"This thing happened to an innocent baby. He could have been dead." Chandar Pass describes his horror at discovering his infant son had been gravely injured - while Pass snoozed off a drug episode.
Services mentioned in this story
• Family Treatment Court: Superior Court supervises this program to help parents recover from drug use and reunify with children. 360-397-2304 or www.clark.wa.gov/courts/superior/therapeutic.html
• Lifeline Connections: Inpatient and outpatient detoxification, drug and mental health treatment for adults and children. 360-397-8246 or lifelineconnections.org
• Children's Home Society: Parenting classes and resources for children and families affected by chemical dependency, abuse and neglect. 360-695-1325 in Vancouver, 360-835-7802 in East County or chs-wa.org
• ASPIRE: Coordinated system of housing subsidies, case management and supportive services. Managed by Share. 360-448-2121 or sharevancouver.org/Programs/share-aspire
• Innovative Services NW: pediatric therapies, child care and supervised, documented visitation for families under court supervision. 360-892-5142 or innovativeservicesnw.org
Worst of all was the silence.
In the weeks, months and years after their children were taken away from Katie Padgett and Chandar Pass, nothing hurt more than the enormous silence where the typical sounds of home used to be -- the talk, the plans, the instructions, the giggles. All the sounds of family life. All gone.
"The silence was so overwhelming," Padgett remembered. "I remember sitting on the couch just cursing the drugs. How did we do this to ourselves? How did we get here?"
Through a thousand little missteps plus a big dollop of stubborn resistance, the couple confessed during an interview at their apartment in west Vancouver -- while the children, 5-year-old Kendra and 2-year-old Daelan, bounced, ran and played underfoot in the days before Christmas.
How'd they get the kids back? Through a thousand little recovery steps -- plus that same dollop of stubbornness -- all guided by a justice system, and a network of nonprofit agencies that both helped and tested them every step of the way.
"We experienced so much pain, we were ready to do whatever it took," said Pass. The couple volunteered for this interview because they wanted to describe how difficult, but ultimately doable, they found recovery from addiction and rebuilding their young family.
Pass, 33, and Padgett, 34, both grew up in Washougal. They met at a party while in their early 20s; both started dabbling in drugs and alcohol. "We met the wrong people, and slowly this stuff found its way into our lives," Pass said.
She worked as a geriatric nursing assistant at a nursing home. He worked at Pendleton Woolen Mills. But holding steady jobs
became a lower priority for both of them as booze and meth took over.
"I was always a workaholic with a great work ethic," Padgett said. "I would work insane amounts of hours. When meth came into our lives, it was a way to keep going."
Or, so it seemed at first. But the zoom of energy that comes with early meth use soon gave way to an inability to function without it. Padgett realizes now that she was in deep denial as her body wasted away -- which sometimes led to on-the-job problems. She needed to be strong and stable for elderly patients with bad balance who were at risk of falling, but wasn't anymore.
"I was afraid I'd drop somebody or make a bad mistake," she said. Still, she blamed exhaustion and overwork, not drugs.
Pass did make a bad mistake. He'd lost his Pendleton job and was working for a landscaping crew; one time when he was buzzing on drugs and hadn't slept for days, "I put my hand where it didn't belong" while operating a chain saw. A mix of shock, exhaustion and fried brains kept him from grasping what had happened for a good 20 minutes, he recalled; ultimately his arm needed 80 stitches.
Still, Pass added: "It did not cross my mind that I'd been using for days. I just said, I'm clumsy. I'm just unlucky."
"We always said that. It was the answer to everything. We're just total victims of circumstance," said Padgett.
'This is abuse'
It got worse. After his chain saw accident, Pass got fired and spent his time high at home. Padgett worked customer service, losing weight and feeling sick.
When she realized she was pregnant, it shook her up. She stopped using for the remainder of her pregnancy, and a few months past Kendra's birth. But the couple's social scene remained the same -- drug users -- and it didn't take long to start rolling downhill again. Padgett got pregnant again, got clean again, gave birth and got right back into drugs again. It was almost routine.
Then, early on Sept. 12, 2010, Padgett came home from her night-shift job at a local motel to find Pass asleep on the couch and, oddly, no baby in their bed. Six-month-old Daelan was not in his usual spot. She puzzled over that while kicking off her work shoes -- when she heard a tiny squeak.
Padgett discovered Daelan jammed into a six-inch space between the bed and the wall. He'd been stuck there for hours and was unconscious but breathing; his head had been squeezed into an unnatural shape, taking on the textured wall's V-shaped indentations. The face was unrecognizable, she said, and once pressure was relieved it began swelling. As a nurse, Padgett knew this was major trouble.
Pass was up, "baffled and delirious" by now. "Maybe it's a spider bite? Maybe it's anything other than what it obviously is?" he recalled thinking.
They called their family pediatrician, who met them at the hospital and checked the baby for evidence of a beating or intentional abuse. He said he would swear that he found none -- that the injury, while definitely the outcome of neglect, appeared accidental -- but the child needed more intensive care and must go to Doernbecher's Children's Hospital in Portland.
Padgett remembers stumbling outside and collapsing onto her knees in despair. Even worse, she took a call from the state Department of Social and Health Services telling her not to bother returning to the hospital -- because the state was taking both children away. A particularly dogged and angry caseworker made sure the couple knew they were in her sights.
"She said, this is abuse, and I'm going to prove it," Padgett said. "It felt like she was really out to get us."
Soon after that, Padgett lost her job, and the couple lost their apartment. They lived in their Dodge Neon. They couch surfed with friends. They endured the silence where their children used to be.
They went to Family Treatment Court, a therapeutic specialty program aimed at helping parents clean up their act and get back their children, and admitted to the world that they were addicts.
"It was the first thing I'd been truthful about in four years," Padgett said. Even though she was ready to clean up, she had initial doubts about Pass, who was "a lot worse off" than she was.
But he was ready, too. "Because this thing happened to an innocent baby," Pass said. "He could have been dead."
The kids spent a short time in foster homes, then extended family stepped in. Kendra went to her maternal grandmother and Daelan to a paternal aunt. Pass and Padgett's childless silence lasted nearly two years.
Family treatment court is darned rigorous, the couple found. That's by design.
"It is very intense, and they do not let up," said Pass. "There are all sorts of requirements and sanctions. If you mess up, they send you right back to the start, and you start all the way over."
First of all was Alcoholics Anonymous. The now-homeless couple started hitting three or four AA meetings per day, starting at 6:30 a.m. For a while, AA meetings anchored the couple's whole lives.
"It was the first time I'd been able to relate to anybody in years," said Padgett. "It was a place to go where people got us."
They also reported in at court weekly. They worked with peer counselors, professional therapists, judges, attorneys and drug testers -- not all of whom were particularly nice. "There were a few times I was not going to go back, I was so pissed off," said Padgett.
But Pass said he sometimes overheard maximally messed-up parents willingly ceding their children to the state -- and it made him sick, he said.
The couple's story at this point becomes a tour of local nonprofit agencies and social services that helped them get back on their feet.
Lifeline Connections provided outpatient treatment -- what was essentially 18 months of near-daily group therapy. The Children's Home Society provided parenting classes designed specifically for people recovering from meth addiction, and covering the most basic of basics: how to enter a room and look your children in the eye so they'll see you're sober; how to touch your children so they'll know you're not dangerous; how to handle routine stress without losing control.
"We had to practice group hugs for a while so the kids could see we knew how to touch nicely," said Padgett.
Visits with the children were supervised at the offices of Innovative Services NW. Eventually, the visits moved to the couple's new apartment -- which was secured via ASPIRE, a state housing subsidy program.
Relapse and surrender
Fighting addiction is never easy. Denial always seems like a better friend than discipline. The couple tried sneaking back to their former lifestyle via "spice," a synthetic marijuana analog that was legal and sold over the counter in local smoke shops for a while. They thought spice wasn't detected by urinalysis, Pass said. They were wrong.
The couple lost their children all over again. This time, the kids were put up for legal, final adoption. And the couple doubled down on themselves.
"It took us two years to do a nine-month program," said Pass. "It took that long for us to completely, finally surrender."
The children came home early last summer. They still do day care at Innovative Services, where staff members know and trust the parents. Padgett works customer service in the medical field; Pass drives a forklift in a Portland warehouse, where his boss happens to be a man in recovery from drug use, he said.
Doesn't the long slog of recovery, complete with relapse, make it that much harder for people -- both professionals and family members -- truly to trust the couple?
Maybe, Pass agreed -- except that's he's learned that drug use is easier to spot than users like to think. "People can see it in you. They can just tell," he said. A strong sign he's on the right track: his mother is willing to tell him that she loves him. For many years, he said, she wouldn't say those words.
Along with the voices of his children, it's a nice sound to fill what used to be an awful silence.