By Sarah Nagem
When Maria Carthen visits her nearly 3-year-old daughter at the Robeson County Department of Social Services, she often brings snacks and orders pizza. Sometimes she totes in a Mercedes-Benz Power Wheels toy for the little girl to ride. She likes to snap photos and record videos like any doting mother watching her child play.
Around Thanksgiving in 2020, Carthen and her now-husband, James, brought a holiday meal for the family to share in the visiting room. The following month, they arrived with Christmas gifts.
A social worker is never far during these visits. The girl has been in the custody of DSS since she was a week old. She was born with cocaine in her system.
Now the Carthens are trying to regain custody of the girl, as well as the son Maria had in early 2021. Carthen said she stopped using crack cocaine more than two years ago and is ready to be a proper mother to all of her six children, including her unborn baby who is due at the end of July.
The court, however, has been leaning toward an adoption plan for the girl, who lives with her foster parents in Kentucky. In that case, Carthen would lose her parental rights. She stood outside the Robeson County DSS office in Lumberton on a recent Wednesday to protest, holding a sign that read, “My past does not define me.”
“I feel like it doesn’t matter what happens from here on out – somebody will always try to persecute me for my past mistakes,” said Carthen, who will turn 33 this month. “That’s not me anymore.”
Court documents obtained by the Carthens and shared with the Border Belt Independent paint a picture of a years-long struggle of a young mother gripped by a traumatic past and drug addiction. Others have also struggled – two sets of foster parents who seemingly want to make the children a permanent part of their families, and the children themselves who are growing up in the middle of it all.
The hundreds of pages of court documents are also a stark reminder of the tremendous need in Robeson County, a rural community in southeastern North Carolina. It is one of the poorest counties in the state and where the opioid epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic have torn countless families apart.
Robeson County, home to about 118,000 people, had 337 children in the foster care system as of March, according to Dawn Gavasci, program manager for the local DSS office. By comparison, Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte and about 1 million people, has roughly 550 kids in foster care at any given time.
Angelica Chavis McIntyre, the chief district court judge in Robeson, called the local number “disturbing.”
“The opioid crisis, without a doubt, has been a huge driving factor in the Department of Social Services having involvement with families in our county,” she said.
‘It erased my mind’
Maria Carthen grew up in Robeson County, raised by her mother and step-father. When she was 9, she said, she was thrown from the backseat through the windshield of a car during a wreck.
Emergency workers had to cut her mother from the vehicle, she said. Her younger sister sustained a brain bruise that affected her mobility and learning. Carthen hurt her shoulder and her knees and was left with scars that became the target of bullies at school. In the fourth grade, she said, she would use money from her piggy bank to pay classmates to stop teasing her.
Carthen said she started smoking marijuana when she was 16 – a behavior that has continued on and off throughout her life, based on the results of drug screens that are included in court records. That was around the time she first met her biological father, Carthen said. While attending Purnell Swett High School near Pembroke, she learned that one of her classmates was her half-brother on her father’s side.
Lingering physical ailments sustained in the car accident prevented her from fulfilling her dream of joining the military, Carthen said. She worked a few years at Sam’s Club in Lumberton after high school and then became a stay-at-home mom to her three children at the time.
But things soured when the father of two of her kids became abusive, Carthen said. He would give her only $5 or $10 each day to feed the children and put gas in the car, she said. She became isolated from her family.
Carthen said the man was selling drugs and that she took the rap for him when police showed up at their home. In 2017, she was convicted of two drug-related felonies and was put on probation, state records show.
At some point, she said, she started taking opiates such as the pain reliever Percocet.
“Everybody around me was doing it,” Carthen said. “I didn’t think that it was gonna suck me in and become a problem. But before you realize what’s happening, it’s a problem.”
Some people turn to heroin and the more-powerful fentanyl after they get hooked on pills. But Carthen was introduced to what became her drug of choice: crack cocaine. The highly addictive substance is fairly cheap to produce, making it easily accessible.
Carthen said it numbed the pain when she lost custody of her three kids following her arrest. They continue to live with their fathers today.
“It erased my mind. Just erased everything, and I just didn’t want to feel anything anymore,” Carthen said. “That was my escape.”
Carthen said she couldn’t land a job and she felt ashamed of what her life had become. The news in 2019 of another child on the way wasn’t enough to stop her drug use.
“I knew I was pregnant. But for the life of me, I couldn’t find it in me to let it go,” Carthen said. “I tried and I tried – I wasn’t strong enough.”
Limited treatment options
It might be easy for outsiders to expect women who struggle with substance misuse to get clean when they become pregnant. But it’s not that simple, according to Hendrée Jones, a professor in the obstetrics and gynecology department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and executive director of UNC Horizons. The program offers a range of services for women dealing with addiction.
Jones said many patients at UNC Horizons have adverse childhood experiences and adulthood trauma, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
Unlike most treatment centers, UNC Horizons allows mothers to bring their children under the age of 12 to stay with them in an apartment. Jones said that can be crucial for a family’s long-term success.
“Once we can get them in a really stable, nurturing environment, (we can) help mom learn parenting skills that maybe she never experienced growing up,” Jones said. “Our children, when they leave, they’re meeting if not exceeding their milestones. So much of it is around that environment and creating consistency and predictability and giving them an opportunity to have a safe place as a foundation to lay your head.”
Robeson County is lucky to have Family Treatment Court, a special court for parents who have lost custody of their children and are struggling with addiction, said McIntyre, the judge. The goal, she said, is to connect families with the resources they need.
“If you can help treat the substance use,” she said, “you can reunify the family.”
Carthen said she has been dismayed by the treatment options available to her, and she would have welcomed the opportunity for in-patient or residential treatment such as that offered by UNC Horizons.
Court documents show Carthen and her husband have been referred to a revolving door of facilities in Robeson County that offer therapy, court-ordered psychological evaluations and drug tests.
W&B Healthcare in Red Springs told DSS workers in December 2019 they could not refer Carthen to in-patient care because she was incarcerated and had stopped attending classes, records show. Carthen said she was jailed briefly due to a child support dispute with the father of her oldest child.
She apparently was not referred to in-patient care once she was released from jail and returned to classes at W&B Healthcare.
Both James and Maria have missed some therapy appointments along the way. Maria has at times tested positive for alcohol and marijuana, records show. (James was not being treated for substance misuse, but court documents show he has “delusions” in which he sees and hears things that aren’t there.)
As part of her recovery, Maria Carthen was prescribed opioid-treatment drugs, which are commonly given to people with substance use disorders.
Jones said methadone and buprenorphine are safe and effective in helping pregnant and postpartum women to stop misusing opioids. “When we are able to give that medication, it helps stabilize the brain,” she said.
Carthen said she didn’t like the way buprenorphine, commonly known as Suboxone, made her feel. She was drowsy all the time, she said, and her speech was slurred. She said she weaned herself off the medication.
In child custody cases, the goal is to keep families together whenever possible.
“Reunification is always our initial plan,” Gavasci, the Robeson County DSS program manager, told the Border Belt Independent in an email in March. “When children can be reunited with their parents in a safe and healthy home this success is not just for this family but we consider it a success for our community and county.”
In 2020, almost 41% of North Carolina foster cases ended in reunification, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Carthens says DSS has not done enough to help reunite their family.
Soon after her fourth child was born, social workers conducted a home assessment for Maria Carthen’s father, who also lives in Robeson County. Carthen said her father and his wife were willing to keep the girl as long as necessary.
But DSS dismissed the home as a possible placement, noting that her father had a decades-old drug conviction. He also didn’t have a relationship with the child, the agency said.
James Carthen, who got married to Maria last spring, made it clear early on he was willing to keep the child. In the early months of 2020, when Maria was still struggling with drugs, he often visited the girl on his own.
He said DSS pressured him to take a paternity test, although he and Maria opposed it. The test showed he is not the biological father of Maria’s fourth and fifth children. But he says he loves them as if they were his.
Shortly after her youngest son was born, DSS placed the child in foster care because of the open case involving her daughter, Maria Carthen said.
Meanwhile, Maria Carthen said she and James have done everything the court has asked of them.
As part of court orders, Carthen was instructed to find employment and housing. She worked at McDonald’s in Red Springs for about two weeks in 2021 but quit, records show. She said she and her husband started a business in which they dress up like Minnie Mouse and Mickey Mouse for kids’ parties.
Last year, the Carthens moved into a fixer-upper in Red Springs. They got the electricity rewired, they said, and they repaired the plumbing. They bought a large sectional sofa from a local thrift store and crafted kitchen countertops out of lumber.
They painted murals in two of the bedrooms, so Mickey and Minnie and “My Little Pony” are ready to greet their kids if and when they arrive.
They are scheduled to return to court in August. But they have grown wary of the system.
Once a week, the Carthens have been leading small protests dubbed Operation Reunification outside the DSS office in Lumberton. Other families say they, too, are waiting to be reunited with their children and grandchildren.
The Carthens say they fear that their daughter’s foster parents, who moved to Kentucky with the child, want to keep her. The foster mother, reached by phone by the Border Belt Independent, declined to comment for this story.
Meanwhile, Maria Carthen said she learned that her youngest son had taken his first steps when his foster parents posted a video on Facebook. It pains her that she is missing the kids’ important milestones.
“That’s not fair,” she said. “Those are our moments.”
But they aren’t giving up hope. With another baby on the way, Maria says she is focused and determined. She says the person she used to be – the one who stumbled through life aimless and high – is no longer welcome in her world.
Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem