Though it almost always makes her cry, Carly Kotchian still wants to talk about her 4-year-old son. In January, after struggling for years to beat her heroin addiction, Kotchian, 29, formally lost custody of him when the state of North Dakota terminated her parental rights.
Before January, her son had been living in foster care while Kotchian was completing an addiction treatment and recovery program in the Twin Cities. These days, he lives with his adoptive family on their farm about an hour outside of Fargo.
While knowing that her son is growing up with another family can feel devastating, Kotchian also believes that it was the best option for his future. Her own life and recovery, which is still shaky, feels too unsettled for motherhood.
“You cannot use drugs and be a parent,” Kotchian said. “You end up being dead or in jail or overall unhappy.”
Her son’s adoptive family is able to provide stability — both emotional and financial — that Kotchian cannot. “I know he’s my son,” she said, “but I also realize that it will be great for him to have siblings, which he does in the other family. He gets so much love there.”
Kotchian is also comforted by the fact that her son’s new family has resources that she can’t provide.
“From the jump he had his own room,” she said. “It’s great. And because they live on a farm, he gets to run around outside.”
Even though her son’s life now feels secure, Kotchian is still grieving her loss. ”He is growing so much and excelling amazingly with this family,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t give him what they could give him. I know it is best for him, but the pain just doesn’t go away.”
For months, Kotchian grieved alone. She worked hard on her recovery with the hope that someday she would be able to build some sort of relationship with her son. But she also felt ashamed of having her parental rights taken away, and because of that she had a hard time telling others about her experience. The silence, shame and guilt built up in her body, she said, making it feel like some days she was walking around with a heavy weight pushing down on her chest.
Then, Kotchian’s therapist told her about a support program for mothers who have lost parental rights. It is held by Bellis, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit that provides support and education for families and individuals whose lives have been touched by adoption. Kotchian began attending the program’s in-person support group meetings, and suddenly she didn’t feel so alone.
“Going to the group really helps me in many ways,” Kotchian said. “If I’m feeling sad or anything, the people there help me out. Another lady in the group, she had to give her daughter up for adoption. She sees her now. She told me about it. It gives me a lot of hope.”
Jenny Eldredge, Bellis’ executive director, said that the group offers support to women who often feel that they have to bear their grief alone. When people with similar experiences come together to share their stories, she explained, they can provide support in ways that mental health professionals cannot.
“Some of the women in the group are further down the road. They can offer support and hope and advice about things like, ‘How do I get out of bed every morning?’ or ‘How do I live my life without my child?’ In the long run, the group offers participants friendship and another reason to say, ‘I stayed sober for another week,’ or, ‘I made a good decision for another week.’”
The ultimate goal of many group participants is, Eldredge continued, “to become healthier, both physically and mentally, because a healthier mom is going to be able to build a healthier relationship with her child.”
Libby Onchiri, a licensed independent clinical social worker and member of the Bellis board of directors, said that for mothers, the impact of losing parental rights is far-reaching.
“I would say that women in this situation experience intense grief and loss,” Onchiri said. “This sadness can impact many parts of their lives. Sometimes they are not able to move forward from this trauma. Finding support from other women who’ve gone through the same thing can make a big difference.”
To Kotchian, the group feels like a safe harbor in a world that has offered very few moments of respite. “It is a place to feel safe and just talk,” she said. “We have coffee and cookies and we support each other. This group has helped me the most with my grief about my son.”
A ‘unique grief’
Some people may think Kotchian’s use of the word “grief” when she talks about losing her parental rights is misplaced, because her son is still alive. But even though her son is healthy and living a good life with a loving family, Kotchian has still experienced a profound loss, one that is hard to explain to those who have never lived through it.
“In my experience it’s a unique situation being a birth mother and losing custody of a child, whether it’s a voluntary situation or if your parental rights have been terminated,” Onchiri said. “It is a unique grief, and a lonely one. Because of that it is helpful to connect with other women who have had the same experience.”
Onchiri, who works with children and families in foster care and adoption, said she believes that most people don’t know much about women like Kotchian. They may have heard stories about birth mothers who gave their children up for adoption, but women who’ve had their parental rights legally terminated tend to live under the radar.
“I don’t know how much the general public is aware of how this happens, or that this loss occurs,” Onchiri said. “I think that this particular population of women is marginalized. Many are suffering from mental illness and addiction issues. Their needs are underrecognized. They live on the margins. Their grief and loss is not recognized.”
Through her work, Onchiri met several mothers whose parental rights were terminated. She was moved by their stories and watched as they struggled to come to terms with their loss. While child welfare workers usually try to keep family structures intact, there are times when removing a child from his or her biological parents is the best decision, she allows. But the move is still painful for everyone involved.
It’s not just the mother who is to blame for these unhealthy family relationships, Onchiri said: “Mothers who lose their children have had very hard lives. Many have been in the foster care system themselves. They suffer from trauma and addiction issues. Poverty is often a factor. And we’re also now recognizing the role that racism plays in child welfare.”
Because she too often witnessed the deep but unacknowledged suffering of birth mothers who have lost parental rights, Onchiri suggested that Bellis create a group where mothers with similar experiences could come together for support.
“Having worked a lot in public child welfare, I know this need exists,” Onchiri said. When she proposed the group to Bellis, she said, “They were very willing to look at it seriously.”
Eldredge said she assumed that other organizations must already be offering support groups for mothers like Kotchian. To confirm that a real need for such a group existed, the nonprofit commissioned the St. Paul-based Amherst H. Wilder Foundation to conduct a review of scholarly resources.
“I was naïve,” Eldredge said. “I thought, ‘Surely someone else is out there to offer emotional support for these women.’ But I kept hearing, ‘There is nothing like this.’” The Wilder literature review backed that up: “They found that the nearest examples are in Great Britain. No one is offering grief and loss support to women after their parental rights are terminated and finalized. With that, Bellis decided to move forward and see how we can serve these women.”
The Bellis group is facilitated by a licensed social worker, and members are encouraged to keep their comments nonjudgmental.
“Women who’ve been through this have experienced all different life circumstances and trauma,” Eldredge said. “While they were parenting, they were surrounded by social workers and other professionals who were advising them about their behavior and lifestyle choices.” Then, after a judge finalized the termination of their parental rights, “All of that support and focus goes away. A social worker once said to me, ‘They are literally left alone in their trauma.’ It’s a frighteningly sudden shift.”
When Bellis decided to go ahead with the group, Eldredge said she sought financial support, securing from the Sauer Family Foundation and the WCA Foundation. “They are giving us the funds to enable us to hire the professionals and rent the space,” she explained.
Because so many incarcerated women have had their parental rights terminated, Bellis recently gained permission to hold a second group at the Shakopee Correctional Facility. That group will begin meeting in the next few weeks.
Eldredge said that it is hard to find the actual number of termination of parental rights orders that have been issued in Minnesota, but she was recently able to track down some data. “There have been about 3,000 women who have lost parental rights in the last five years in the seven-county metro area,” she said. “These numbers are higher than we imagined. I think the opioid crisis has caused an uptick. “
Kotchian said being part of the group helps her realize that she isn’t the only woman in the world who has lost her parental rights. There are times when it’s felt that way. Through the group, she said she’s met “another mom with a lot more experience than I. It’s been a lot more time for her. She has a lot more context.” She’s also met women whose children are much older than her son. “Their kids are now in their 20s.”
These women all intimately understand how Kotchian feels when strangers ask if she has kids. “It’s hard,” she said. “It’s a question I don’t know how to answer sometimes. And they really get how that feels.”
Thriving in clusters
Founded in 1983 by a group of women affiliated with the board of Catholic Charities’ adoption program, Bellis, which was first known as the Adoption Option Council of Minnesota, has always had a clear focus on the needs of birth mothers.
“They saw that birth mothers were often left out of the equation,” Eldredge said of the nonprofit’s founders.
About five years ago, the organization changed its name to Bellis. Eldredge explained that staff struggled with grant writing and did research that revealed that for many, the word “adoption” carries unwanted baggage. With the old name, she said, funders assumed that the organization, which works hard to stay politically neutral, had a point of view. So they found a suitably neutral name.
“Bellis is a botanical term for daisies,” Eldredge explained. “Daisies are pretty and simple and they thrive in clusters. That represents our community: We do better when we are together and hearing each other’s stories. Then we are not alone.”
One important element of the organization is their education program, where volunteer speakers travel to high schools to share stories of adoption, foster care and other kinds of family building.
“We are a community of individuals whose lives have been touched by adoption, whether by intention or circumstance,” Eldredge said. “Students love it when we come to their school, because we reflect to many of their own personal stories.”
Bellis also hosts other support groups, and an annual retreat for birth mothers.
“Social workers had seen this need for a long time and asked us to do something,” Eldredge said. “They told us that birth mothers really need each other. They asked, ‘Could you create a space for that?’”
The groups and the retreat help build key connections for women who have surrendered custody of their children to other families. Some of the participants went through the process decades ago, but still have scars from the experience.
“There are birth mothers in our groups who had their babies in the ‘50,’60s and ‘70s, when unplanned pregnancy was highly stigmatized and the only option was to do an adoption,” Onchiri said. “They weren’t treated well. They were told to have their baby and go on with their lives. All these years later, the pain is still very real.”
At the weekend gathering, some 24 birth mothers are invited to a retreat center where they can, Eldredge said, “come together and just talk. Some of them have never met another birth mother before. Even though adoption was their choice, they feel isolated. To meet another woman who has taken the same path can be healing and uplifting.”
‘I don’t want to be like I was in the past anymore’
With hard work and support from other birth mothers who share her experience, Kotchian said she hopes to one day earn the ability to see her son again.
“I hope to have some type of relationship with him someday,” she said. While she accepts that her son’s new family will be his family for the rest of life, she maintains a flicker of hope that they won’t try to erase her existence from his memory. “I hope they don’t keep it from him that he’s adopted,” she said. “I love him so much. I love him more than anything. He’s such an amazing kid.”
Recovery from heroin addiction, Kotchian said, “is not easy.” After completing more than 90 days of residential inpatient treatment at Wayside Recovery Center, she’s almost finished with her intensive outpatient program at NUWAY. When she’s not focused on her recovery program, she works at a nearby tanning salon.
“I’m taking my time with the treatment to get the most out of it,” Kotchian said. Any open time is spent focusing on self-care and sobriety: “I have therapy. I try to go to meetings and get as much as I can there to help myself. Really, there’s been a lot of trauma in my life. This is the only way to get better, to reach out for support and create a new support system because I really didn’t have one before.”
Kotchian said she understands that she lost parental rights because, “I was using drugs. I wasn’t myself. I was always in the wrong state of mind.” Her relationship with her son’s father, who has since died of a drug overdose, was toxic: “I was constantly fighting with his father. He wasn’t in the right state of mind, either. We were trying to prove who’s the better parent. It wasn’t good. He was abusive, and I was always dealing with trying to get myself safe.”
When her parental rights were terminated, Kotchian said she felt she was at the lowest point in her life. “I felt very, very worn down and tired. It felt like all I was working on was for nothing and there was nothing I could do to fight the judge’s decision.”
Being part of Bellis’ mothers’ group has strengthened her belief that in the long run, her separation from her son has been a good for him: “These other moms have helped me realize that my son is OK. They help me feel like there might be hope for me to see him again one day.”
With this idea settled in the back of her mind, Kotchian said she’s laser-focused on making her life better — for herself and her son: “When we do see each other again, I want him to find me in a good place, ready and happy and healthy and in a good home and sober,” she said. “I don’t want to be like I was in the past anymore. I don’t see myself ever using again. I’m not like that. I want to be the mom he needs me to be.”