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ELLIJAY, Georgia The First Baptist Church auditorium was filling with an expectant crowd, friends and family who had been through so much. Kim Silvers’ three young daughters were there, all dressed up and eager for the graduation, hoping to mark the end of years of heartache visited on them all by their mother’s addiction.

They had begged her to stop using opioids and heard her promise to do so, only to break that vow over and over. They’d cried when she abandoned them, and again when they were split apart and sent to three different foster homes. Then their mother signed on for a rigorous court run treatment program her best, last chance to avoid the permanent loss of her children.

On this Tuesday evening, the program’s culmination was at hand. The would be graduates just had one final duty: providing another batch of urine samples to be drug tested. “We hold them accountable to the end,” case manager Jackie Bramlett said.

Across the United States, the opioid epidemic has caused tragedies too numerous to count. One bitter way to quantify the scourge is the documented spike in the number of children removed from the custody of addicted parents. One of the most dramatic increases has been in Georgia, where the foster care population soared from about 7,600 in September 2013 to more than 13,700 as of August. Parental substance abuse of all kinds, the state says, now accounts for about 40 per cent of foster care entries.

In response, family drug courts like the program Silvers entered have been spreading nationwide.

Looking back, Silvers says drugs had so taken over her life that she’d likely be dead without this type of help the constant monitoring and testing, mandatory classes in parenting, curfews and court appearances, jail time for infractions. There were times when she desperately wanted to quit the program.

“I never thought I would have 30 days clean, you know?” the 34 year old mother confides. “And once I had 30 days, and six months, it wasn’t an option. . I knew I had to do this for my girls. I knew there was a better purpose for my life.”

Substance abuse cast a shadow on Silvers’ life from her girlhood in this mountainous area of north Georgia; both her parents were alcoholics. By the time she turned 22, Silvers and a boyfriend were parents to three little girls: Emily, Kelsey and Allison. She started drinking heavily herself after Allie, her youngest, was born in 2005, and intoxication led to drug addiction. After Silvers took a drunken plunge from a second story window and shattered her pelvis, a doctor prescribed the painkiller Percocet, which contains the opioid oxycodone.

“My body grew so dependent on it,” Silvers recalls. “I had to have as much of it as I thought I could.”

She tried other drugs, often in a fruitless quest to replicate “that first high.” Several times a week, her daughters would find her passed out.

Emily, the oldest, remembers a mother who often seemed drowsy, sometimes drooling. “I didn’t want to see her like that,” she says, “and to see my sisters, how they were sad.”

On school days, Silvers would often rouse herself from bed to find that Emily, then about 11, had woken the younger girls, organized breakfast, and gotten everyone on the bus to school. Laundry chores often fell to Emily, too. “I just wanted to be a kid,
timberland boots size 8 A Georgia mother battles opioids to win back her kids
” says the daughter, who is 16 now and whose mother allowed her to be interviewed.

Silvers would promise to stop using, break that promise, then lie and tell her daughters that doctors had instructed her to keep taking medication. Eventually, Silvers wrecked her car and split with the children’s father. She went to live with a relative who kept her supplied with painkillers leaving her daughters with their paternal grandmother, who called child welfare officials when Silvers failed to return.

In November 2013, the girls were removed from Silvers’ custody and at first taken in by a cousin, then placed by the state in different homes. Allie wound up having to move around 14 times, and saw her mother only about once a month. Emily and Kelsey, who also were separated, visited with Silvers maybe once a week.

“Every night,” Emily remembers, “I’d cry.”

Months into the separation, Silvers was told by child welfare officials that Allie was in a hospital after an altercation with another girl at her group home. Then came a greater shock: The state threatened to terminate her parental rights. Silvers entered the Appalachian Judicial Circuit’s treatment program that very day March 17, 2014.

The goal of the two year program is simple to summarize but not easy to achieve: to stop substance abuse by parents at risk of losing permanent custody of their kids.

“We call it a voluntary program, but if the state has your children, it’s not completely voluntary,” says Judge Jan Wheeler, who oversees the effort. But he said those programs reach less than 20 per cent of the population that needs them.

In the Georgia program, participants sign a contract binding them to 32 commitments. curfew. Random drug tests occur five or six times a week. Meetings of Narcotics Anonymous or similar groups are mandatory. Court appearances come every two weeks.

Participants must get a job and attend classes on topics like relapse prevention and “moral recognition therapy.”

Failing to meet requirements brings sanctions, up to possible expulsion. Along with its 93 graduates over the years, the Appalachian circuit program has had 98 cases where participants quit or were expelled.

“It kind of breaks your heart,” says Jennifer Farmer, who heads the child welfare agency’s Ellijay office, recalling one couple who were abusing methamphetamine while living with their children in a tent in the woods. After repeatedly violating program rules, they were expelled and lost parental rights for the two youngest kids.

Kristen Gaddis works for the judicial district, guiding troubled participants after herself graduating from the program in 2014. She had wrecked her car three times in a single year, including once when her son, then 4, was with her. They were both unhurt but, Gaddis says, “Every time I took my kids in the car and I was high, they were in danger. It’s hard for a mother to own something like that.”

There was a lot that was hard for Silvers to own. “I had made so many broken promises, told so many lies,” she says.

She didn’t miss any of her visitations, though, and after a year she regained custody of her daughters while remaining in the program. It took longer for them to begin trusting her again.

“They stayed on me,” Silvers says. “‘Mom, you’re not going to the meeting tonight?’ Or, ‘Mom, you better make sure you’re home by curfew.’ It was them encouraging me along the way.”

There were setbacks. Silvers reunited with the girls’ father, but they feuded and she had him arrested. When he got out of jail, he kicked them all out of his house. They moved into a shelter, but it and Silvers’ job were in one county and the girls’ school in another. Unable to handle those logistics, she missed work and lost her job.

Some friends suggested Silvers try kratom to feel better. The herb, which can activate opioid receptors in the brain, is legal but forbidden along with other substances under the drug court rules. When a lab test discovered it,
timberland boots size 8 A Georgia mother battles opioids to win back her kids
Silvers confessed and was allowed to stay in the program while taking an extra “relapse” class for six weeks.