It was do or die, Lori Monroe remembers. She was 37. Like many local mothers whose children end up in state custody, then foster homes, she was addicted to drugs, mostly crack cocaine. She was so obviously unfit to be a parent that Child Protective Services had taken her first child, who’d tested positive for cocaine at birth, into custody without the mother ever holding her. “People are surprised, but when you’re addicted to something, being pregnant doesn’t necessarily make you stop,” she says. “And they’d told me after my son 17 years ago I couldn’t have any more, so I wasn’t even expecting any of this.”
That baby, born in summer 2007, was eventually adopted by the foster family who cared for her; Monroe will not be permitted to have contact with her until she’s 18. “The only thing I know is apparently the foster parents had asked for a picture of me to be able to show the little girl,” Monroe says. “Back then, they had private investigators to find me to serve the adoption papers. I was already back living under a bridge. I believe I ripped them up and threw them in the creek. I was in absolute denial.”
Then it happened again, a year and two days later. Another baby, delivered by Cesarean without any prenatal care, commandeered by CPS investigators when they realized the mother’s situation, even though she begged and pleaded and promised to change. Monroe returned to the streets, and planned to return to the prostitution that funded her habit as soon as she could.
And then she had this epiphany: “I got high one time after I had my daughter, and in the middle of doing that, I just started praying, ‘God, you have to help me, don’t let me lose another child,’” she says. “I knew without a doubt if I lost that kid, too, I would be out there until I died, and I would probably make it a quick death. I was in a tent with her daddy, set up in some field; he continued to get high while I’m praying.
“I’m crying, telling him, telling God, telling myself, ‘I can’t do this again.’”
Instead, in 11 months, in a transformation so rare among drug addicts whose kids are taken by the state at birth that it’s almost unheard of, Monroe battled her addiction and living situation and became a fit parent, regaining custody of her daughter in May 2009.
Her first stop the morning after crying in that field was the Helen Ross McNabb Friendship House, where she’d already been participating in a support group for mood disorder sufferers. “There was a case worker there who would repeatedly try to help me. I was not a nice person out there. I would cuss her out, ‘Leave me alone.’ When I went to the center, I tried to bypass that particular lady. Of course they told me I really had to talk to her. I was 100 percent honest about my life. It was very hard to say it out loud, a very humbling experience. I actually believed I had everyone [in the group] fooled, that they didn’t know I was prostituting, that they didn’t know I was on drugs, that they thought the last baby was with my family. Now, looking back, I’m positive they knew the truth the whole time.”
The case worker kept Monroe busy in her office that entire first day, until 5 p.m., when she could go straight to a 12-step meeting, and helped her strategize about reclaiming her child. “It’s called a permanency plan. DCS [Department of Children’s Services] outlines what you need to do for custody, and mine was a mile and a half long. I remember thinking, ‘This is impossible.’ They wanted me to get a job, to get housing, to stay clean. I think that was line number one,” she remembers with a laugh. “I was literally thinking five years.”
Monroe had been drinking alcohol and smoking pot since her early teens in New Jersey (“my parents were ordinary middle class, good parents, but they didn’t see everything”), and became drug addicted when she moved to Knoxville with her former husband almost nine years earlier.
Her strategy included a 12-week outpatient program through the Florence Crittendon agency, medical help for her mental illness and addictive behaviors, and berthing at the Knoxville Area Rescue Ministry beginning in September. “I started working for this guy cleaning arenas—$10 a night when we could get work. I don’t relish those days. Then I got a seasonal job, then my friend helped me get this hourly job I have now.”
Toughest of all was staying clean the first six months, she says. “I do realize now that relapse is an arm’s length away, but it’s a choice,” she says. “After you get clean to a certain point, it’s a conscious decision to go out and get drugs and use them. It’s not an, ‘Oops.’”
The baby’s foster parents interacted with Monroe some; she began at first with an hour of visitation one day a week; privileges increased as she improved. “Those parents loved my child like their own,” she says.
By May, she had a housing voucher and an apartment, and her daughter moved in with her. “She loves her mom,” says Monroe. “I was worried for herself and for me. I had never given her a bath, never brushed her hair, never done anything that a mommy does. I was petrified when she first came home.”
Now the two are in a routine: work and day care, go to a 12-step meeting together most days, eat dinner, play, bath, bed.
“She’s a handful, happy and outgoing,” says Monroe. “In some ways, she’s me made over.”