Sequaria "Mo" Asbury considers herself lucky. A 34-year-old mother of four kids between the ages of 5 and 9, she gets to spend this Mother’s Day with her children and grandparents in her hometown, Albuquerque, New Mex. It’s a seemingly small but poignant victory for a woman who openly talks about being a recovering meth addict. Her dependence intensified during a lengthy custody battle with her children’s father. She voluntarily relinquished custody of three of her kids to her grandparents while she focused on regaining her health. She sees them twice a week and on weekends, and says that their relationship is stronger than ever.
"When you’re judged as a drug addict and a parent, it’s a lot harder to become sober and clean because you just want to numb what they say about you."
Asbury is one of a dozen Albuquerque mothers who shared their stories as part of an ongoing campaign by Young Women United, a local reproductive justice organization that’s set out to curb the criminalization of mothers who sit at the crossroads of addiction and parenting. The new campaign, which also includes several ongoing working groups, is kicking off a public art project with posters created by moms battling addiction and the re-release of a report commissioned by a task force set up by the state legislature to examine how substance abuse impacts pregnant women and their children.
"It’s very hard to be in New Mexico and not be impacted by addiction," says Denicia Cadena, a lifelong resident who works as communications director for Young Women United. "We’ve been a majority people-of-color state for a long time and legacies for Native and Chicano people have been legacies of trauma and generational violence."
The task force’s report found that some women decide not to seek prenatal treatment because they fear they’ll be arrested for testing positive for drugs. In turn, it recommended that the state develop more comprehensive programming aimed at harm reduction among pregnant moms and create a public education campaign to bring attention to services that are already available.
The task force’s findings are even more important in light of what’s been happening nationwide. Late last month, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill into law that criminalizes moms who use drugs during pregnancy, making it the first state in the country to explicitly allow prosecutors to do so. Last year, health officials reported 855 cases of babies being born addicted to drugs.
But critics of such legislation contend that criminalizing pregnant moms will only make addiction worse.
"A pregnant woman struggling with drug or alcohol dependency will now be deterred from seeking the prenatal care she needs," Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, told The Tennessean.
While it’s hard to find statistics that examine the problem by race, one of the most enduring cultural images of children born to drug-addicted mothers are the so-called crack babies of the 1980’s crack cocaine epidemic that devastated black communities. In news accounts and public service announcements, jittery, underweight infants lay helplessly in hospital incubators. Though recent research has proved that the crack-baby epidemic was largely an overblown myth, the images of those children have left an indelible mark on the public, namely, that they are the innocent victims of careless and selfish mothers.
But for mothers like Asbury, that argument represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how addiction works.
"It’s not something that people do for fun," she says of drug and alcohol addiction. "A lot of times we’re told, ‘if you love your kids, you wouldn’t do it.’ But it hasn’t nothing to do with the love you have for your kids. It’s a sickness."