Sarah Womack is a mother and an addict. When her identities collided, she was forced to choose one and she's fighting to hold on to motherhood.
Story by Brittany Hailer · Photos by Maranie Staab
Voices Unlocked is a project telling the stories of Pittsburgh-area residents whose life experiences have been shaped by the penal system.
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Sarah Womack stands in the center of her daughter’s pink room and explains why she had to take the frame off the bed and leave the mattress on the floor. After the Office of Children, Youth and Families inspected her home, the agency claimed that a bed with a frame would make a room seem too much like a bedroom and a bedroom would make things “too confusing” for Sarah’s daughter, Lola. The mattress on the floor makes Lola’s room a playroom instead.
Lola lives with her great aunt and uncle. That is her home. Not with Sarah. Not yet.
Sarah Womack is an addict as well as a mother. I listened to her story for three hours. We cried together as she detailed her years of drug abuse: an ex-drug dealer and lover holding a screwdriver to her temple and threatening to drill; Sarah weighing in at 86 pounds when she is finally arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for parole violations.
Her experiences in the American penal system were harrowing. And plentiful. She says her inmate history started as soon as she was old enough to be arrested as an adult. In Virginia, where she lived as a teenager, she says a county jail corrections officer strapped her naked to a chair for six hours, wheeling her over a hole in the floor to urinate and hosing her down after. And now, Sarah is fighting again, trying to prove to the Office of Children Youth and Families that she deserves to keep her daughter.
Sarah, 38, gave me a tour of her home, showing me Lola’s ‘playroom’ and the collection of owls she keeps in her bedroom: “They remind me of Lola because she has those big brown eyes. She looks like a little owl.” The two people who Lola calls Papa and Nana, who live 2 miles from Sarah, will change Lola’s name if the court decides they may permanently adopt her. Sarah would have to forfeit her rights as a mother.
Sarah’s last court hearing was Jan. 20, 2017. She is still waiting for the judge’s ruling.
If you google Sarah Womack, a News 11 article will pop up describing her 2013 arrest that catapulted her journey for Lola’s custody. Sarah, then 35, was arrested for public intoxication; she says she was under the influence of Xanax and methadone, the latter of which was prescribed to her to curb her addiction to heroin.
News 11 reports that “customers also noticed her behavior, telling police she nearly dropped her daughter and bumped the child’s head on a counter.” The court dismissed the child endangerment charge after it reviewed surveillance footage and discovered Sarah never took Lola out of her stroller. The child was not harmed.
Text in italics are Sarah's words.
Finally, Sarah gets in touch with her mother. She tells Sarah that Lola’s father’s family has Lola in their custody. After eight days in jail, Sarah goes to Sojourner House, a rehabilitation facility for addicted mothers. She gets off drugs and gets Lola back four months later in December 2013.
Two months later Sarah will relapse on alcohol again, and she will reach out to Lola’s great aunt and great uncle for help again. And while this is disappointing, Sarah maintains that this is growth.
Lola’s great aunt and uncle file a protective custody order against Sarah.
Sarah decides after her second relapse and after the protective custody order that she needs long-term care. She checks herself into rehab and gets Lola back in her full custody. After completing treatment, Sarah moves to a homeless shelter. Sarah describes the conditions as “dirty” and “horrible.”
She tells me that women were abusive to their children, which made her uncomfortable. After another child strikes Lola across the face, she decides to leave and move in with a friend who lives in Brookline and has “CYF Clearance.”
A woman from the Children Youth and Families [CYF] office calls Sarah:
She follows the CYF van to Mercy Hospital because Lola needs an “exit physical.” When CYF takes Lola, Sarah tells her:
Sarah blacks out. She wakes up in jail.
Sarah has been trying to get Lola back since September 2015.
The first time I met Sarah Womack, I was a graduate student at Chatham University. I’d volunteered to observe a creative writing class at Sojourner House in East Liberty. Chatham University’s social justice program Words Without Walls sends students and faculty members to Sojourner House every semester to teach poetry and nonfiction to its residents. I shadowed the class for several semesters before being hired as an instructor.
But when I met Sarah, I was 23 years old and terrified. I sat on the outskirts of the classroom, my hands shaking. These women were addicts and junkies, broken mothers who were in and out of jail. Women who had lived a life I’d never understand. I was afraid they’d see me as weak and privileged.
But I kept coming back.
There was something electric about the art these women were making. Poems about motherhood while in prison. Essays detailing the horrors of heroin addiction. I wrote with them. I listened to their stories.
One day, before class started, Sarah turned around and faced me, “I am happy to see you here again! Thank you for coming. I look forward to this class all week. What you guys do means a lot.”
She was the first student to ever acknowledge my presence. She was beaming, her big blue eyes meeting mine. I muttered a “Thank you.”
I never forgot her.
And when PublicSource asked me to head this project, Sarah was the first person I thought to interview. She had recently been accepted into Chatham University’s Maenad Fellowship Program, a 12-week creative writing course for women in recovery. Sarah was ecstatic about her acceptance telling me, “I think my purpose in life is to tell stories.”
Sarah is now eight months clean. She engages with a private therapist once a week, works part time and takes classes at Chatham University. She tells me, “I am very committed to my recovery and relapse prevention. I want to lead by example for my children and display a healthy, productive, drug-free lifestyle.”
Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of the Words Without Walls program. Her work has appeared in The Fairy Tale Review, Word Riot, HEArt Online, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at BrittanyHailer.com.
PublicSource is collaborating with 90.5 WESA to produce audio stories for Voices Unlocked. Follow along! A new story will run biweekly for five months.