Denise Walker had been homeless for more than a year in Sacramento when she moved to Atascadero in early 2001.
She hoped a new community would mean a fresh start and enable her to see her two children, who lived with their father in Paso Robles. And she hoped it would offer a chance to beat the meth addiction that had plagued her since 1997, when she was 25. "I tried to move locations to get sober," she recalled.
Instead, she used harder than ever, smoking meth out of pipes made from soda cans and air fresheners while the drug took an increasingly visible toll.
Never miss a local story.
Walker dropped from a size 16 to a size 3. Sleepless binges that lasted as long as 10 days drew dark circles around her eyes. Her skin turned pasty white. Sores broke out on her arms. She went weeks without showering or changing clothes, and she smoked cigarette butts off the street.
In Atascadero, she slept at the homeless shelter and on friends' couches, or in her boyfriend's car. She showered at local campgrounds or at the Prado Day Center, a shelter for the homeless in San Luis Obispo where she also bagged lunches to earn bus passes.
In September 2002, she was arrested on suspicion of possessing meth, ordered to enroll in a treatment program and told to stay clean. She never enrolled. "I felt like a scum bag," she said.
But she couldn't break the addiction.
In May 2004, Walker became pregnant by her boyfriend, whom she met while staying at the homeless shelter. He was an addict, too, and had spent time in prison for felony drug charges.
At first she didn't want the baby, but then she wondered if this was another chance at motherhood.
When she was six months pregnant, Walker sought help at San Luis Obispo County Drug and Alcohol Services. It was Oct. 29, 2004.
The intake counselor wrote in Walker's records that day, "When asked why she is seeking out treatment, she was tearful and stated that she is tired and done with using. She stated that she wants to change her life."
The counselor faxed a copy of Walker's file to the residential treatment coordinator, checking the "urgent" box. The fax said, "This client is six months pregnant and homeless. In need of residential. ASAP."
Walker left the office and got high later that day.
She used meth throughout the rest of her pregnancy, stopping only three days before she was scheduled for a Caesarean section. She received no prenatal care until the eighth month.
To her relief, Natalie was born a healthy 8 pounds, 7 ounces, on Feb. 10, 2005. When the nurse laid the baby on her chest, Walker swore she would quit using.
Reaching out for help
Just days after bringing Natalie home from the hospital, however, Walker got high.
Then three months later, police arrested her for failing to pay a $451 fine for driving with a suspended license the previous year. A judge reordered her to get drug and alcohol treatment.
So when Natalie was 6 months old, Walker returned to county Drug and Alcohol Services to ask for help.
She tested positive for meth that day but finally enrolled in the treatment program that a judge had mandated she complete three years earlier. Still, Walker kept using the drug.
Another month passed before she returned to Drug and Alcohol Services for a third time and admitted she needed residential treatment.
Drug counselors put the process in motion. The next day, police and parole officers raided the apartment where she was staying.
The door flew open, and officers barged in shouting, "Parole. Put your hands up." They pointed their guns and let dogs loose to search the apartment for drugs.
Walker huddled in the back bedroom with her 7-month-old daughter, wishing she were invisible.
The dogs sniffed out a plastic bag of meth hidden in a vacuum on the living room floor. An officer found a meth pipe in Walker's purse.
Police handcuffed Walker's boyfriend, Natalie's father, after he said the pipe was his. Before taking him to County Jail on suspicion of violating his parole, they called a social worker to take the baby.
The social worker noted that there was no crib in the apartment and that the drugs hidden in the vacuum endangered a baby learning to crawl.
It was Sept. 9, 2005, and Walker had lost her third child to her addiction.
Running out of time
For three days after that, Walker tried to escape her depression by getting high. She felt like a failure. Only horrible people put drugs before their own children, she thought.
"I thought that after having another baby, I would stop," she said. "You know, that would give me a reason to quit because I was so lonely from losing my other two. I thought I would definitely quit because I'm not going to lose a third child."
On Sept. 17, 2005, Walker stood before an unsympathetic judge who told her time was running out.
" 'You have six months to get into rehab and get this done, or we're adopting Natalie out because there are people around the corner that want her,' " Walker recalled the judge saying.
Walker had two options: go to rehabilitation or lose her third child.