After a judge terminates parental rights, mothers often carry the burden of grief alone. Society tends to offer little sympathy or support for those in this situation.
“When women aren’t able to parent, or their children are removed from their care, it comes with layers of stigma and shame,” says Jenny Eldredge, executive director of Bellis. For 40 years, Bellis has supported birth mothers who have chosen adoption for their children. It is an “ambiguous loss,” Eldredge explains, to grieve a child that someone else is parenting.
In 2021, the nonprofit created a new group for mothers who have had their parental rights terminated by the state. It is the first group in the nation uniquely for mothers in this situation. The peer-based support model means women talk through their grief in the company of others who share their experiences.
“These women sometimes can’t even talk to their own family or friends about their feelings, and when they get together you just see them connect on this really profound level,” Eldredge explains. “This sense of relief happens; they do not have to educate someone, they do not have to defend their decisions or justify themselves.”
Bellis offers weekly in-person meetings and twice a week virtual sessions, which are open to people worldwide. Two licensed professionals help guide the conversation and can counsel participants one-on-one.
Eldredge has been executive director of Bellis for ten years and is an adoptive mother herself. Eldredge’s sister gave birth as a teenager in the 1970s, and the child was adopted by another family. “It was a closed system, so she just had to hope that her baby would end up with the right family. As a little kid, I saw how there are gaps in services for women who are going through some really, really big grieving.
“In this new program, we are supporting women who have that same loss, but it is coupled with lots of stress, like having Child Protection Services and the courts involved in your life — that is a different level of trauma.”
Minnesota Women’s Press asked individuals involved in the support group to tell their stories.
I am the mother of two children, ages 11 and 15. I have spent most of my life — since age 11 — addicted to chemicals. I was mostly a functioning user, but my problem was totally out of control by 2014. I lost my job, home, and vehicle due to addiction. My kids and I moved into my mother’s home in 2015. I was contacted by Child Protective Services (CPS) on April 16, 2016, and was told I had until 5pm to surrender my then five-year-old son to the Human Services building. My daughter was taken out of school that day by CPS. At that point in my using, I had a plan to move with the children to Florida, where my daughter’s father lives. CPS intercepted my family before we could leave. I still planned on moving there to enroll in Teen Challenge [a network of Christian faith- based corporations that intend to provide rehabilitation for people struggling with addiction] while my daughter’s father took the kids; that way my kids would be nearby so that we could co-parent. I continued using.
In June 2016, as I was coming from a visitation with my children, there were two men by my car waiting to talk to me. They told me they were a part of the drug unit and that I was being charged with first-degree sales. They had set up a controlled buy on me that I found out about at that moment. “You are not leaving the state. You will probably never see your kids again.” Something broke inside of me at that moment, and I knew all of my plans were shattered.
On August 16, 2016, my children left the state of Minnesota and moved to Florida. I have not seen my kids since then. I have not even been allowed to see pictures of them. In November 2016, my mother had a catastrophic stroke, and she died the next month. I lost my mind at that point. I had lost my children and my mother within months of each other. This caused me to spiral even deeper into addiction, and that included selling drugs. I was arrested January 10, 2017, and was in and out of jail for the next 10 months. I finally entered the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenges Short Term program in October 2017. I completed this and went on to their 13-month program. While in the program, my grandmother and father both passed away. I graduated despite those challenges in November 2018 with honors. I have been sober since August 19, 2017.
I had no support for losing my children after they were taken in 2016. I stuffed it down as I watched mothers being reunited with their children all around me. My kids decided they wanted nothing to do with me. In May 2021, I terminated rights to them at their request. At that same time, I happened to find Bellis. I have been going to the in-person meeting since May 2021, and evening meetings online as well.
I am taking other women to this meeting with me. It helped me in my journey to face the pain I had been holding inside. I have met other women who know exactly how I feel. I am able to talk freely about my story without judgment and with total acceptance. This has changed my life.
I made horrible choices when I was in my addiction, and I am facing those consequences daily. I always will. But I can also say that I am supported both by my faith in God and Bellis’ “Stronger Together” meetings.
I started working for Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge in 2019, and I am able to walk alongside women while going through the healing process. I am so honored to be able to help other women fight for their lives and their hearts.
I have felt unwanted for most of my life. I started doing drugs to feel accepted and make friends. Then, at age 19 in 2014, I got pregnant. I tried to turn my life around to make a good life for my son. I earned my high school diploma, earned a college degree, and built a home. I did the things that I saw “good families” do.
I enjoyed spending time with my son — he was so precious to me — but I did not know how to discipline him or have structure in our daily routine. Our life was chaotic. Then, on December 16, 2018, I received a daunting call from a CPS worker. She stated that she needed to see my son within 24 hours. When we met, she informed me that she received a report that his dad was a registered predatory sex offender and that they could not have contact until further notice. I instantly became a single mother. I worked full time and did not have daycare. I struggled to make ends meet. I did not know how to get help or support.
After working with CPS for a time — being stressed, lacking support and coping skills — I relapsed. This led to me losing custody of my son via an “involuntary transfer of legal and physical custody.” His paternal aunt obtained custody. I hit rock bottom, and checked myself into a 13-month long treatment program, where I currently reside. I am learning how to ask for help and find healthy support. I am gaining confidence and self-worth. I have hope for a future.