When Suzanne Sellers gave birth to her son in 1995, she tested positive for drugs, having become addicted to the crack cocaine that was an epidemic in poor black communities. Despite getting clean, Sellers was coerced into signing away her parental rights, she said.
“I had been sober for over two years at the time I was coerced to sign away my parental rights, despite numerous accomplishments and evidence of a rehabilitated life,” Sellers wrote in an opinion column for The New York Times. “Being black was used against me. Yet there were other factors that compounded the racism and unjust treatment, including my being a woman who was poor, with an unstable living situation, unmarried and, of course, a drug user.”
Sellers was writing about her experience after being featured in an opinion piece in which the Times’ editorial board detailed the ways that the coverage of mothers addicted to cocaine —particularly crack cocaine — contributed to the erosion of a woman’s right to choose and stigmatized a generation of mostly black babies born to mothers who were using drugs.
“Americans were told on the nightly news that crack exposure in the womb destroyed the unique brain functions that distinguish human beings from animals — an observation that no one had ever connected to the chemically identical powdered form of the drug that affluent whites were shoveling up their noses,” the editorial board wrote.
“News organizations shoulder much of the blame for the moral panic that cast mothers with crack addictions as irretrievably depraved and the worst enemies of their children,” the board wrote. “The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek and others further demonized black women ‘addicts’ by wrongly reporting that they were giving birth to a generation of neurologically damaged children who were less than fully human and who would bankrupt the schools and social service agencies once they came of age.”
Sellers said that the paper’s recognition of the dangers of this type of coverage was appreciated.
“I want to thank The New York Times for its apology for how it demonized mothers like me,” Sellers wrote. “The apology is welcomed, and it gives me hope.”
Sellers called on society to do better today, especially in regards to dealing with mothers and children affected by opioid addiction.
“In 2019, no longer should weak science, poorly informed crusaders and racist attitudes continue to shape public policy,” she wrote.
“American citizens, including drug users, have rights. My rights were violated numerous times during my child welfare case, and my family was wrongfully torn apart. When families are wrongfully torn apart, the results are devastating. When the fundamental relationship of every human being — the relationship of a child with his or her mother — is severed, the effects can be irreversible.”
Today, Sellers has resumed contact with both her children, who are now adults. She leads her own consulting firm and a nonprofit, Families Organizing for Child Welfare Justice, and is a homeowner with three master’s degrees.
“I list my accomplishments not to ‘toot my own horn’ but to show that people can and do recover from drug addiction,” she wrote.
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