On Chicago’s West Side, mothers and children fight addiction side by side

On Chicago’s West Side, mothers and children fight addiction side by side

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Clinical Director Florence Wright holds a child at The Women’s Treatment Center. Wright oversees day-to-day operations of the center’s daycare, crisis nursery and preschool classroom among other things. (WBEZ/Bill Healy)
Even after her drug and alcohol addictions had forced her onto the streets with an infant son in tow, Jennifer still managed to get high and drunk. She sometimes smuggled alcohol into homeless shelters by hiding it in her son’s sippy cup.

There were many similar stories during the 18 years she abused drugs and alcohol. Until, in the pre-dawn light one morning in late July 2011, she checked herself into The Women’s Treatment Center, a West Side drug rehabilitation facility that specializes in assisting pregnant and postpartum women dealing with addiction.

Jennifer can’t pinpoint why she chose that day to try to change her life. She had known about the center because, as she says, she used to “rip and run this whole block drinking and getting high.”

Looking back, she doesn’t even think that, as she wandered up to the front door, she knew she wanted to get sober.

“I didn’t know alcohol was the problem,” Jennifer said. (WBEZ is using only her first name to protect her privacy.) “When I walked into the Women’s Treatment Center, I didn’t know I stepped into hope.”

That morning, Jennifer joined about 2.5 million people who seek help each year for drug- and alcohol-related addictions.

The Women’s Treatment Center, 140 North Ashland Ave., is one of nine places in Illinois that allow mothers undergoing treatment to live with their children.

The hope is that, with their children present, mothers will not only have a better chance of breaking their addictions but can also develop parenting and lifestyle skills, strengthening their families. 

Experts say there are many benefits to treating women with their children. Allowing the children to live on-site usually prolongs the mother’s time in treatment, said Nicola Conners-Burrow, an associate professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of Arkansas.

“Longer lengths of stay in treatment are quite predictive of better post-treatment outcomes, including reduced substance use, increases in employment, and decreases in symptoms of mental health problems,” Conners-Burrow said.

The Women’s Treatment Center, as seen from the El platform at Lake Street, looking south on Ashland Ave. (WBEZ/Bill Healy)
When the center opened in 1990, most of the women came in addicted to crack and powder cocaine.  Now, they are more likely to abuse heroin. 

When a mother comes to the center, the severity of her addiction determines her treatment path.

Women are placed in different units based upon their needs for parenting sessions, budgeting classes and job placement programs.

Children up to five years old are allowed to stay with their mother. Here, these children, many of whom would otherwise be bouncing from shelter to shelter or in other temporary situations, can attend daycare or preschool every day.

“If moms can make a difference in those first three years and really be able to really bond and have that relationship, those kids tend to do really well,” said Dr. Lisa Parks-Johnson, director of the center’s parenting services.

Even with their children around, mothers sometimes find it difficult to focus. Relapse rates for drug addictions range from 40 percent to 60 percent of patients, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

A woman pushes a stroller across the street from The Women’s Treatment Center. (WBEZ/Bill Healy)
In April, another client, Brandi, was at the center for her second attempt to get clean. A mother of three, she came back to the treatment center because of her abuse of heroin and cocaine, she said. Her two oldest children were born addicted to methadone, morphine, and cocaine.

Brandi lasted only a month at the center in 2012 before returning to her former life. She was in jail on another drug charge and pregnant when the court sent her back, and she’s been at the center for about a year.

“A lot of people judge me because I have children,” she said. “It’s just not that easy. Now that I’ve gotten clean, this child doesn’t have to know the old me. I want this more than anything.”

In Conners-Burrow’s studies, she has found not disrupting the parent-child relationship helps reduce regression.

“Living apart from one’s children has been associated with higher rates of relapse,” she said. “We then see, of course, the benefits to the child of participating in programs like this, with a number of evaluations showing developmental gains for the child and improvements in parenting for the mother.”

With their children around them, women don’t have to worry about when the children will be fed next and who is taking care of them—that remains their job, Parks-Johnson said.

“I know that not everyone is going to make it on my time,” said Florence Wright, the center’s clinical director.  “It’s about their time. It’s about planting a seed and maybe this seed is not the one that is going to make a difference, but if we keep planting and digging deep, then ultimately a flower will bloom.”

Bill Healy is an independent producer in Chicago. Follow him @chicagoan. Richard Steele is a WBEZ reporter and host.

This story was supported through Northwestern University’s Social Justice News Nexus Fellowship. Will Houp and Caroline Cataldo contributed to this report.