carnahan why she would be with such a person. “I can see where he’s going with this, and it was just terrifying,” says Ella Carnahan. “It was like a horror movie.” Her son was in foster care for eight months.
Carnahan’s doctor had warned her that the hospital might call the authorities, but many other women are caught completely by surprise. “I never once thought of CPS coming to that hospital,” says GW, who gave birth to a baby while taking Subutex in Louisiana in 2019. (GW asked to be identified by her initials to protect the privacy of the son her). After her son was taken away, GW constantly imagined where she was, what she was doing, and marked another day without him on a calendar.
Her lawyer implored her to do what the social workers asked. “She was like, ‘Just keep your mouth shut. Just smile and let it go,'” GW told me. Social workers consider parental cooperation to be a key factor in determining if it is safe to return the child home. Parents who are not compliant are often seen as unstable or lacking in judgment.
Once a case has been opened, social workers can investigate virtually every aspect of a mother’s life: her household practices, her income, her romantic partner, the contents of her refrigerator. In South Carolina, Mary DeLancy, whose newborn son was placed in foster care in 2017, recalled being proud to show a caseworker her new apartment, filled with baby toys and stuffed animals, blankets, a bassinet, and a bouncy chair, a long way from the homeless shelter where he previously lived. “It was a big problem,” she said. “We had worked very hard to get to that point.” But when the caseworker arrived, she pointed to her crib and said that she was outdated and she needed to be replaced immediately. DeLancy began to doubt herself. “The more a parent asks ‘Do I deserve to have my own child?’ the less they try,” she said. “Because they feel that no matter what they do, they will never be good enough.”
Even a parent whose newborn is not delivered is faced with a level of surveillance that can be difficult to bear. “She literally has 24 hours. How am I neglecting her?” Blair Morgan-Dota remembers thinking about when she was sued for child neglect after giving birth with Subutex. At first, the Massachusetts social workers allowed her to keep her baby, but when the stress of the case became too much and Morgan-Dota fell from her, the agency took her daughter and Morgan-Dota was resigned to failure. . “They’re making me feel like I’m not a good enough mom,” she said. “Maybe she’ll be better off with someone else.”