Women whose addiction tore their families apart help others recover

Monday, June 5, 2017

Chelsey Mony describes addiction as a disease that comes with a dose of instant gratification.

“It’s about, ‘I want what I want,’ ” said Mony, peer services manager for the Foundation for Recovery. “It’s all about, ‘I want to feel good.’ ”

Pleasure in the moment can’t compare to the pain of losing a child over addiction. When custody is taken away from mothers or pregnant women entering the criminal justice system because of substance abuse, they might engage in the recovery process hoping a quick reunion is within reach. But getting their children back can be a laborious, if not daunting, journey.

“You sit with a peer and tell her, speaking from experience, it won’t come overnight,” Mony said.

Foundation for Recovery launched in 2005 to offer peer-to-peer support services for people struggling with addiction and mental health disorders. Specialists such as Mony have been in long-term recovery without a relapse for at least two years, and they go through a 48-hour training before meeting with anyone.

“There is a substantial body of research confirming the role recovery-specific peer support and social support for all populations, especially women, play in the long-term resolution of substance abuse and other problems,” Mony said.

This year, the nonprofit organization received a grant from the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health’s Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Agency to start a program geared toward pregnant women and mothers dealing with the criminal justice system. Called the Women’s Success Program, it’s available for incarcerated women and those who have been released.

“We are going to be working with (incarcerated women) through phone support. We are still working out the kinks of that,” Mony said.

While she is glad to be targeting this population, she hopes one day the organization will find these women before they enter the system. “You don’t have to reach the bottom,” Mony said.

For now, Foundation for Recovery is working with specialty courts to offer the new program to interested women.

Women are the fastest-growing population in Nevada’s prison system

The Nevada Department of Corrections reports that 1,370 female inmates represent just under 10 percent of the state’s prison population.

Sabreena Hassim, a social worker at the Clark County Detention Center, says even though jail acts as a de facto detox for inmates, they also need help building skills that serve recovery.

“It prevents them from being released, walking over to 7-Eleven and grabbing a bottle of vodka,” she said.

Hassim sees inmates from a variety of backgrounds and tries to partner them with the most compatible resources. There are a few options for pregnant women, such as Southern Nevada Children First, which focuses primarily on pregnant youths. The Women’s Success Program is available for all ages, and Hassim sees value in the peer-to-peer approach: “It makes it more relatable,” she said.

Women who enter the program can access a variety of services, including individualized coaching and help finding employment, housing and legal resources. All go through life-skills classes to learn fundamentals of such tasks as simple as budgeting and as complex as parenting.

“Some of these women are just learning how to be a parent for the first time,” Mony said.

She added that about 150 women would go through the first cycle, which started in March.

Since participants go through the program at their own pace, there isn’t a set amount of time they have to complete it, though Mony says they are encouraged to participate for six to eight months. She adds that this is just the start toward what the organization hopes becomes long-term recovery. And enrollees should know that while restoring parental rights is a goal, it isn’t the first priority.

 A Continuing Trend

The number of women incarcerated in Nevada is rising with nonviolent crimes such as drug use and theft. Public Information Officer Brooke Keast, who began working in Nevada’s correctional system in 2002 as a deputy sheriff, said even then women were the fastest-growing demographic, and that trend continued. One program in the works to help inmates who are mothers is the Parenting Nevada Partnership, conducted by volunteers with Chicanos por la Causa and aimed at strengthening parenting skills and empowering women to reduce rates of recidivism.

“You can’t get your children back without taking care of yourself first,” Mony said. “People can reach the bottom once their children are taken away. They might be incarcerated or in a court program, and they begin leaning on the fact that they are a mother. Showing up for someone else can be a driving force.”

Lavatta Palm remembers the June morning in 2010 when she lost custody of her three children, an 8-year-old and 3-year-old twins.

“After my mother died, my doctor prescribed me something,” she recalled. “Then I had back problems, so I got another prescription. That’s when the addiction started.”

It persisted for years. But the moment her children were taken by Child Protective Services, Palm began making changes. It took two years of work to regain her children.

Although losing custody was the wake-up call she needed, she thinks the process of reuniting with her family would have been easier and faster with peer support.

“That’s why I’m excited about the Women’s Success Program,” she said. “If I would have had this, I probably would have had my kids back in eight months.”

Palm became a peer support specialist in September, hoping her past might make a difference for someone’s future. She is coaching two peers whose predicament she can empathize with completely.

All women who complete the program, which is free, will be encouraged (upon sustained sobriety) to stay connected with Foundation for Recovery and co-facilitate life-skills classes.

Mony said that women who had been through this challenging emotional process could better help future participants.

“They come in so full of doubt because (CPS) took their kids,” Palm said. “I tell them there were times I wanted to give up too. I tell them there is hope.”