Keeping Families Intact
Program Helps Mothers Overcome Addictions and Become Better Parents
Eye on LSSI, Winter 2005 ( Download PDF of entire publication)
“When I looked into my baby’s eyes, I knew I had to stop — I had to get it together,” Melanie recalls thinking. She knew that if she didn’t stop, she could lose custody of her infant son.
That turning point occurred while Melanie was participating in a substance abuse treatment program. Two months earlier, Melanie had given birth to her son, who was exposed to cocaine and marijuana due to Melanie’s drug use early in her pregnancy. After discovering traces of drugs in her newborn son, hospital personnel contacted the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) child abuse hotline, as mandated by state law. DCFS then referred Melanie’s case to Intact Family Recovery (IFR), a program of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), where her journey of recovery began.
At first, the journey was rocky. Melanie initially fought the program. She lied, saying she no longer used. Even after attending a class and learning about the harmful effects of drugs on her body, Melanie could not curb her addiction. But after realizing she had an open DCFS case and could possibly lose custody of her son to the juvenile welfare justice system if she continued using, Melanie decided to make a change.
The day after completing 45 days in a substance abuse treatment facility, Melanie reported to an LSSI outpatient program. “From that point on, everything started taking off,” recalls Willie Sanders, Melanie’s LSSI caseworker. “She had no positive drops (urine drug tests). She attended meetings; she bought into the program.”
One of the goals of LSSI’s Intact Family Recovery program is to identify barriers that may prevent parents from being successful in their recovery. Melanie’s barriers included her circle of friends, who supplied her with drugs, and her lack of a high school diploma.
“Melanie left the treatment center understanding she could no longer hang out with her friends who continued to do drugs,” Sanders says. “She made that change and hasn’t looked back since.”
With encouragement from Sanders, Melanie decided to pursue taking the graduate equivalency diploma (GED) test. She now has plans to enroll in a medical assistant program in the near future, with the hope of eventually working in a hospital emergency room setting.
A High Success Rate
Melanie is among hundreds of mothers who have successfully completed LSSI’s Intact Family Recovery program since it began in 1998. Michele Ware, senior supervisor, Intact Family Recovery-South, says the length of the program — 18 to 24 months — is one reason the program has an 85 to 90 percent success rate. “That allows time for moms to address their issues of addiction and begin living life in recovery,” she says.
Ware says the program also succeeds because of the partnership between Intact’s child welfare workers and specialists from local Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) agencies. “Having experts working alongside us who are assigned to every case with us, makes it easier for us to provide comprehensive services,” she says.
For example, Intact child welfare specialists work with families on issues related to the safety and well-being of their children. They connect parents to community services and work to remove any economic, social or family-related barriers that would prevent them from being successful in their recovery. Intact child welfare specialists also advocate on behalf of clients on such issues as housing, healthcare benefits, children’s education and public aid. Specialists from AOD agencies work with mothers in helping them become — and remain — substance free by providing links to drug treatment and mental health services.
Coming to Terms with the Pain
Ware says mothers are often in denial about their addiction. “The hardest part is getting them to a point where they acknowledge they have a problem,” she says. “Once we get there, we usually make a lot of progress.”
Deanna has made progress since entering LSSI’s Intact Family program after her 16-month-old daughter was born exposed to cocaine and marijuana. “It was hard for me at first — the program didn’t make sense,” Deanna recalls. “I didn’t want to cooperate. I didn’t want to interact with anyone.”
But after coming to terms with her addiction, Deanna’s attitude changed. “I realized I was in the program because of what I did while I was pregnant,” she says. “Once I accepted responsibility for the part I played, it became easier. I decided to accept it and move on.” Deanna decided to “buckle down and get with the program. … I wanted to show them how smart, independent and self-sufficient I really was,” she says.
Part of Deanna’s recovery included coming to terms with a painful past, including the death of one of her children, living in an abusive relationship and being raped while living in a foster home as a teenager.
Ware says mothers in the Intact Family Recovery program have often gone through earlier traumas that need to be addressed. “Thus we find the pain that they’ve been trying to mask with self-medication,” she says. “A lot of moms have been raped, and sexually, physically and emotionally abused throughout their lifetimes. Many have experienced a great deal of loss that they’ve never addressed. Once we can get through to where the pain is, we can make more progress.”
Strengthening Clients’ Support System
Intact caseworkers can make referrals to community resources, including therapists and counselors, to provide clients with needed support. “That’s key,” Ware says. “We want to provide clients with services in their community so [that] once we are gone, they still have access to those services.”
Julie Hanson, senior supervisor, Intact Family Recovery-North, says caseworkers may also work on strengthening extended family support for clients. “Sometimes people with a substance-abuse problem have burned bridges in their families, so we facilitate a family meeting with the client and extended family members to see if they can support the client and resolve some of their issues,” she says.
“If her family is not willing, we urge the client to develop other support systems, through church, AA meetings or mothers’ support groups, before we close the case.”
Ware says that during the two years mothers are in the Intact Family program, they go from being seriously addicted to becoming self-sufficient, employed or in school. “They begin to see themselves as worthwhile people who can achieve things,” she says. “It’s amazing the impact that has on their children.”
Lisa, another program alumna, says she never wants to return to a life of drinking and doing drugs. She says she already gets a “natural high,” spending time with her children and planning for her future.
Things have looked up since Lisa successfully completed the Intact Family Recovery program. She passed the GED test with flying colors, plans on working soon and looks forward to watching her five children grow through the years.
“It’s been a bumpy ride, but I’ve learned so much,” she says. “I never want to go back out in the streets. I guess the fog has lifted, and there’s so much more now for me and my children.”
Lisa says that besides the birth of her children, the Intact Family program was one of the best things that has ever happened to her. “The program completely saved my life,” she says.
Melanie says her proudest moment took place when she successfully completed the program, while still having custody of her son, who today is a happy, healthy toddler. She now looks forward to the enjoyment of watching her son grow. “I want to make sure he’s secure,” she says. “I want him to come to me and talk to me about what is going on. I want him to know I’ll always be there for him, no matter what.”
For more information about Intact Family Services or Intact Family Recovery, call 773/763-4720 (north office) or 773/372-2727 (south office).
Intact Family Services
LSSI also operates Intact Family Services, a broader program that receives referrals from DCFS for cases of abuse and neglect. In these cases, abuse and neglect are not severe enough to warrant protective custody of children, and parents are willing to work to make needed changes. Intact Family Services caseworkers meet with families weekly, assess their needs, monitor the safety of the children, and make a service plan that focuses on goals and tasks.
Hanson says both of LSSI’s Intact programs prevent children from unnecessarily going into foster care. “The tie of a birth family is really strong,” she says. “If we can shore families up, empower them, and assist them with what they need, the children are going to be much better off in the long run.”