I got a page to talk to a young woman who had given birth to a baby a few days ago and now had to go back to prison. The nurse told me everything was ready for discharge except who would be coming to get the newborn. I looked in the patient’s medical record and found the number for her boyfriend, the father of the baby. I called and a woman answered. She said he wasn’t home and she didn’t know when he would be back. She thought he might be out buying cigarettes. Hmm, out buying cigarettes and his newborn is waiting to be picked up…. In any case, she said her son wouldn’t be able to come and get the baby for 2 days because he had to work.  Oh really, you think we’re running a newborn hotel at Stroger hospital, I wanted to say?

I got on the elevator and headed to OB/GYN to see the mom. I hate these cases because the criminal injustice system always wins. Young, drug addicted mothers will be punished.   

It was around 8:30 pm. At night the halls in the wards appear to be extra long, the lights too bright, and there is few staff around. It’s creepy in the way that horror and psycho movies depict hospitals. I’m afraid that some maniac will grab me from behind and drag me into a dark room and rape and stab me to death. No one will hear my screams….

I talk briefly with the patient’s nurse and she gives me a heads up that mom is angry and uncooperative. In front of the patient’s  room are 2 police officers from the Department of Corrections (DOC) talking  loudly, laughing, and eating  greasy bags of Burger King french fries.

I walk into the patient’s room and the newborn son is lying on her chest. He’s in delta sleep and doesn’t move. I sit at the end of the bed in a chair and see her leg is locked to the bed by a metal leg-cuff. Then I glance over at baby and see the plastic cuff on his impossibly tiny, chicken-wing leg. It has a light that blinks green. One cuff imprisons, the other secures.

Mom starts crying – tears spill down her blue patient gown. Her red-rimmed eyes have only seen 22 years of life and I know instinctively it’s been a hellish and mostly unhappy 22 years. She said her boyfriend is trying to find childcare, but because the baby was born a few weeks early, nothing is in place. Mom said dad definitely wanted to take the baby home, but really, it didn’t look that way at all. He hadn’t even been to the hospital to visit the infant. 

Mom reveals that she has another child, a three year old living with her boyfriend’s mother (the woman I had already spoken to.) She starts to tell me her story and it’s impossible to follow. So many patients are incapable of telling in chronological order and with clarity, what the issue is. We call them “poor historians.”  It’s equal parts not remembering, lying, and clumsily weaving together a tale to include important details and leaving out important details. Moments of shame, embarrassment, humiliation and sometimes flashes of anger accompany the account. Then she quietly mentions the crack. She was pregnant, using crack and left the treatment program. She reveals the police arrested her for “child endangerment,” meaning, I think, her using crack was putting her child at risk. Oh shit, here we go, this has Child Protective Services (CPS) written all over it. The story got so convoluted and crazy I gave up and decided to just focus on what was going to happen within the next couple of minutes: the baby was going to be taken away from her by the nurse with back up from the DOC police officers and then she was going back to prison.  

There is a phone next to the bed and I suggest she call dad. She dials the number, someone picks up and then hangs up. She calls again, same thing happens. I call the number using my hospital issue cell phone and boyfriend’s mom answers. I ask her again is anyone coming to get this baby and if so, they have to meet with me and the doctor. She said he’s not coming to the hospital and not only that, she doesn’t believe the child is her son’s. She spews out, “That woman has sex with a lot men, she’s a slut.” Grandmother is not willing to take care of another child, especially if it’s not her blood. Okay. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation with this woman in front of the woman who just had a baby and was crying her eyes out. I didn’t tell the patient everything that was said –  that would have sent her over the edge – only that grandma wasn’t willing to take care of another child. More 22 year-old tears.

Newborn wakes up. He is an Anne Geddes photo. He is wrinkly, crinkly, all creases and criminally cute and I want to hold and squeeze him. I almost ask but in the nick of time realize every moment mom has with her son in her arms is precious.

I tell her that if dad doesn’t come to pick up the baby we will have to call CPS and they’ll take temporary custody. She starts crying and howling, no she blurts out, that’s not going to happen! She shouts that her son is not going into foster care, she knows how horrible that is, she was a foster child. Mom states she was abused in her foster home. And there it is, the cycle completed. I try to assure her that the case worker will come to the prison to talk with her and help her keep and parent this child. She’s having none of it and I realize nothing I can say will assuage or erase the fear she has that her son will end up like her.

As I leave the unit, I see there are 2 more officers from the DOC – that makes 4. They are snapping on latex gloves and moving down the hallway like a pack of animals, toward the patient’s room.