My Favorite Stories from 2019

Hello loves. I am so sorry 2019 has been so quiet. If you follow this blog, you know that I have been fighting to get my lovely daughters back in my custody after the deep injustice and trauma of their forced removal by the state of Florida. It has been an incredibly eye-opening year as I researched the child welfare system, especially the use of predictive analytics. I have yet to publish the final results from my fellowship with the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, but keep an eye out–it’s forthcoming sometime in 2020.

Since I didn’t post a lot in the blog this year, I want to end 2019 with a list of my favorite works that I had published this year. Enjoy!

If you appreciate my work and want to support the continuation of my freelancing, please consider making a donation of any size. You can do that through PayPal — or CashApp — $ElizabethBrico

If you think my writing is trash and don’t want to support me…or you love my writing but want to support someone who is in more financial need…or whatever…then I suggest choosing a freelancer whom you admire and sending them a small gift. The holidays are a particularly hard time for freelance writers, because a lot of publications shut down and/or stop accepting pitches in December. This causes payment delays–for example, two stories that I completed in November will not be published until January, meaning I won’t be paid until the end of January at the earliest, and that’s an optimistic estimate–and causes us not to have enough assignments to keep us afloat for a month or so. Basically, we get the opposite of a holiday bonus, a holiday earnings blackout.

I’m lucky in that I still have my TalkPoverty fellowship for a couple months in 2020, so I will be able to pay my rent. But the foundation with which I had a small blog writing contract suddenly terminated my position for financial reasons, even though my contract didn’t expire for several months into the new year. This means I am without $200 I was expecting this year, with just one week’s notice, and after I bought all sorts of Christmas gifts, based on my contractual expectation of receiving that money. All said, rent/utilities/Christmas/Robin’s birthday/some food are all covered. But I’ve also got Anabelle’s birthday and, hey, mine too, that fall in this gap. It’s not a crazy urgent emergency, but if you want to support my work and help make life a little more comfortable/food-filled during the freelancer holiday blackout, consider making a small donation. Or if not for me, then for your favorite freelancer–because I guarantee s/he/they are going through it too!

In any case, please enjoy my stories!

My Favorite Published Work in 2019

State Laws Can Punish Parents Living In Abusive Households ( )
One of my favorites because: This story showcases the ruthlessness of child welfare agencies across the country, forcing traumatized families apart literally because they experienced trauma.

One in four women in the United States will experience some form of intimate partner violence in her lifetime. For men, that number is one in nine. And 90 percent of kids affected by domestic violence will view the abuse firsthand, often by one parent against another.

These numbers are staggering. When you consider the impact of childhood trauma — which tells us that kids who experience or witness abuse are more likely to develop a slew of physical and mental illnesses as adults — those numbers are infuriating. And baffling. Domestic violence can be hard to escape, especially for those who have been in the mire of it for years, but once kids become involved, shouldn’t that be enough motivation to leave?

It’s this question, and the assumed answer, which drives “failure to protect” laws in child welfare programs across the United States. “

How Child Services Punishes Mothers with Substance Use Disorder–And Their Children ( )
One of my favorites because: This story showcases the range of destruction that child services causes families struggling with substance use disorders, from promoting potentially fatal relapse, to causing severe trauma for both mother and child.

“Megan Webbley was a 31-year-old mother of four when she died of a drug overdose on Sept. 29. It was a Sunday. It was still warm outside, but the breeze was crisp and the trees were already beginning to sport an autumn blush. She was in New Hampshire, attending treatment for opioid addiction. It had been an ongoing battle for 14 years, but her family had hope. They did not expect to lose her that day, and still don’t know exactly what happened, or why she relapsed.

I did not know Megan, but when I read her online obituary, it’s impossible to ignore the similarities between us. We were both born in 1988. Both of us were mothers. Both of us enjoyed music and makeup, as her father wrote in the obituary. Both of us felt called to advocate for “the underdog.” And we both shared that same, stigmatized diagnosis: opioid use disorder. “

The Problem With “Addicted Babies” (
One of my favorites because: It uses a combination of humor and research to tear into the overly-common lazy reporting rampant in the media that uses medically incorrect terms like “baby addict” and “addicted infants” to arouse pathos.

“‘She was born addicted, but without methadone, she may never have been born at all.’

That was the last sentence of my first published article with a major media outlet, Vox. The story was about giving birth to my elder daughter while on methadone. The “she” was my newborn daughter. I was terrified to “come out” as a methadone patient, something I’d hid from my family and friends even through my daughter’s prolonged hospitalization and the child welfare investigation that was triggered by her neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), but I was also excited to be published by Vox — and rightfully so. This story would effectively launch my freelance writing and journalism career. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my first big article was factually inaccurate.

It’s embarrassing, now that I know better, to realize I contributed to a harmful, widespread misunderstanding of addiction as equivalent to dependency. My editor on that story and I have since agreed to a correction in the terminology — but this story garnered enough attention to end up in my then-treatment counselor’s addiction newsletter and to land me a spot on the NPR podcast All Sides With Ann Fisher. Both appearances were well before that correction was made.”

A Dangerous Fentanyl Myth Lives On ( )
One of my favorites because: Besides being a byline in the Columbia Journalism Review (!), this is one of my favorites because it also dismantles a raging media problem: the myth that fentanyl can kill someone who merely touches it or comes into some form of passive contact in a crime scene.

“CONSCIOUSNESS RETURNED as a small break in the darkness, a tiny opening through which light and sound slowly filtered through. As the aperture expanded and the room came into focus, I began to understand what had happened. I had taken too much of a drug, probably heroin, and it had knocked me out—down for the count in one blow. I was revived with naloxone, a drug that works by knocking opioid receptors clear. Had the people around me been too afraid to touch me and to administer care, I would not be alive today. For the past few years, I’ve paid close attention to “opioid crisis” reporting, and watched with increasing concern as stories about overdoses focus on the experiences of first responders, instead of providing evidence-based solutions to the growing problem of opioid-related fatalities.”

Privacy Is Becoming a Luxury: What Data Leaks Are Like For the Poor ( )
One of my favorites because: This one took me outside of my normal drugs/CPS wheelhouse, to look into another aspect of our growing reliance on technology, and how it contributes to class inequality.

” When Jayne checked her email on the morning of February 13, she didn’t expect to find anything particularly exciting. The 34-year-old, who asked her real name be withheld out of fear that speaking out could affect her housing benefits, was enjoying a rare moment of relative peace on a snow day in a household with five kids. But when she opened the attachment from a note sent by the Seattle Housing Authority, she did not see the routine newsletter she anticipated. Instead, she was staring at a list of names, addresses, e-mail addresses, and tenant code numbers for the more than 500 clients of the city’s Scattered Sites low-income housing program, which includes low-income complexes that are typically smaller and more family-oriented than bigger housing projects. Jayne’s own name and personal information were included on the list. “

Surviving in the Shadows ( )
One of my favorites because: This story gave me another opportunity to interview my therapist-hero, Bessel Van Der Kolk, and also got me into Ms. Magazine–but I also love it because I had some license in the writing style to deviate from that formal-journalist voice (I’ve done it before, but here moreso than usual) and write more like the way I actually want to write. It’s also a poignant look at the way poverty affects someone’s ability to heal from sexual abuse, and how the poor are often overlooked in movements like #MeToo.

“My body is a place I visit. I am there now, hooking the nail of my index finger in between my thumbnail and the bed of skin around it. I pluck at the flesh until the skin frays and chords of pain ripple outward and up, all the way to my wrist. Proof of life. Within days, that same gory, wounded flesh will be shiny, smooth, new.

My body is miraculous. Self-healing. Maybe if I inhabited her more often, I too would know how to perform such cellular miracles. Maybe I could make myself shiny and new. Instead, I remain frayed.”

The Government Spends 10 Times More on Foster Care and Adoption Than Reuniting Parents  ( )
One of my favorites because: Once you see these numbers, it’s really difficult to rationally argue that child services is not classist and biased against parents. Particularly damning is the fact that TANF funds are diverted to fund foster care, while parents are losing custody of their kids for issues like inability to pay rent or childcare costs.

“It sounds like a conspiracy theory: The United States government incentivizes foster care placements and forced adoption over social support and reunification with birth families. It seems unreal, possibly even illegal, and not at all like something a responsible government would do.

Unfortunately, it’s very real, and the root cause of many  of the problems in child welfare cases.

“Some people do phrase it as a conspiracy theory,” acknowledged Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “When they say the government makes money on foster care, that’s not true … on foster care they still lose money, but they lose less money [than on reunification]. And private agencies do make money on foster care in many cases.”

In the United States, child welfare agencies are tasked with ensuring the health and safety of the nation’s children. Each agency receives a complex web of funding from federal, state, and local sources, leaving it accountable to a hodgepodge of authorities. Although these agencies are often referred to as “child protective services” and considered by many as a cohesive national program, state and local agencies are only linked by a loose set of federal guidelines that provide broad definitions for child maltreatment, along with the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA).”

2.2 Million Americans are Behind Bars. That’s More than the Prison System Can Handle ( )
One of my favorites because: The way the carceral system functions in the United States is a travesty, and it is becoming increasingly dangerous to be incarcerated in this country. One source for this story was a pretrial detainee–meaning he had not been convicted of a damn thing when he was ordered to walk back inside a burning building or receive more charges.

“Sam was no stranger to arrest. Since becoming addicted to methamphetamine after moving to Hawaii for a chef position, he spent years bouncing between jails, rehabs, and the streets. But when his module caught fire during a riot at the Maui Community Correctional Facility, he found himself faced with an impossible choice: Go back inside the burning building, or extend his sentence.

The conditions that led to the riot were nothing new. MCCC was designed to hold 301 people, but at the time was packed with over 400. The jail has a history of chronic overcrowding; in 2016 the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii filed a complaint that named MCCC as the most “egregiously overcrowded” on the islands, to the point that it was unsafe. Among other issues, the report notes that it was common for three, four, or sometimes five people to be placed into cells designed for two, forcing them to sleep on the floor among roaches and rats, sometimes with their heads beneath the toilet.

Tempers were strained by other issues, as well. Anonymous whistleblowers told The Maui News about undersized, nutritionally insufficient meals, and last year, the facility was fined more than $16,000 for failing to maintain a functioning fire alarm system. The phones — which often serve as the sole connection to incarcerated people’s children, partners, and other family — were chronically broken. ‘And mail,’ Sam said, ‘we’d get [letters] that were weeks and weeks and weeks postdated, or never, ever get them; they’d just get sent back.'”

Witnessed Urine Screens in Drug Treatment: Humiliating and Harmful ( )
One of my favorites because: This story takes a deep dive into one of the most common, and commonly overlooked, practices in drug treatment: witnessed urine drug screens. These are so normalized that nobody questions why a person seeking voluntary (or hell–involuntary) treatment for a medical condition should be forced to agree to having someone watch them pee. In my case, my inability to do it contributed to me getting kicked out of treatment, without even a last dose of Suboxone or a referral to another provider that could see me in a timely manner (my appointment to get back in a program is January 3, 2020)!

“My heart drummed in time to my racing thoughts, which repeated an increasingly urgent command. Just. Fucking. Pee. But instead of performing, my pelvic area grew numb. Total drought.

I looked at the woman who was standing in the Memorial Outpatient Behavioral Health bathroom, staring at me as I tried to urinate.

“I don’t get it,” she’d been saying, as I tried to calm my anxiety. “I can pee anywhere. Don’t matter where I am: If I gotta go, I gotta go.”

“I don’t think I can do it right now,” I said. “Maybe I need to drink more water and, like, smoke a cigarette or something.”

“Alright, I guess,” she replied with her thick Brooklyn accent.

She watched, annoyed, while I pulled up my panties, tugged down my skirt, and sidled past her out the bathroom, empty cup in hand.

“You’re lucky this isn’t probation,” she said. “That would be counted as a dirty. You don’t get no second chances in probation.”

Why America’s Latest Turn on Opioids is Bringing Hope to Pain Patients ( )
One of my favorites because: I was happy to write about the slight vindication given to pain patients, who have seen horrific medical abuses based on misinterpretations of the CDC’s 2016 opioid prescribing guidelines. I also got to listen to Andrew Kolodny ramble for like an hour, which was unexpected and odd.

“Lelena has struggled with pain for most of her adult life. She’s been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition affecting upwards of 12 million Americans marked by chronic pain without any definitive cause, and for several years she depended on opioid-based medicines as painkillers. But in March 2019, her urine tested positive for heroin, and Lelena was unceremoniously dismissed from the clinic where she used to receive medicines. Within a month, hair test results would confirm the heroin positive had been false — a rare occurrence in patients like Lelena who use both morphine and over-the-counter pain relievers. But it was too late.

With no final script, taper schedule or even a referral for addiction treatment services, she was forced through excruciating, acute withdrawal, which included intense flu-like symptoms as well as increased pain. Lelena — her name on social media platforms, which she requested we use — is among several thousands of pain patients who have had to deal with forced dose tapers or total discontinuation since the start of America’s war on opioids in 2016. Now, America’s health regulatory authorities are correcting course, amid growing evidence that their earlier guidelines against opioid abuse were interpreted by far too many doctors as a license to suddenly stop crucial pain relief medication, hurting the very people the policies were meant to help.”

Biased Algorithms Are Determining Whether Poor People Get to Keep Their Kids ( )
One of my favorites because: Published the day before my birthday, this story explains why the child welfare algorithms are dangerously classist and racist, and why they require way more oversight then they are receiving.

“Poor people give away a lot of information. If you’ve never lived under the poverty line, you might not be aware how much of our personal privacy we trade away for basic benefits such as food stamps, health insurance, and utility discounts. It’s not just Social Security numbers and home addresses, which are required as part of these applications; it includes health histories, household incomes, living expenses, and employment histories. Most people shrug off this exchange: What good is personal data when you have no money and terrible credit anyway — especially when you don’t really have a choice?

But after decades of collecting this data, the government is putting it to use. This information is feeding algorithms that decide everything from whether or not you get health insurance to how much time you spend in jail. Increasingly, it is helping determine whether or not parents get to keep their kids.”

Judges and Lawyers Ignorant of MAT Require Urgent Education Efforts ( )
One of my favorites because: This issue is so incredibly important. Legal authorities need to understand addiction and its proper treatment, because misunderstanding it causes dire real-world outcomes. Those outcomes killed Megal Webbley; those outcomes have drained my life of joy and traumatized my precious daughters. And it’s not just judges and prosecutors; defense attorneys need to understand what to ask for and what their client’s rights are. It’s an all encompassing issue in the legal system.

“When Jarrod* went before a Clinton County, New York judge in November 2017 to address a no-contact order violation, he didn’t expect his 13 years on buprenorphine to come into question.

“I sent a couple bad texts,” he admits, referring to the reason for the initial restraining order. “But it was just that: a text message. It wasn’t anything with drugs. When I went before this judge, he said, ‘You’ve been on Suboxone 13 years, I find that suspicious,’ and ordered me off by February [2018]. I was dumbfounded.”

Jarrod, 36, is a tree logger who prides himself on his work ethic. He has four children, two of whom live with him full-time in a household where he is the sole breadwinner. The youngest of those kids was newly born when Jarrod was given just 90 days to get off his medicine.”

If We Wrote About Caffeine Like We Do Other Drugs (
One of my favorites because: It was your favorite. At least of my stories with Filter Mag, according to statistics. This one is still being shared around social media. It was fun to write, fun to conduct the interviews, and fun to read…but it also touches on a real, important topic, which is the arbitrary nature of drug prohibition, and the way anything can be demonized if you apply the right language to it.

“Genelle Chaconas can’t go a day without caffeine. They consume the powerful stimulant in the form of coffee—a psychoactive drink derived from cooking the beans of an exotic shrub native to Latin America and Africa. They consume a cup each morning, and then repeat the ritual several times throughout the day.

Without it, says Chaconas, they become grumpy and unfocused. “Those who get between me and coffee don’t live long enough to tell about it,” admits Chaconas. Violent statements like these are commonly associated with caffeineheads—though more research may be needed to confirm a causal relationship with homicidal behavior.”

Halo Effect/Disposition ( )
One of my favorites because: To be honest, I can’t remember if this was published in late 2018 or early 2019, but it’s my first serious attempt a cut-up. I used CPS documents from my case and language from the trial to construct this poetic look at the way language affects the way we perceive others, and how the label “addict” in particular has contributed bias and negativity to my case.

The mother is a heroin addict. The father uses heroin and crystal meth.
The mother is currently “trashed”
The mother has PTSD
The mother was on Methadone
The mother was “on the streets”
The mother refused to speak
The mother denied the allegations
The mother stated she used marijuana and heroin
The mother refused

The mother is a heroin addict.
The father uses heroin and crystal meth.
The father has mental health issues
The father is currently going to a methadone clinic
The father has not returned home
The father uses crystal meth. The mother is a heroin addict.
The father was voluntarily involuntarily hospitalized
The father was in the mental health hospital
The father has untreated mental health issues
The father is in agreement”

That’s it for my favorites in 2019. Writers: feel free to drop your 2019 favorites, and if you’re a freelancer and so inclined, leave your PayPal/CashApp/Venmo/whatever in the comments as well.

If you’re a publisher who is assigning work for freelancers right now when most other aren’t, please leave your contact info, brief description of what you’re seeking, and rates. 

May we all get some holiday blessings.

Happy holidays folks! See you in the next decade…

2 thoughts on “My Favorite Stories from 2019

  1. Hello, This is the first time I came across your blog and I must admit that it is really impressive. Each and every blog post is unique in its own way and is been presented really well. Love the way you have showcased all the stories. Looking forward to new blogs.

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