Hell no. That is not what a ‘good mother’ looks like.
Billie Jo, 21, is a drug addict.
Pregnant with her third child – the first two were taken into care – she is sitting on the toilet pulling back hard on a bong.
Her mother, Carlene, also a drug addict, perches next to her in the bathroom on the edge of the bath, lighting the cone for her. Looking on from the hall is the father of Billie Jo’s unborn child. Bob, 47, has been a heroin addict for 30 years and he’s now added ice addiction into the mix.
His face looks like it’s caving in and so does Carlene’s. ‘Ravaged by drugs’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Earlier, we saw Bob using scissors to fix the bong for his pregnant girlfriend before sucking back on it himself and passing it to Billie Jo’s mother who does the same. She wears a hot-pink t-shirt with the word “monster’ emblazoned on it in flouro green and rubs her daughter’s pregnant belly. “That’s my grand-daughter in there” she slurs proudly as her daughter suggests calling the baby girl Crystal, short for crystal meth.
Carlene says she wants to limit her daughter’s drug use during her pregnancy – cleary she’s been taking drugs even worse than marijuana. Just like her mother did.
Billie Joe was born an addict after Carlene used heroin throughout her own pregnancy.
“I’ll have to get you some more cones, Bill” she says to her daughter. “Because that’s all you’ll be doing from now on, smoking cones.”
Billie Jo looks to be more than halfway through her pregnancy.
“She’s giving up drugs” Carlene says inexplicably while Billie Jo briefly stops sucking back on the bong to cough so violently she almost vomits.
Watch Billie Jo smoking a bong here (post continues after video)
Is your heart breaking yet? Are you angry? I’m yes to both.
These are the facts. This is not a matter of the documentary makers editing their footage to make a situation look worse than it is. This is simply the reality of an incredibly bleak and disturbing situation as shown on last night’s episode of Struggle Street on SBS.
When Billie Jo finishes her bong, she lights up a cigarette and staggers around her living room. Her t-shirt appears to have food all over it. She is wasted.
“I’m so excited,” mumbles Carlene about the impending birth of her grandchild, “and Billie is such a good mum.”
At that point, I lost my shit.
I wanted to weep and I wanted to scream. I wanted to throw something at the TV. I wanted to march into that house and shake those people and when that poor baby was born I wanted to grab him in my arms and run a million miles away from that cesspit of dysfunction and neglect.
In what parallell universe does a ‘good mum’ look like Billie Jo? By what deplorable standard could this person be considered fit enough to care for a plant let alone the most vulnerable human?
Billie Jo smoking:
“I reckon this is the thing that’s going to really pull her up”, nods Carlene as Billie Jo lights yet another cigarette.
I am appalled. I am disgusted. I am despairing. And I am infuriated.
Being a mother is not a right, it’s a responsibility. It’s not your child’s job to “pull you up” from addiction and dysfunction and terrible terrible choices. Babies and children should never be used as an attempt to ‘solve’ a problem or ‘fix’ an adult. If you are broken and incapable of making good decisions while you are pregnant then there is no reason to believe you will change after that baby leaves your body and requires so much more from you.
Being a “good” parent, even at the most base level requires a huge degree of self-sacrifice. It requires impulse control and self-discipline. It requires empathy and the ability to put the needs of someone far more vulnerable than you, ahead of your own.
It means you get up to feed your baby even if it’s the middle of the night and you’d prefer to be asleep. It means denying yourself certain things that would interfere with your ability to keep your baby safe like getting wasted or leaving the baby alone while you go and score drugs or lie in a stupor on the couch.
Bob says he is worried that child services will take the baby after she’s born. Carlene insists this won’t happen. “What they’ll do is they’ll come and they’ll check the house. If it’s half decent and it’s full of food, there’s no way she can lose that baby.”
Clearly, Carlene has been here before. She knows how to play the system. She knows how to make it seem like a child is well-cared for and hide the distressing truth that there are no adults in the house who can be trusted to keep a child safe. Or even alive.
The current system is weighted far too heavily towards the rights of biological parents. I’ve seen it first-hand via friends who have been through hell in their bid to formally adopt their foster daughter who, along with her siblings, was subjected to the most sickening abuse and neglect by a biological mother who was mentally ill and drug addicted.
Infuriatingly, the good foster parents who are currently in this system are unable to speak out against it.They can’t express their fears for the children in their care who are at constant risk of being sent back to biological homes of abuse and neglect.
The laws around child protection gag foster parents from making any public comment or complaint about the shocking flaws in the system unless they want to risk losing the vulnerable children in their care altogether. That’s why we don’t hear individual stories of children being returned again and again to biological parents like Billie Jo.
Parents who continue to neglect and abuse their children under the sacred protection of their biological connection to kids whose mental, emotional and physical wellbeing are in perilous danger every day.
Later in the episode, we see Billie go into premature labour, six weeks early. It appears her unborn baby is so desperate to escape its toxic prison, her body has involuntarily triggered labour. The human body is wise. It knows her baby has a better chance of survival outside than in, even if premature birth carries its own risks.
During labour, Billie Jo keeps smoking between contractions. Her mother tries to tell her not to but Billie Jo is adamant. “Give me a fucking lighter, mum”. And so Carlene does.
Eventually, Billie Jo goes to hospital in an ambulance and in scenes that made my blood run cold, is shown with her newborn in hospital.
At the end of the episode we learn that Billie Jo’s baby was taken into care. As he should have been. As more babies should be. Meanwhile, like so many of the parents who have their children taken from them, Billie Jo takes no responsibility for her actions and remains defiant.
‘I was pulling a bong that’s my business do you know what I mean? So it shouldn’t have been broadcast,’ Wilkie told A Current Affair last week, somehow blaming SBS for her situation. ‘It’s just humiliated us,’ she said, as she revealed she has been shouted at in the street since the promo aired.
The importance of all of us watching the scenes shown in Struggle Street is not indexed to public humiliation of Billie Jo and the drug addled train wreck around her. That is not my concern. That is never my concern. Nor should it be the concern of anyone reading this post. It may be callous to say I don’t care about Billie Jo and her boyfriend and her mother but I don’t. Their choices are made and can be unmade at any time. Their lives are not over. They can start again.
But the children of parents like Billie Jo are not so lucky. Billie Jo herself is a living testament to that. Our priority as a society MUST BE to remove children from parents who cannot take care of them. I’m not big on second chances. I’m not big on believing people can change. Not after they’ve abused or neglected their children to such an extent and over such a long period of time that those children are removed.
The price of giving these parents the benefit of the doubt is just too high.
For more on Struggle Street, try: