Community Forum: Experience with a mother changed my perspective on substance use

This week’s writer is Anne C. Sullivan, M.Ed., a Hinesburg resident who has worked in schools and human services for five decades.

I used to be biased against people with a substance disorder. But my recent experience as a guardian ad litem caused me to change my mind.


Since the 1980s, when a close friend was mugged at her doorstep in New York City, I’d felt that people with substance use disorders must be lazy because they weren’t trying hard enough to overcome their addiction. And they must be stupid because, not wanting to work real jobs, they turned into drug dealers who mug you and rob you. How else could I explain why my friend, a childhood polio victim who walked with metal leg braces, could be treated so cruelly? It was a bitter irony that, professionally, my friend was a social worker who worked at a drug rehabilitation center.

In 2021, after moving to Vermont from Massachusetts, I volunteered and trained to be a guardian ad litem. My first assignment was a two-month-old baby boy. I was required to visit him monthly, attend court hearings, and report to the court concerning “the best interests of the child.” The baby’s mother was young, and since she’d been a teen she’d used illegal drugs and experienced chronic mental health problems. Hospital medical staff are required to file a report to the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF) about patients who are illegal drug users and giving birth. This begins a lengthy legal court process in order to ensure the baby’s safety.

Because the mother had used opioids during pregnancy, the baby had to receive methadone after birth to avoid withdrawal symptoms. At hospital discharge, the foster parents took the baby home with them, although the family court judge allowed daily visits for the mother to breastfeed. Then, a few months later, the mother and her boyfriend, the baby’s father, were arrested for drug dealing. A search of their apartment found drugs, a weapon, and a lot of cash. The mother later overdosed and was hospitalized for many weeks for her mental health needs.

At this time, I didn’t think the DCF plan to reunite the baby with his mother would work. There was little evidence she wanted to live without drugs or that she had much attachment to her baby. I didn’t know how she felt about being separated from her child or if she even cared.

I visited the baby monthly, as required by the court, at the foster parents’ home and at a DCF office. I shared my observations about his development with the baby’s lawyer and his Family Services Worker from DCF. My hour-long visits at the DCF playroom (where the mother was supervised by a DCF worker) weren’t promising. During my first visit, the mother questioned my presence and asked me to leave. After I explained why I was there, she changed her mind. During other visits, she was quiet and often seemed tired. She’d sit on the floor with her infant son, her cell phone in her hand. I didn’t see her change a diaper, feed him or begin to play or talk with him.

These visits reminded me of my professional Early Intervention work in Massachusetts. E.I. is a state-funded program for children ages birth-3 who qualify for treatment. In Massachusetts, I visited a residential treatment center for mothers in recovery from illegal substance use and their babies. I saw mothers individually with their babies and in a group. Some mothers slept during the group. Some mothers often didn’t make eye contact; others looked tired or uninterested. It seemed they’d rather be on their phones. They’d complain about the staff and the rules; sometimes about missing their older children, who were often in foster care. Working with these mothers would often leave me feeling drained and annoyed. Although I knew they weren’t being discourteous — they were mostly tired and withdrawn — it was hard to get them involved or interested.

Now, as a guardian ad litem, I was skeptical about how a mother could begin to form an attachment or bond with a baby she was separated from. I knew that infant attachment gradually forms through the senses of both baby and mother during feeding, diaper changes, comforting, dressing, and transitions between sleep and waking. I wondered if this was happening between the mother and her infant. Although the baby was safe, well cared for by the foster parents and developing normally, the mother’s behavior was still unstable. She had to undergo drug screens, remain in medically assisted treatment, get a job, complete lots of paperwork, and report to DCF. On one visit at DCF, after her hospitalization, she told me she’d had a lot of stress during the postpartum period weeks after giving birth, and that this had led to a relapse. I knew how significant the postpartum period is for all new mothers and how much support they need. I wondered how much support she’d been able to find for herself. Clearly not enough.

Many months later, the mother was accepted at a residential treatment center. The court allowed the baby to live there with her after the transition. By now, the baby was a toddler, walking, using words and eating table food. During his transition to living with his mother, I watched as the foster parents handed the boy over to his mother. He’d cry, but over time he became familiar with the routine. In the center playroom, I could see his mother beginning to play and talk with him more often. She also began to talk with me when we’d go outside for a walk. She was alert and focused. I remember the day she told me she didn’t want to lose her son ever again.

Her words brought to mind an incident from a few years back, when I witnessed the trauma of a mother-child separation. One day in Massachusetts, I had an E.I. appointment with a very young mother and her infant at the residential treatment center, when two DCF social workers entered the room. One social worker took the baby out of the mother’s arms while the other explained why they were taking him. Then they left with the baby. The mother was distraught and crying. Other mothers there were watching. The staff said the child’s removal was due to a relapse, meaning they had found illegal substances in the mother’s room, and they’re required to report this to DCF to protect the baby. The baby was eventually returned.

Now my guardian ad litem reports to DCF and the baby’s attorney described the baby’s positive development I’d observed during monthly visits. His mother now talked to him, kept her eyes on him and moved around with him in the playroom. She even apologized to me for the “very rocky start” she thought we’d had during our initial meetings.

The mother attended court hearings and conferences all held via Zoom during the past two years, answered questions from the family court judge, and listened to reports about herself by several attorneys, the FSW, and mine about the baby. She remained at the treatment center for almost a year with her baby. She completed housing applications and searched for an apartment.

When I last visited the boy, now two years old, he was living with his mother in an apartment. He was talking, playing, sitting in her lap and she was alert and more talkative. She’d been discharged from residential treatment and found affordable housing with a voucher. I saw that the child was meeting all developmental milestones and thriving despite having been exposed to substances and dealing with many transitions.

Shortly after that visit, a status conference was held in court via Zoom. I reported on the boy’s great progress and said I didn’t see any indications of trauma in his behaviors. Then, since the lawyers agreed there were no longer any safety concerns, the judge closed the case two months early. In court, everyone praised the mother for staying in recovery and congratulated her many times.

She deserves this. Mothers addicted to opioids, when giving birth in the hospital, are often treated as bad mothers and criminals. They are discharged from the hospital without their babies, who are taken away from them. There aren’t enough treatment centers and support for them to stay together. Unfortunately, relapses are inevitable and not a sign of weakness.

Since this legal case has now been closed by the Family Court I will no longer have contact with the mother, who texted me after the hearing: “Thank you for everything you’ve done to help us.”

Now, when I talk with neighbors or friends about illegal drug users, I think about the struggles they face. I better understand why a safe recovery and success are so hard to achieve.


Anne C. Sullivan, M.Ed., a child development specialist and guardian ad litem, was a play therapist and teacher in Massachusetts for 50 years, in schools, hospitals and agencies. In 2021 she received a Senior Heroes award from the Framingham Council on Aging and the Massachusetts House and Senate for her Environmental Justice volunteer work.

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