By Ericka Brewington
Familial bonds are sacred and worth fighting for. Yet still, Black and Brown families are targeted and torn apart every day by the Family Regulation System. Some of the biggest injustices happen in hospitals, which often test Black and brown mothers without their consent.
On August 29, 2017 immediately after I gave birth, a New York hospital in upper Manhattan ripped my beautiful baby boy from my arms. It should have been a day of celebration and bonding, but instead I held my precious baby boy for a minute until he was snatched out of my hands. That moment will be seared in my mind forever.
The day prior to giving birth, I had taken oxycontin for back pain and smoked cocaine. Maybe you judge my drug use or think it’s an anomaly. You shouldn’t, and it’s not. People of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and incomes use substances. Despite Black and Brown people using substances at the same rates as white people, Black and Brown people are unfairly targeted, surveilled, and criminalized. This includes Black and Brown pregnant people and parents. In addition, substance use does not define how much people care for and love their children.
Numerous parents, including myself, are able to both use drugs and be great, loving, attentive parents. The catch is that, unlike white and wealthy pregnant patients, my drug use as a Black woman was criminalized. My rights as a parent were threatened. Because I am a Black mother, there was an automatic assumption that my drug use made me a bad parent and I was threatened with forced family separation.
After the drug test showed a positive result, I was visited by a worker from New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), its so-called child “protective” services agency. Under the influence of oxycodone I had been given after my C-section, I answered the phone despite the advice I was given from my nurse. I complied with ACS’s orders. It felt like ACS had timed it perfectly: they waited for the nurse to inject me and then the questioning and demands began.
A case was opened up against me claiming I had neglected my children, but they couldn’t have had evidence of child neglect, because how could there be neglect? Both me and my children’s father love and care deeply for our children. At the time of the call, my children were in Georgia with their father. So their assumptions must have been based solely on the positive results of my drug test. How could I even be charged with neglect when my children weren’t present when I was using?
My children never felt the impact of my drug use until they were removed from my home. I’m going to write that again—my children never felt the impact of my drug use until ACS removed them from my home. It was the separation from myself and their father that caused them enormous, irreparable trauma that will reverberate across generations. I was told by the ACS caseworker that my children had to be brought back to New York or else the rights to my baby would be terminated. In retrospect I realize this was probably not even a legal threat. This was hardly the first nor last time that I was forced by ACS to jump through enormous hoops in order to keep my children.
Before I gave birth that August, the hospital asked me to consent to a variety of things at an especially vulnerable time. The conditions felt entirely coercive. I had taken a sugar test where I was asked to give eleven vials of blood before filling out a stack of paperwork at the end of the process. I could hardly see straight. To make matters worse, even the printed words in the prenatal care packet I was given were blurry from countless rounds in a copy machine. Disoriented from giving blood, barely able to read the packet, I unknowingly signed a form giving permission for the hospital to drug test me and perform a C-section, a procedure that Black pregnant people undergo at the highest rates in the U.S. The hospital didn’t allow me to take the papers home to read them or have a nurse interpret them for me. If I wanted to receive prenatal care, I had to sign them on the spot. It was abundantly clear from the beginning of this experience that to the hospital, I was just another Black mother who the hospital didn’t care about. Turns out, this is not unique to the hospital I went to. Black women are tested and reported to agencies like ACS at a rate of ten times our white counterparts. Hospitals claim to want to serve families and children, but the practice of testing without informed consent and reporting is, in actuality, inflicting incredible harm and trauma. Hospitals should be more supportive of parents. You don’t know what is going on in peoples’ lives. The stigma against therapy in our community is very real, so people self-medicate.
As my trial for child neglect approached, I saw more and more how the hospital, the hospital’s relationship with ACS and ACS itself were not systems of support. My psychiatrist questioned me as to why I would plead guilty to neglect if it were untrue. This psychiatrist refused to hear or acknowledge that there are powerful incentives to plead guilty even when you are not guilty. I wanted to keep my children at whatever cost necessary and I understood the odds of getting my kids back were totally stacked against me. So I took ACS up on their offer to plead guilty and be fast tracked to getting my kids out of foster care. My life without my children was a hell I would not wish on my worst enemy
During the trial, ACS pulled evidence of my drug use history from 2012 to use against me. The truth is that drug use is only deemed acceptable for people with lots of zeros at the end of their paycheck. This applies to drug testing, too: wealthy white pregnant people and their babies rarely face drug testing after birth, stemming from an extensive history of pregnant Black low-income people disproportionately facing medical discrimination compared to white wealthy people who use drugs. I wasn’t just being criminalized for using drugs; I was being criminalized for using drugs while being low-income and Black.
Even though I finally got my kids back, ACS and the hospital’s message was still loud and clear. It didn’t matter how much I loved my children; that I was an excellent parent was besides the point. I felt that, both ACS and the hospital had no interest in the circumstances that led to my drug use before, during, or after my pregnancy, nor were they concerned with the wellbeing of my children or myself.
ACS calls you hostile meanwhile they’re busting down your door uninvited. They make you feel unsafe in your own home. They don’t even read you Miranda rights. It was clear that addressing, preventing or healing harm wasn’t what ACS or the hospital intended to do when they entered my life. These systems police poverty and marginalization.
They all made me feel subhuman. They harmed my children enormously by taking them away from their loving parents. Changing the narrative that testing and reporting to ACS helps families is a necessity, one that’s long overdue. We need community-based alternatives that truly help families and children. We must work to ensure the rights of people who use drugs are respected, including pregnant people. We must dismantle and divest from systems that unfairly target and criminalize Black and Brown people. People are starting to pay attention to this injustice and demand better. We can create alternatives that work for families.