When child-protective services took Heather Cantamessa’s children from her 10 years ago, she knew she needed help for her addiction to methamphetamines; she’d just been too afraid of losing her children to ask for it.
Two of her children went to their father’s sister, who was sick of addiction-related drama and cut them off from their mother. Cantamessa was allowed to see her other two kids, who went into foster care, twice a week for two hours each time. Cantamessa was relatively lucky. In some parts of the country, visits are just one hour once a week, and sometimes when parents are jailed for narcotics, children in foster care may not see their mother or father at all.
Visits were held in a small room with a police-interrogation window, behind which a visitation monitor sat scribbling notes that could later be used in court. Before they were taken, Cantamessa’s children would climb into their mother’s bed to cuddle, and Cantamessa would make cars for them out of cardboard boxes. But during visits, Cantamessa told me, “I was scared that the baby would cry, and I wouldn’t be able to calm her down.… I was scared that if I said or did the wrong thing, they’d write all that down and use it against me.”
Cantamessa’s children were confused and angry. They wanted to know why they couldn’t come home, but Cantamessa said the visitation monitor told her, “You can’t talk to them about that.”
Cantamessa said, “At the end of visits, my 2-year-old would cry and scream my name, and I would cry and get panicky. Afterward, the caseworker would tell me that if I didn’t make the good-byes better, they’d cancel my visits.”
Driven by shame and grief, Cantamessa’s addiction worsened for the three months after she lost her children. After six months, however, she found a treatment program that helped her get sober. But then her caseworker announced that visits caused Cantamessa’s daughters to “regress” and that Cantamessa would be selfish if she didn’t stop seeing them. Shocked, but also full of self-loathing and not wanting to further harm her daughters, Cantamessa agreed to stop visits. It was over a year before she was allowed to see her daughters again.
Today, Cantamessa is a parent advocate in Washington State. She’s part of a group of parent advocates and former foster youth who say that child-welfare systems show the same disregard for parent-child bonds that the government demonstrates when it separates and detains migrant kids at the US-Mexico border. The research is clear on the psychological and physical damage these practices inflict: Parent-child separations lead to increased anxiety and depression, lower IQs, and post-traumatic stress disorder in children.