Shannon Kazakowitz was standing in the shallow end of a blue pool, one son on each hip, when the child protection investigators arrived.
They surrounded the courtyard of the weedy pink motel in Holiday and took her toddlers.
"Be big boys for me, okay?" she said, tears slipping down her face.
Tristan, her 3-year-old, howled inconsolably. They handed him back to her and she rubbed his tiny back. Then she put him into the white unmarked Impala with the yellow tag.
Child welfare workers had decided that Shannon could not care for her children.
The reasons? She was moving from hotel to hotel and had no stable housing. She was still seeing her abusive boyfriend. And she had a prescription drug problem.
In Pinellas and Pasco counties, calls to the child abuse hotline about parents on pain pills have increased 600 percent in the past three years. Some judges and caseworkers report anecdotally that doctor-prescribed drugs affect up to 80 percent of child welfare cases.
This deluge of prescription drug addiction presents problems for a system whose mission is to keep children with their parents whenever possible.
To reclaim their children, many moms and dads must get off their drugs entirely, sometimes even when they have prescriptions from a doctor. But these parents are imperfect. They don't want to give up their medications. They relapse. They have nervous breakdowns. They miss drug tests. They panic and mess up even more.
Shannon, 28, went through all of this. She achieved the improbable and got her boys back.
And then she lost them again.
One day recently, she sat on a bed inside a threadbare efficiency with a whirring AC wall unit and sobbed into her hands.
"All I want is my kids back," she wailed. "No one will ever love them as much as I do."
In the unforgiving battle between addiction and bureaucracy, a parent's love for her children might be the least important factor in determining whether she gets to keep them.
• • •
Shannon grew up with her dad in Dunedin. She never knew her mother, who was deported to England after she tried to kidnap Shannon in a custody dispute.
As a child, Shannon took gymnastics and cheerleading and piano. She tested gifted. But she always seemed drawn to kids who did drugs, to men who abused her.
When she was 18, someone rear-ended her at a stop light, injuring her back. A doctor prescribed Percocet, which is essentially oxycodone, and it took the pain away. She suffered herniated discs and spinal degeneration in her back and took more prescription drugs. She never really got off them.
By the time she started having kids, Shannon was taking six Percocets a day. "I was a functional addict," she says, though she would not have described herself that way at the time.
She says she quit temporarily before Tristan was born. But she took two to three oxycodones a day during her pregnancy with Treyce. A doctor prescribed it, so she thought it was okay.
Shannon had always been mouthy, all attitude. But Greg Booth, her father, saw a kinder side after her kids were born.
She spoiled her "princes" with a play castle, toy trucks, kid laptops. She sang Janis Joplin's Me and Bobby McGee and Sheryl Crow's I Shall Believe to them at bath time. She read them stories and said their prayers with them at bed time.
Then, trouble: In the spring of 2009, Treyce's father was charged with domestic battery. Two months later, someone called the state's child abuse hotline and said he was hitting Shannon again and that she was taking and selling prescription drugs.
Shannon showed child protection workers valid prescriptions for oxycodone, Xanax and methadone. They didn't take the kids, but now she was on their radar. They asked her to seek help from a family intervention specialist, who helps families avoid the state's child dependency system.
Shannon didn't keep her appointments.
She had worked in telemarketing and as a nail tech and a phlebotimist, but now was out of work. She was evicted from her apartment. Then she was arrested and charged with fraud for selling a rented TV to a pawnshop. She tried to buy it back with a check that bounced.
Shannon's father, a car salesman in Inverness, lost track of her. Greg Booth, 54, tried to find her but the trail led from a filthy house in Spring Hill to a series of seedy motels in Pasco County.
"That's when I said, 'Enough is enough,' " Booth said. "I want my grandsons out of this situation."
In August 2009, he asked child welfare workers to remove the boys. Today he partially regrets having made that call. But back then it seemed right.
The children ended up at his home on the Weeki Wachee River in Hernando County. The state gave Shannon a case plan, a set of tasks that she would have to complete to get her children back. It included classes on anger management, parenting, domestic violence and substance abuse.
The question was, did she have the strength to do everything the child welfare system wanted her to do to get her kids back? Would she be able to admit that she had an addiction?
• • •
In late October 2009, two months after Shannon's kids were removed, she called her court-appointed attorney, Mischelle D'Angelone. She wanted to know why the state wanted her to go for in-patient drug treatment.
Shannon argued she had bulging and herniated discs. She needed the drugs to function without pain. She had MRIs.
D'Angelone told Shannon if she wanted her children back, she would need to reduce her medications and perhaps cut them out entirely. Though not all judges require it, Judge William R. Webb, one of two dependency judges in Pasco County, would likely insist on it.
"What will get you reunification with your children in another county won't get you reunification in his court," D'Angelone said.
Shannon didn't heed the advice.
A few weeks later, she was reading her children a bedtime story, You Are my Miracle, at her father's house when child protection investigators knocked on the door. It was mid December 2009.
Greg Booth had gone Christmas shopping at Target. But Shannon was not supposed to be alone with the kids.
Once again, Shannon watched the white Impala with the yellow license plate pull away with her boys crying in the back seat.
• • •
Now she gorged herself on drugs. She snorted cocaine. At one point, she popped 240 oxycodone pills — almost the maximum dose for a full month — in one 48-hour period. It was essentially a suicide act.
"I had nothing to live for," she said.
She lost 50 pounds.
Occasionally she would have moments of clarity and responsibility. She wrote this on Dec. 30, 2009, in her journal:
Up until this moment, I've still been a lying, procrastinating f--- up and it has to change right, right this very moment. No more lying to my Dad, no more bad self-medicating, no more nothing once I go to bed and wake up in a short couple of hours, I am starting and not stopping until I've gotten my babies and myself back.
But she didn't. Three months later in March 2010, Shannon stumbled into her probation office, completely wasted. She tested positive for cocaine, which violated her probation. She was taken to jail.
She annoyed her cellmates with her moans, her shudders, her vomiting. The withdrawal symptoms lasted a week.
Three months later, she got out of jail and checked into a private, donations-only rehab called Jesus Is! Ministries in Levy County.
At rehab, Shannon said she was taught to pray when she felt weak, to stay away from people who did drugs, to connect with a good church. She says she did not do a 12-step plan and didn't talk about her drug habits; instead she focused on God.
It seemed to work. After 90 days, Shannon came home to her dad's house in Weeki Wachee. She took parenting and substance abuse classes. She attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She got to spend time with her kids again.
In November at a court hearing, she learned Tristan was coming home to her. A month later she would get Treyce.
Shannon was ecstatic. She cried. A bailiff told her she was proud of her. "I knew you could do it."
In an ideal world, Shannon's story would have ended here. About 15 months after her boys were taken from her, a sober Shannon was reunified with them. But that's not the way pain pill addiction works.
• • •
In February, Shannon stood up and limped on crutches toward the lectern in the courtroom.
She wore a black blazer that covered up most of her tattoos — bear paws on her chest, the name of her son Tristan on her right forearm, a weeping rose on her left shoulder.
She gazed up at Judge Webb.
She was scared. A few weeks before, she had risked everything by popping a couple of Percocets. She couldn't say why she had done something so stupid. A dentist had prescribed 15 for an abscessed tooth. She'd sprained her ankle and broken three toes. She'd been in pain. She knew she was an addict, but she felt like she could handle it now.
According to addiction experts, if Shannon wanted to stay off the drugs to keep her children, she never should have accepted the prescription. That she did shows the lure of prescription drugs and the powerful way such drugs interfere with the brain at the cellular level.
"So what's going on?" Judge Webb asked.
Shannon's caseworker, RoseAnne Testa, spoke up.
"She understands she made a poor judgment," she said.
Testa quickly added that the children were doing well.
"I have no problems with the children in the home," Testa said.
Judge Webb glanced at Shannon's file, then at her.
He felt she was articulate and intelligent and she'd completed all of her case plan. He thought she was a capable parent and in four months, if she did everything right, he would release her from state supervision.
Judge Webb knew he was tougher than the other judges when it came to prescription drugs. Judge Lynn Tepper in Dade City counted the parents' pills on the bench. As long as the children were safe and parents had a valid prescription, she urged the parents to reduce the dosage, but she didn't make them quit. Judge Jack Day in Clearwater tended not to mess with the medications of parents who had valid scripts from one doctor and one pharmacy.
Judge Webb had seen too many parents choose oxycodone over their children. He wanted all but the most seriously injured parents to get off their pain pills.
"A lot of these prescriptions are bogus," he said. "We can't just accept a pain clinic physician saying this person needs 400 oxycodones a month because they've got a bulging disc."
Shannon, standing in front of him, seemed capable of taking care of her children. But the lapse felt like two steps forward, one step backward.
Judge Webb gave Shannon another chance. Just in case, he ordered her to take a drug test every 15 days.
• • •
Almost three weeks later, about 8 a.m., Shannon's probation officer knocked on her door. Shannon, who was on house arrest, didn't respond.
Assuming she was not home, the officer submitted the paperwork to charge her with violating her probation.
Booth tried to head off the violation. He had been to his daughter's house about 15 minutes before the probation officer, seen Shannon in bed. She had taken four Tylenol PMs for pain and hadn't heard the knock. But a warrant soon followed.
A few days later, Shannon lost custody of Tristan and Treyce. Again.
It was hard for her father to watch. Shannon had her problems, but he wasn't sure she deserved it this time.
Booth got Tristan. Treyce went with his father's parents and his father, the one who had been charged with abusing Shannon.
Shannon could still see the boys, but after all her hard work she felt like she was back at square one.
• • •
Two weeks later, Greg Booth paced outside Judge Webb's courtroom. His hands shook.
Everyone wanted to know where Shannon was. Her child welfare lawyer. Her case manager. Her public defender.
Shannon had texted she was having car trouble.
Booth had his doubts. More likely she was worried she would be arrested on the warrant for violation of probation if she showed up. But if she didn't come to court, how was she going to fight for her kids? What if the judge removed Tristan from his custody? And he worried the confluence of events would push Shannon back to using again.
The bailiff called their case. The paperwork showed Shannon's kids had been removed because she had violated her probation, she had missed two drug screens and she had tested positive for pain pills — by taking the Percocets for the abscessed tooth and the injured foot the previous month.
A phone was placed on the bench in front of Judge Webb. Shannon was on the line.
"Are you aware there are arrest warrants out for you?" he asked.
"I'm not in court because my car broke down," Shannon said.
"You need to turn yourself in," he told her. Then he did what Shannon had been dreading. He forbade her to see her children until she turned herself in and he approved the visitation.
From the speaker phone, Shannon's cries echoed through the courtroom.
• • •
A few days later, Shannon's dad picked up Treyce from his father for a weekend visit with Tristan.
"Treyce," yelled Tristan, his round little face all excited.
"Tristan," yelled Treyce back, reaching for him.
At Booth's house, they rode plastic cars in the driveway, played with toy golf clubs and chased each other until a visitor drove up. She had dark hair just like Shannon.
"Mommy?" yelled Tristan excitedly, running toward the car.
"Mo-mmeee?" said Treyce quietly, his big blue eyes wide.
"Mommy!" said Tristan, frantic.
"Mo-mmeee?" said Treyce, slow.
They inched closer to the car. It wasn't Mommy. They turned back, heads down.
• • •
The tearful reunions are the goal. But when prescription drugs are involved, there are no guarantees.
This is a system that wants to keep children with their parents and gives them chance after chance. But like sugar in a gas tank, pain pills tend to grind these cases to a halt as parents get treatment, relapse, get treatment again, relapse again.
Complicating the process is the fact that some people actually do need medications for painful injuries. So dependency court judges often find themselves playing doctor — reviewing medical records to decide which doctors are reputable and which illnesses legitimate.
Is a child better off with strangers in the foster care system or with a parent who loves them but can't provide a urine sample free of oxycodone?
It's a decision that Judge Webb and others like him must make dozens of times a day.
• • •
Inside an efficiency with concrete block walls in Hernando County, Shannon pulled out a cigarette and fumbled with a lighter. On a small table was a vase of pink and white tulips given to her on Mother's Day by her fiance, Shawn M. Mount, who has a 2005 felony drug possession conviction in Ohio.
They had fled to Ohio for a few weeks after the judge told Shannon she couldn't see her children. Shannon returned for an appointment with her gynecologist. She'd gotten a sonogram.
She was pregnant. With twins.
The babies are due in September. Shawn is the father. Which is why the decision she had to make was so difficult.
Should she turn herself into jail and try to fight for Tristan and Treyce yet again? Or should she run off with Mount and start over?
"I don't want her to turn herself in," Mount said. "I don't want my children to be born in the state of Florida. But I know if she doesn't (turn herself in), she could lose her other two children."
Already the state had asked the couple to do a voluntary case plan on the unborn babies. What if she stayed in Florida and lost all four children?
"What would you do?" she asked.
• • •
Shannon still has not turned herself in. She says she is clean of drugs, but that doesn't matter anymore.
At a hearing on her May 31, the state announced a new goal. Twenty-two months after that day in the motel swimming pool, the state began the process of terminating Shannon's parental rights.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.