7 INVESTIGATES: One mother's struggle with addiction, and the foster parents who helped her

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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) -- It started in 2014 when Wausau foster mom Sandy Schmidt slipped a note into the three-month-old’s diaper bag when the baby Sandy was foster parenting went on visits to see biological mother, Natasha Eldridge. Natasha slipped a note back to Sandy when the baby returned.

“Our relationship just grew from there,” Natasha recalled.

The notes turned into text messages, and texts turned into chats over coffee and donuts.

“We—I think just had an instant connection,” Sandy said.

Natasha, now 36, has struggled with opioid addiction for much of her adult life. Today, she says she has been free of illegal drug use for two years, something she attributes to time spent in prison away from the people she associated with—and to the friendship she developed with the parents who fostered her child.

“I don’t think I would have been able to do this without them,” she said. Today, the Schmidts feel much like her second family.

“I come over at least once a week, and we have dinner and I get to play with their kids and paint their girls' nails. It's just fun, you know, hanging out and being a part of their family.”

A 2016 study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found that after a 12-month period of opioid detoxification, 72 to 88% of patients would relapse in the next 12 to 36-month period. For many patients in recovery, relapses occur on average seven times before the treatment is successful, according to multiple professionals in social services and law enforcement. That’s a big part of the reason that children are in the foster care system longer than before--and why some foster parents and social services professionals aren’t optimistic about a potential change to laws that govern termination of parental rights, an issue 7 Investigates is addressing on Thursday.

But for the Schmidts, their friendship with Natasha has changed their perspectives in key ways.

“I thought of myself as, frankly, better than people that struggled with using and abusing hard drugs. I think a lot of people do; I don’t think anybody’s going to really admit that. But I thought of myself as better,” Patrick told us. But as he continued fostering children--and got to know Natasha better--his views started to change.

“If I was raised the same way as Natasha and experienced all the traumatic things that she’s experienced, I’d probably be doing--I’d have done the same decisions that she made along the way,” he said. “We can’t be so quick to judge. We need to be quick to love.”

“She was just a person that it made us realize, this isn’t just a number or a statistic or another person who just did this thing that society looks down upon or has judgement against,” Sandy said. “I think we realized this is a person that we love, this is our friend.” And with that, Sandy said their family grew as well. “She was making a difference in our life, too.”

Natasha says starting over with new friends like the Schmidts has been key to her journey--which hasn’t been without its setbacks, including recent misdemeanor charges. “I’m able to see like, what a stable, loving family is like, and I just--I’m really thankful to be a part of it.”

Part 1: Opioids, meth driving spike in Marathon County foster care
Part 2: Marathon County stretched thin on on foster care funding
Web Extra: "A Kind of Hard I'll Never Know"
Part 3: Foster children paying the price of substance misuse