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Second Chances

My prison birth could have set me up for a life of failure. But the love of my families has led me to one of resilience and hope. by Deborah Jiang Stein



My mother once told me about an incident that occurred when I was four--shortly after I was adopted--on a family outing to the Seattle Zoo. A woman approached us from a distance and, as soon as she recognized me, she raced toward us. She had been one of my foster mothers. As she stretched out her arms to embrace me, I stared at her coolly, as if she were a stranger, and then turned away. My mother described how troubling it was to watch this scene. My face was vacant except for the tears raining down my cheeks. It worried her that I'd acquired an armor so early to hide my profound sorrow.

I have no memory of the event. 

Eight years later, I discovered the source of that armor. I found a letter hidden in my mother's dresser drawer that she'd written to the family attorney. She wanted to change my birth certificate to remove my birthplace. The letter went on: I was born, heroin-addicted, in the Federal Prison for Women in Alderson, West Virginia.

Love Was Not Enough
As a girl, I sensed something was wrong in my life. I knew I was adopted and, by the time I found The Letter, my racially ambiguous looks troubled me, my caramel-colored skin more Latina than anything, but my eyes suggesting Asian in me somewhere. Some called me biracial, black and white. I lived for the day each month when our National Geographic arrived in the mail. I furiously flipped through the glossy pages to find pictures of people who looked like me. What if I belonged to the people in these pages? I wondered. I stared at them for hours, searching for myself in those photographs of people from tropical countries and other continents. My wide smile and lips resembled those of Thai children; my dark complexion was like a girl's from Puerto Rico; my nose matched the noses of people from Samoa or the Philippines; babies wrapped on their mothers' backs in China had my eyebrows. I saw myself everywhere in those magazines, in everyone who did not have my parents' Eastern-European looks. My monthly ritual helped me feel less crazy about my mix, my prison birth, all of it.

"But you're just one of us, dear, and we love you," my mother said whenever I told her I faced discrimination or prejudice. As much as my mother wanted to help, I needed more than love to understand the confusion and injustices I faced out in the world. My ultra-liberal Jewish parents, both writers, poets, and college professors, deliberately sought to adopt a special-needs, at-risk, multiracial child. At the time I felt like a guinea pig, an experiment for their liberal efforts. Like many adoptive parents, they thought love would heal my challenges, pain, and losses. But when I faced discrimination, love wasn't enough. When I grieved over losses I didn't understand, love wasn't enough. She's one of them, I thought about my mother, white. And she won't understand. I was on my own. 

A Path of Defiance
Over time, a wedge grew between my parents and me, and it would take over a decade to dissipate. I was a wild child. Drugs, drinking, and running with the wrong crowd gave me all I needed then. In a way, I felt true to my roots. At 14 I started street drugs, and I moved out three years later. At 19 I loaded a spoon of dope and cooked it up for the first time. When I started to shoot heroin, instinct told me that the odds were against me, so I stuck with other drugs. More than once I drugged past my limit, just this side of dying from an overdose.

After several near-death encounters with bad drugs and gun threats, I knew I was on my way to the graveyard or prison. Though still on drugs, I returned to college and earned my degree in economics. Shortly after, I witnessed a violent stabbing, and it convinced me to quit drugs, cold-turkey, with the help of chemical-dependency counselors. I've stayed clean from then on. I reconciled with my parents, and I learned that their enduring love was, in fact, what mattered. At the time of my mother's death, I was the closest person to her.

Making Peace
Shortly after I reunited with my parents, I hired a search agency to locate my birth family. Though my birthmother had died, I met a half-brother and a dozen cousins, aunts, and uncles, all living in Seattle, where I'd been raised. My birth family welcomed me as if I'd just returned from camp, and we've been close ever since. They showed me my birthmother's photo album. This was the first time I'd seen my baby pictures, full of smiles, not like the photos of me growing up, glum, angry, and timid. And my birth family helped me understand my background: part Greek and a blend of Taiwanese-American, Latina, and more.

A few years later, I flew to Alderson. An officer gave me a private tour of the prison. I walked throughout the compound, including the prison hospital room where I was born and the cell where I lived with my birthmother. It was a profound and exciting experience.

Finally, I could let go of my fantasies of my birthplace and birthmother, and, in doing so, I made room in my soul for my real mother--my adoptive mother--the one who stood by me all those years. In reconciliation and gratitude, I felt compelled to serve, to give back at my source. I made a commitment to myself, to women in prison, and to their underage children left behind. I thought, Who better than me, who made it out the other side?

For a while, I regularly returned to Alderson to speak and offer writing workshops for the prisoners. I traveled to women's prisons across the country to share my story of possibility. I speak about the persistence and critical relationships that make all the difference for survival. Nearly two million children under age 18 have at least one parent in prison. I want to be an ambassador for these children. I have several projects in development to reach this under-served population, and I want to form a nonprofit to provide college scholarship funds for daughters of women in federal prisons.

My story is about beating the odds, from the beginning. Fifty percent of heroin babies die at birth. I've broken the cycle of incarceration and addiction, and I've also followed in my parents' footsteps. I adopted both of my daughters. I tell them about my wild experiences and also teach them the same values my parents taught me. They are learning from me that we can rise above our adversities, that our attitudes determine the way we face obstacles.

Deborah Jiang Stein is an award-winning writer and mother of two girls from China. She is writing a memoir, and is available as a speaker. She can be reached at deborahstein.com.

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Comments

I am an addictions therapist, and I spent some time in prison several decades ago, on a drug possession charge. There is NOTHING therapeutic, rehabilitative, or healthy about prison time. It hurts everyone involved. It was designed to protect us from the most severely sociopathic members of society, yet it is now filled with relatively harmless drug offenders. It is bad enough that our laws force mothers on welfare to put their children in substandard daycare to be raised by strangers while they work minimum wage (or less) jobs. All this does is help the smug haters of the poor feel more self righteous. Not only should we NOT put addicts in prison, pregnant or not, we should legalize all drugs immediately. Once these substances are in the hands of FDA approved manufacturers, all illicit drug traffic will be out of business. This includes Al Qaeda and the Taliban, by the way! The government still seems to feel like people are actually listening to the "moral" messages it sends. They are not. They are listening to their own broken brains telling them to get more dope. It is possible to heal this, but not while they are being bullied, inappropriately punished and shamed by the drug laws. Legalization would also put a stop to most drug-related crimes, as well as help us keep the drugs out of the hands of children and offer more options to pregnant addicts. No more disease from dirty needles, no more STD's from reluctant prostitution, no more accidental overdoses from uncontrolled dosage and purity. No more dealers in the inner city! I am no friend to the big drug companies, but they do have to follow the laws about purity, etc. If we sold it like any legal intoxicant, to adults only, and spend the now-wasted drug war dollars on free treatment for everyone that wants it, we would have willing people in treatment. Once a person truly enters recovery, people around them tend to start reexamining their lives and it can start a small wave of change. Many small waves equals one tsunami. If we stop beating this thing with the stick, we could win it with the carrot.

Posted by: Patrick Dieter, BA, CADC II at 1:38pm Dec 29

I can tell you from my experience as an Emergency Response Investigator for Child Protective Services that a woman who gives birth to a drug addicted or exposed baby does not usually go to jail (in California at least). CPS investigators are not even sent out in every case of a child being born drug-exposed; only the children with certain levels of exposure and health issues. For example, CPS is not often called from marijuana exposure but if that child is very unhealthy and is is suspected that the mother/parents are not fit to care for that child or do not have adequate resources, then a CPS investigator would go visit that family and help with resources. If the family is non-responsive and the child continues to be at risk, then the child may be removed and placed in foster care until the parents can improve their ability to care for the child. CPS often provides drug rehabilitation resources, counseling, and home health care for free and can even offer housing, etc. Now, if a baby is born drug-exposed to a mother who was on her 3rd, or 7th drug exposed child and all of the previous children had been removed from her custody by CPS, then it is more likely that the new child would be removed immediately. Resources would still be provided, but she would have less time and opportunity to reunify with that child (there are time limits in the Juvenile Court system when there has been numerous children in the system and the child's age also matters). In my experience, Jail/prison is usually not involved unless there is some type of possession charge or the child dies in their care. And I do not necessarily believe jail is the consequence that people with drug addictions need. They are already suffering with an addiction, losing their child(ren), and the scrutiny of others. Plus, jail often provides them with multiple opportunities to continue using drugs. I think they need counseling to address the issues that have led them to cope with their problems by using drugs and assistance with beating the addiction. As for my opinion on what could prevent children being born drug-addicted...I feel that addiction is very very difficult to beat for some people. Having a child growing inside of them often does not curb their urges. Because of their addiction, many do not even get prenatal care or see their physicians regularly. One thing that may help is if physicians would screen for substance abuse throughout the pregnancy (for the mothers going to the Dr.) and rehabilitation would be provided then for the mothers. Another option would be to provide a low maintenance birth control method to those mothers with addictions (such as IUD). That way they would not fall pregnant when forgetting to take their pills or when they forget to use protection at all. Another way might be through government assistance. Many drug addicted mothers utilize programs like WIC and TANF to help with their financials. If there was some type of drug screening and mandatory rehab involved at that level, there may be some change. Great article, Deborah! Hope I helped.

Posted by: Nakeya Fields, LCSW at 10:43pm Dec 30

I have to post this under my personal email and persona and not that of my employer since now you are treading in my area of expertise and that is the social/politics of women's health. Your question about giving birth control to female prison inmate raises a lot of issues. A few years ago I was in touch with a case manager at a women's mental health institution in Idaho. He contacted me questioning the use of Depo Provera (long-term menstrual suppressant injection) for patients. According to my source it was used for staff convenience - "no muss no fuss" - but on the other hand opened the door for more rapes and assaults on defenseless women. I have come to learn that 18 million babies were born in federal prisons last year. Most of them drug addicted. So we have a huge problem on hand. Huge. How to solve it? Big question. We are beginning to find out that menstrual suppressants are the cause of a myriad of mental/emotional/physical problems - let alone the increase of victimization (rape/assault)for women. There is also the cost of one pack of pills per month per woman. Huge amounts of money that feeds Big Pharma's coffers - plus the residual drugs given to them because of BCP side effects. Plus the STD's that go along with unprotected intercourse. I am bothered by the fact that the onus is always put on women - when in most cases they are already the victims. I do not know the answer on this - because society doesn't not have the answer either for the population at large. I have been in on discussions that range from castration to the development of a pill for male sex offenders that would reduce their sexual drive. Let men bear the responsibility for a awhile and see how that changes the dynamics. To keep on victimizing women is never going to solve the issue. Leslie Botha Author, publisher, radio talk show host http://holyhormones.com

Posted by: Leslie Botha at 10:59am Jan 4

Interesting to find this article on chemical castration for sex offenders in a Delaware newspaper today. "Sussex lawmaker proposes chemical castration Toughen laws for sex offenders, lawmaker says " http://www.delmarvanow.com/article/20100107/NEWS01/1070379 "...proposals aren't unprecedented. Six other states have laws that allow chemical castration of chronic sex offenders. Texas law allows for surgical castration in some instances, according to data provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures." Chemical castration - an interesting concept. The proposed drug is Depo Provera an injectable menstrual suppressant for women and on the market for years. The term "chemical castration" has never been used for this drug in the women's market. Although that is what it is. Funny that this is the same drug that I mentioned in my first comment above. Leslie Botha Author, publisher, radio talk show host http://holyhormones.com Marketing Director Courage to Change Addiction Recovery Ranch

Posted by: Leslie Botha at 11:15am Jan 7

There are differences between physiological dependence and addiction to substances. For example, people who take effexor are dependent-- and will have significant discontinuation-emergent side effects-- but they are not 'addicted', which consists of a mental obsession for a substance. The same is true of beta-blockes, in that discontinuation results in rebound hypertension, but there is no craving for propranololol when it is stopped abruptly. We have no idea of the ‘cravings’ experienced by a newborn, but I cannot imagine a newborn having the cortical connections required to experience anything akin to the ‘cravings’ experienced by opiate addicts, which consist of memories of using and positive reinforcement of behavior—things that are NOT part of the experience ‘in utero’. It is also important to realize that the withdrawal experienced by addicts consists of little actual ‘pain’ (I’ve been there—I know). Addicts talk about this subject often, as in ‘why do we hate withdrawal so much?’ It is not physical pain, but rather the discomfort of involuntary movements of the limbs , depression, and very severe shame and guilt. The NORMAL newborn already HAS such involuntary movements as the result of incomplete myelination of spinal nerve tracts and immature basal ganglia and cerebellar function in the brain. And the worst part of withdrawal—the shame and guilt and hopelessness—are not experienced in the same degree in a baby who has no understanding of the stigma of addiction! Finally, if we look at the ‘misery’ experienced by a newborn, we should compare it to the misery experienced by being a newborn in general. I doubt it feels good to have one’s head squeezed so hard that it changes shape—yet nobody gets real excited about THAT discomfort—at least not from the baby’s perspective! I also doubt it feels good to have one’s head squeezed by a pair of forceps, and then be pulled by the head through the birth canal! Many hospitals still do circumcisions without local, instead just tying down the limbs and cutting. Babies having surgery for pyloric stenosis are often intubated ‘awake’, as the standard of care-- which anyone who understands intubation knows is not a pleasant experience. And up until a couple decades ago—i.e. the 1980s (!), babies had surgery on the heart, including splitting open the sternum or breaking ribs, with a paralytic agent only, as the belief was that a baby with a heart defect wouldn’t tolerate narcotics or anesthetic. I don’t like making a baby experience the heightened autonomic activity that can be associated with abstinence syndrome, but compared to other elements of the birth experience, I know which I would choose! My points are twofold, and are not intended to encourage more births of physiogically-dependent babies. But everyone in the field should be aware of the very clear difference between physiological dependence and addiction, as the difference is a basic principle that is not a matter of opinion—but rather the need to get one’s definitions right. Second, the cycle of addiction and shame has been well established, and there is already plenty of shame inside of most addicted mothers. If there are ten babies screaming loudly, only the whimper from the ‘addict baby’ elicits the ‘tsk tsk’ of the nurses and breast feeding consultants. My first child was born to a healthy mom years before my own opiate dependence, and he never took to breast feeding; he his mother been an addict, his trouble surely would have been blamed on ‘addiction’ or ‘withdrawal’. Unfortunately even medical people see what they want to see—and sometimes that view needs to be checked for bias due to undeserved stigma—for EVERYONE’S good, baby included. Jeffrey T Junig MD PhD www.fdlpsychiatry.com www.suboxonetalkzone.com

Posted by: Jeffrey T Junig MD PhD at 8:28pm Feb 1

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