Credit: Stock photo | Pexels

Brittney is a woman in long-term recovery from substance use disorder. She has a good job, a beautiful home and an 18-month-old daughter who lives with her. But she is forever separated from her older daughter because of a law passed in 1997.

The “Adoption and Safe Families Act” was intended to reduce the time children spend in foster care. Instead, it has become known as the “ticking time bomb” in the child protective system. This law forces the state to file for termination of parental rights once a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. An exception to this rule is if the state has not provided the family with all the services deemed necessary to return the child to a safe home. But the state not providing women who are incarcerated with the services they need is not the exception; it actually seems to be the rule.

I have interviewed many women who are incarcerated and interacting with the child protective system. Every one of them have had their parental rights terminated by the state based on the argument that they failed to comply with reunification during incarceration and their time had run out. But none of them were offered those necessary services.

Brittney was sentenced to eight months in jail and nine months of rehabilitation for a resumption of substance use while on probation. She was complying with the Department of Health and Human Services at the time of her incarceration and on course to a successful reunification. During the time she was incarcerated, she was denied visitation with her daughter, the jail refused to transport her to family court, she had no access to substance use treatment and never spoke with her child protective worker. The state filed for a termination of rights, and her daughter was adopted by Brittney’s mother.

Substance use disorder is a brain disease that develops over time and often as a result of adverse childhood experiences. These events include physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse, threats, family substance use, and incarceration of a parent. When a person experiences more than four of these during childhood, they are up to 12 times more likely to develop an addiction. This medical condition demands formal treatment.

And yet, we continue to criminalize it through public policies and practices at the level of family, community, state and nation. This choice has had far-reaching and devastating effects on everyone who touches the criminal justice system and uses or loves someone who uses drugs.

The Maine Department of Corrections, recently released statistics that show that 72 percent of women who are incarcerated in Maine’s state facilities are there on drug-related charges, 90 percent of them have multiple ACEs and 78 percent are mothers. These mothers leave behind an estimated 1,500 children, many of whom will end up in the foster care system never to return home. The children are further traumatized by the separation and are at higher risk to become the next generation of people with substance use disorder.

Brittney’s story is just one of hundreds from women in Maine who lost parental rights due to unfair sentencing practices and the criminalization of substance use disorder, coupled with child protective systems that fail to interact with the criminal justice system. Urgent reform to the ways in which these systems interact is required.

Congress can take action today by creating a mandatory exemption to the “ticking time bomb” for mothers who are incarcerated and expanding the allowable time a state has to reunify a child with their family. And by holding DHHS accountable to providing all the services necessary to return the child to a safe home, the Maine Legislature would take a meaningful step in rectifying years of failed drug policies, and it would protect Maine children from a lifetime of separation from mothers who are working hard to maintain long-term recovery.

Courtney Allen is the lead field researcher for “Women, Drug Use and Recovery in Maine,” at the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. Her column is a guest contribution for the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.