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Woman: We’re too poor to keep our children

What happens when you can no longer afford your family? Dr. Gail Saltz advises a woman whose “heart is in three states” after sending two of her three kids to live with relatives, leaving her to deal with foreclosure and an alcoholic husband.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Q. I am shaking as I write you, Dr. Saltz. My husband and I have been struggling for years. We are now in foreclosure and cannot clothe or fully feed our children. We are sending our oldest girl to my sister in Omaha and our oldest boy to my husband's brother in Trenton. They will be loved and cared for, but my heart is in three states. I don’t know when or if we’ll be together again. I can no longer look anyone in the eye. My husband drinks every night when he has money. I need some encouragement and forgiveness. Please, can you give me something to hold on to?

A. I’m so sorry to hear about your tough situation. A financial crisis has the ability to wrest a family apart. Your example shows what happens when people feel completely overwhelmed.

Your husband understands that you are in financial straits so dire that you sent the children away, but is still drinking when he has money. This behavior is clearly self-destructive, as well as destructive to the family.

But, as you know, when people are overwhelmed, they feel they have few options. Lacking tools and resources, they feel there is no point and no hope.

It sounds as though your husband has an alcohol addiction, which exacerbates your problems and perhaps even caused them in the first place. So you must look at this situation in a broader sense.

Your husband needs treatment. Not only is he squandering the little money you have, but he can hardly be a productive income-earner if he is an alcoholic. If you have no money, you are eligible for Medicaid. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are free. For yourself, there is Al-Anon, for family members of alcoholics.

So your starting point is to get treatment and support for your husband. Then you need to do so for yourself. It sounds as though you are overwhelmed by guilt, which may be a symptom of depression. Again, there is Medicaid to help you with this. Other resources include government and church social services, as well as the outpatient psychiatric department at your local hospital.

It is traumatic for young children to be separated from their parents, so it is good you didn’t send the younger ones away. Still, it is better for older kids to remain with the family, too, so they don’t feel abandoned. You don’t say how old your children are, but teenagers can get jobs to contribute toward the family finances, or care for the younger ones, which can help keep a family together.

You also don’t say whether your kids grew up around your relatives or had little contact with them. This matters in how traumatic it may be for them to have been sent to live with these relatives. In the end, though, they will be fed and clothed, so you did what you had to do.

If you felt you made this decision in a moment of desperation, you can always reevaluate it. If your relatives are in a position to take your kids into their homes, they might be in a position to help you out financially, at least in the short term. So one option is to ask them to lend you money — possibly the amount of money they are spending on tending your children.

They might, however, be unwilling to help if your husband is spending money on alcohol, which is another reason he needs to get treatment.

Again, you should first attend to your husband’s drinking problem and your own depression. I say this in the most compassionate way possible. Then you can think about how to build your income, save your money and have all your children back home with you. From an emotional-health perspective, it would be best for the children to come home to you sooner rather than later.

As we saw with the several dozen children recently abandoned under Nebraska’s safe-haven law, their parents were desperate to help their children, most of whom had a mental-health diagnosis (more here). But they were overwhelmed and didn’t know where to turn. They didn’t abandon their children because they wanted to. They loved their children, as you do.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: People pushed to the brink in times of crisis should start building their way back by first dealing with the underlying cause of their problems.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .