Five years ago, Ann Marie Neeper was in the depths of addiction. She’d been living on the streets of Baltimore for nearly a year, using heroin and crack in abandoned houses, and Child Protective Services had taken her two young daughters out of her care. She loved her kids, and longed to get them back. But she loved getting high, too.
The opioid crisis has ravaged communities across the country. Last year, about 60,000 Americans died of a drug overdose, according to data collected by the New York Times. But the biggest impact of this growing epidemic is the kids who have been left behind — by parents who’ve overdosed, parents who’ve died, parents who are unable to care for them.
To help keep families together and combat parents’ drug use, family drug courts have become more popular. These specialized courts are designed to work with parents, Child Protective Services (CPS), drug treatment centers, and attorneys to help parents get treatment and become responsible guardians. In Baltimore, the Family Recovery Program helps parents get substance abuse treatment and counseling, and serves as an advocate for them in the court system. The program has helped more than 1,300 parents who have had their kids taken away from them because of their drug use — reuniting hundreds of families.
Neeper, who’s now 31, entered the Family Recovery Program in 2012. Since then, she’s gone into treatment, relapsed, and been homeless again. Through the help of the family drug court, she got sober — and now has custody of her children. Here’s how she got them back. As told to Rebecca Nelson.
I began using drugs when I was 13. I started with smoking weed and taking pills and drinking. Percocet, Oxycontin. I was expelled from school when I was 15 for using drugs while I was in school. After that, I just dropped out. I began using every day, every minute of every day. I became a daily cocaine smoker at 16. At 18, I began using heroin, sniffing heroin every day. And by 19 I was shooting cocaine and heroin.
I thought I had it under control. I thought that this is what young people do. I had been using everyday, so I had no idea what withdrawal from heroin was until I couldn’t get high one day. I woke up and completely could not get out of bed. So I put myself in treatment. It was a 30-day program. I met a man there. I left treatment early. And within a month of me leaving treatment I was pregnant with my first daughter, Aaliyah. I knew I wasn't ready to take care of a baby. It was almost like I thought it was gonna go away. Like it was fantasy. I played that out in my mind ... and used for the first six months I was pregnant.
Every time I would use cocaine I would feel my daughter moving inside my stomach more than she normally would. And because she was growing in there, the kicks and the movements in my stomach were more intense.
My mother called CPS on me. They referred me to an addiction pregnancy center in Baltimore, Maryland. When I went there and they gave me an ultrasound of my daughter, I changed my mind about everything when I saw her. I stayed there for a month. They gave me methadone to help with the detox. I was able to have counseling and go to support groups and go to the doctor regularly. I stopped caring about myself and started caring about my daughter more. And I stayed clean the rest of my pregnancy. When they put her in my arms, that was the proudest moment I ever had in my life. I had never been able to be proud of something in my whole life until that moment.
About two months later, I got a part-time job at a fast food restaurant. My mother would watch the baby while I would work. But I wasn't going to therapy. I wasn't going to support groups. I didn't have a network of people who would help me. I was doing it all on my own. And when Aaliyah was three months old, I relapsed. I got my paycheck and I just made a decision in my mind to make a phone call to an old friend, and I started getting high like I never stopped.
When Aaliyah was 2, we moved to Baltimore with a boyfriend. He did not use drugs. He was a professional man. He would watch my daughter while I would run the streets. I could come and go as I pleased and my daughter would be taken care of. My mom had no idea, so she couldn't call CPS on me. That happened for two years, probably. I got high the whole two years. And I started using cocaine and heroin again.
Then I met a man and two months later I was pregnant with my daughter Jada. I knew that I was nowhere ready to raise another child. I wasn't even raising the first one. I moved in with Jada's daddy. We rented a room. When I felt like taking care of Aaliyah, she would stay with me, but when I wanted to run the streets I would drop her off with the professional man. He had just grown attached to me and her. He cared about this little girl.
I was only 7 months pregnant. I knew it wasn't gonna be good.
I used and used and used and used and used. I was just existing. I didn't think about anything other than how to get one more drug, one more hit, one more shot, one more... that was the only thing that I could even think about at the time. The plan was to have an abortion. But every time I would get that money in my hands, it went right in my veins. So eventually the days got to where the abortion was no longer an option. I was going to have this baby.
I began to have complications. Every time I would take a hit of cocaine, I would throw up. I would just sit on my bed with a trash can in front of me and smoke coke and then throw up and then smoke coke and then throw up. I just ignored it. I didn't go to a hospital, I didn't go to a doctor, I just didn't care. The relationship with Jada's daddy was very unhealthy. So one time him and I ended up smoking cocaine for probably about three days. Nonstop. My stomach was cramping and I'm laying on the bed with a towel between my legs where my water is breaking, and I'm smoking cocaine. It got to the point where I couldn't take the pain anymore. I had no choice but to go the hospital. I just remember that triage nurse looking at me and saying, “So how long has your water been broke?” And at that moment, panic, complete panic, set in. ‘Cause this is it. She's coming. I was only 7 months pregnant. I knew it wasn't gonna be good.
When I gave birth to her, in April 2012, she was three pounds and four ounces. I didn't even get to hold her, they had to rush her out of the room. I almost didn't want to see her because I knew she was so tiny. I knew she was going to go through withdrawal and I just — if I would have had to see her I would have had to face that I did this to her.
Jada was in the NICU for a few months. Before I left the hospital, a social worker came into my room and talked to me about how I was gonna provide for Jada. I lied. I said I was gonna stop using. I knew what to tell her. And she believed it. We brought her home and we cleaned up the house we rented the room in and we made it look all good for when the CPS worker came. I had both of my children living with me there.
I became an exotic dancer. I never got a chance to bond with Jada because I was always getting high. I would make the bottle but I would give my oldest daughter the bottle so she could feed her. She would change her diapers at 4 or 5 years old. Getting high was more important.
I knew I was a terrible mom and I knew that I didn't want to be, but I just didn't know how to be a better mom. Many times when my kids would be asleep and I would be getting high, I would look at them laying in their crib or on the mattress and tell myself, “This is going to be the last night I'm gonna get high. I'm gonna tough it out tomorrow, I'm not gonna do it.” And then the next morning when I wake up and I'm flip flopping on the floor like a fish out of water, all those thoughts are completely gone. I just knew I had to get doped to not feel like that. That's the only thing that was in the front of my mind, is how terrible my body felt. It overpowered every and anything else.
One night, Jada's daddy was upset about something. It was the winter time and he put me out of the house and wouldn't let me have the children. I lived on the street and I called my mom every day. You know what she does? Calls Child Protective Services. It was right before Christmas, in December of 2012. They took my kids and gave them to my mother. In the back of my mind, I wanted to get my kids back. But my addiction was a big, huge, raging beast. And I had no idea how I was going to put him to sleep.
I was homeless for about nine months. When I would get high by myself I would just cry while I got high, ‘cause I loved my kids. But I loved getting high, too. And I wasn't strong enough to make the decisions to love my kids more. The drugs always won.
Jada's daddy and I had to go to court. Jada’s grandmother on her dad’s side went to court with my mom because she wanted to take care of Jada. She wanted Jada, and my mom would care for Aaliyah.
When I went into the courtroom there was a lady there from the Family Recovery Program. I remember her telling me about the program and asked me if I wanted to be a participant, and I just remember telling her, “Why? So you can keep my kids away from me like they're doing?” All I knew was that anybody that had to do with any kind of court system wasn't ever for me. She said, “No, we're advocates for you.” And at that point I said, “Well, what the hell have I got to lose?”
They didn't see me as the junkie unfit mother that I was. My case manager and I came up with a plan as to how I was gonna get my kids back. We broke it down [into] goals that I set for myself. I told him, “I want to get clean, I don't want to be homeless, and I want to see my kids.” We came up with a plan as to how I was gonna achieve all of those things. In-patient treatment. Support groups. Meeting with my case manager and being compliant with my CPS worker. Within a week, my case manager at the Family Recovery Program got me in treatment and they got me into a dual-diagnosis treatment center because I used drugs for so long that I had anxiety. I had PTSD. They explained to me that those issues need to be treated along with my substance abuse.
I was living in the apartment with both of my children, and in 2014, I relapsed.
Within two months of me being in the treatment center, I began to have visits with my kids. My case manager at the Family Recovery Program communicated with my CPS worker and advocated for me to have visits for two hours, once a week. They saw that I was more than just a disease of addiction. They saw that I love my children, and they believed in me when nobody else did. Not even myself.
Every time I would go to the Juvenile Justice Center for a court date, someone from the Family Recovery Program always just went with me and spoke for me in front of that judge. Always. I never went by myself. The [visiting] hours increased and increased until it went to overnights and then they gave me supervised custody of my children. You could only stay at the treatment center for nine months, so the Family Recovery Program got me a low-income apartment to live in while they case-managed me and my kids. They gave me dishes, and blankets, and the apartment was furnished. Everything was set up for me to be successful.
I was living in the apartment with both of my children, and in 2014, I relapsed. The Family Recovery Program put me back in treatment with my children again. I think I got there on a Monday, and that same week I took my kids to school at 7:30. At 8:30, I was down on the block in an abandoned house smoking crack. I just remember texting my mom and saying, “Get the kids.” I left because I couldn't get high in peace. That’s just the honest truth. Even though I stopped using, the beast didn't disappear. He just was asleep inside of me. As soon as I put that substance inside my body again, he was very much well-rested and alive.
My children went to live with my mom. I didn't talk to anybody. I didn't talk to the Family Recovery Program, I didn't talk to my children, I didn't talk to my mom. The only people I talked to were the people I used with. I was living in abandoned house with boarded up windows, rats running all over the floor, mattress on the floor. I just was ready to die.
I had caught some [possession] charges, and I was on probation for those five drug charges throughout all of this. I had to report to my probation officer, and I was compliant with that while I was in recovery. But as soon as I relapsed, all that went out the window. I didn't report to my probation officer, I wasn't going to my court dates with the Family Recovery Program, I wasn't going to the court dates in drug court. So I had five warrants out for my arrest. That made me run, run, run even faster. I ran for six months. I was homeless, getting high. I was raped three times in those six months.
I kept seeing the Family Recovery Program peer advocate's name come up on my phone. But every time she would call, I'd be like, “Man, I'm not answering that.” One day, five months into me getting high, it was freezing cold outside, freezing cold in the bando [abandoned house]. I answered the phone and I just remember her saying, “Ann, how are you?” It wasn't, “What have you been doing? Where are you at? I can't believe you.” She came to the abandoned house I was in and sat with me on the floor and hugged me and told me it was going to be OK. That she wasn't going to give up on me.
At that time in my life, I had accepted the fact that I was going to overdose and die. I knew that my kids were better off where they were instead of with me. When she came down and sat with me on that floor, for that one second, I thought, maybe there's something to live for.
She gave me bus tokens to get to the Family Recovery Program the very next morning, and we made a plan on that floor that when I got there, she was going to drive me to treatment. I ended up getting high, and I didn't make it to that appointment. Two weeks later, I was stopped by Baltimore City police and arrested on my five warrants. And two days after I was arrested, it was the court date for Child Protective Services. They were trying to get me to sign custody and guardianship over for my children to my mom and Jada’s paternal grandmother. This was the last court date.
When I was sitting in the bullpen waiting to go into the courtroom for the trial, the guard came and said, “You have somebody who wants to see you.” It was the peer advocate from the Family Recovery Program. Nobody else showed up to this trial that was on my side but her. Nobody. When I went into the courtroom with shackles and handcuffs, she stood right beside me and begged that judge not to terminate my parental rights. I was just praying to God that the judge would take into consideration what this advocate was saying. I knew that I didn't want my parental rights to be terminated, but I didn't have a plan. I didn't know how to come up with a plan. All I knew is I didn't want to lose my kids.
I fought so hard for something that I never thought these people were ever going to give me again. But I went through the war, and I came out with the two best gifts.
The judge postponed the court date. It gave me some time to get my thoughts and a plan together for how I was going to keep my babies. I got back as a participant in the Family Recovery Program. I went into treatment. Within two months of me being in the treatment center, I was getting supervised visits with my kids for an hour a week. I went to therapy twice a week, support groups, the Family Recovery Program. After six months, I moved into the women with children house. I did the unsupervised visits for three hours, then it was five hours, then it was overnight, then it was weekends. And then in June of 2016, I got custody of my oldest daughter. The Family Recovery Program case manager helped me enroll Aaliyah in school because I had never done that before. She was 8 at the time. I was enrolled in Baltimore City Community College for my GED, and I would get Jada every other weekend.
In September of 2016, I got custody of Jada. I fought so hard for something that I never thought these people were ever going to give me again. But I went through the war, and I came out with the two best gifts.
At the end of September, I moved into the family housing apartment complex that the Family Recovery Program opened. And I graduated from the Family Recovery Program in September of 2016. In January 2017, CPS completely closed its case. No more court dates, no more people coming in my house. My kids were mine.
A friend of mine in Narcotics Anonymous told me about this job opportunity at the University of Maryland Midtown campus for a peer recovery coach in the emergency room. I got the job in June 2017. I have a retirement plan, I have benefits, I make almost $16 an hour, I work full-time. What the Family Recovery Program's advocate did for me, I'm doing for other people now. I see those people in that emergency room when they’re just completely emotionally broken. I never forget that was me. They only need one person to believe in them and to save their life. And I want to be that person for them.
When I first got them back, Aaliyah and Jada both would say to me, “Mommy you're not gonna mess up this time. Mommy you promise?” They didn't trust me. But I got them in services, mental health services, we do family therapy together, we talk about things. I include them in my recovery process. When I do speaking engagements and they see me on the computer getting my speech ready, I'll include them in that. “I'm getting a speech together so I can talk to other mommies like mommy and help them get better.” They were part of my addiction, so I make them a part of my recovery. I don't give them too many details, but they saw the come down. I want them to see the come up, too.
I want my daughters to be successful, so that means I have to be their role model. My clean date is August 17, 2015. I’ve been clean for 39 months.
Since I got my kids back, my kids have made honor roll every single marking period, perfect attendance every single marking period. I take care of their mental health, their physical health, and I take care of my kids. I know if I use drugs, losing my children is not far behind. Not only am I worth it, my kids don't deserve that anymore. Not one more time. Not one more.
This has been edited for length and clarity.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).
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