Moms and pregnant women with substance abuse issues are highly stigmatized by society and are often considered to be high risk, making it terribly difficult for them to find the help they need. “But why would you treat a mom with diabetes any differently than a mom with addiction problems?” asked Anna Rodriguez, Manager of Santa Barbara’s Perinatal Program at Project Recovery, “They’re both diseases.”
Jennifer Valentine, 31, a mother of six and a longtime abuser of meth recently completed the Perinatal Program at Project Recovery and re-gained custody over two of her daughters.
Born to two meth-addicted parents in Ventura, there was never much hope for Valentine. As a child, she was abused, molested, and raped. She smoked meth for the first time when she was only 11 years old. She became pregnant with her first son at age 14.
After her son was born, Valentine stayed clean for a while, until her ex-husband began to molest her children. A victim of child molestation herself, Valentine didn’t know how to cope with what was happening, and she began to use again. She became the person she never wanted to be: her mother.
“And then my kids got taken away from me and that just made me feel even worse,” explained Valentine. “I knew that they depended on me, but I never know how much I depended on them just to be okay and to feel alright.”
Valentine has had four kids taken away from her by Child Welfare Services. When she was released from jail, only one year ago, she had lost custody over Tony, her 21-month-old daughter, and was 8-months pregnant with Scarlett.
“I just got to a point where I’m pregnant with Scarlett and I’m fighting for Tony and I can’t lose my kids again,” said Valentine. “I want to fight. I’m not going to stop fighting.” Which is why she pleaded for the court to refer her to Project Recovery in Santa Barbara, where she felt comfortable with counselors who had helped her in the past, judgments aside.
Santa Barbara’s Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (CADA) Perinatal Program at Project Recovery is a small house that serves pregnant women and parents of both genders with substance abuse issues. Despite its location on the corner of East Hayley and Santa Barbara Streets, right next to a dope-fiend park, the small cottage-style building is actually quite charming.
As you walk though the front door, past the outdoor play area, peak into the bathroom covered with kid’s art and the kitchen that’s stocked with healthy snacks, you get the feeling that you’re in a family home. “Every time I had to make my kids lunch, I would go to Project Recovery and use their kitchen,” said Valentine.
The six- to twelve-month outpatient program provides a seemingly never-ending list of services to help recovering addicts establish healthy parenting styles and to assist them throughout their sobriety. Perinatal Program Manager, Anna Rodriguez, is particularly known for her unfaltering dedication to helping moms on their path to recovery.
When she started working in alcohol and drug counseling five-and-a-half years ago, Rodriguez had her heart set on working with Santa Barbara’s youth. However, her first position at Project Recovery was in the childcare room of the Perinatal Building. It was in that tiny room filled with donated cribs and toys where she realized, “wait a minute, this is where it’s starting.”
CADA has an adolescent substance abuse program called Daniel Bryant that gets a lot of attention in Santa Barbara. “They’re like our golden child,” said Rodriguez jokingly. However, Rodriguez feels it’s important to understand harm reduction when it comes to teenagers abusing substances.
“A lot of the kids at Daniel Bryant ended up there because they grew up in homes where their parents were using and didn’t have any parenting skills,” said Rodriguez. Because parents with substance abuse issues are highly stigmatized, they have a much harder time getting help.
Rodriguez said they’re doing okay on funding at Project Recovery, but things could be better. “We need a bigger building, there’s just not enough room here,” she said. People are more reluctant to donate to adult addicts than they are to youth addicts.
“What do you think when you see a mom who’s 8-months pregnant, with a huge belly, standing outside smoking a cigarette?” asked Rodriguez.
“Most people think she’s a horrible person and wonder how she could do that to her baby, but what they don’t think about is the stress that mom must be feeling,” said Rodriguez. “Maybe she’s smoking because she’s not doing heroin and it’s all she has left.”
Rodriguez has made it her goal to increase community outreach, reduce stigmatization, and help people see addiction for what it is: a disease.
Project Recovery treats about 50 women a year with a dropout rate of roughly 10 to 15 women each year. Most clients are heroin or meth addicts living in poverty with partners who are either absent or still using.
Parents are referred to the Perinatal Program through court referrals, Child Welfare Services, transition houses, Villa Majella (Santa Barbara’s maternity home for homeless women), CADA Cares, and self-referrals. “We’re starting to get more and more self-referrals, which is great,” notes Rodriguez, “I want to get the word out there to people that need our help.”
Project Recovery will do seemingly anything to make sure clients get the help they need. The program accepts MediCal and offers transportation for clients as far as Carpenteria to Winchester Canyon.
After intake, Rodriguez tries to get clients into group therapy as soon as possible. The first group focuses on relapse prevention and the second group teaches parenting skills —
and much more.
“Part of my work is assisting the clients with their treatment plan goals,” says Rodriguez. These goals include helping their kids eat healthier, teaching them how to breastfeed their babies, how to take care of their bodies, and how to practice safe sex.
On Fridays, Rodriguez is known to host “field trips” to destinations like City College, the vaccination center, and WIC nutrition services appointments.
“A lot of my clients end up going back to school while they’re here,” says Rodriguez, “or I’ll get calls from them after they graduated saying they just got their AA or they’re studying to be counselors because I told them if I can do it, so could they.”
Project Recovery also offers case management services: helping clients find employment, housing, mental health assistance, and even accompanying them to their court dates. They are constantly on the lookout for places that are hiring in town, especially businesses willing to give ex-felons a second chance. Many of the moms have found seasonal jobs and jobs working in merchandise retail and grocery stores. “Usually though, the cost of day care doesn’t outweigh a minimum wage job,” notes Rodriguez.
One of the most common cases Rodriguez sees at Project Recovery are Child Welfare Service referrals, which are usually moms trying to gain custody or visitation rights with their children. It’s extremely difficult for moms to get reunification services if they’ve already had an open case, explains Rodriguez. “They have to jump through all these hoops and everyone’s telling them what a horrible job they’re doing,” she said.
Despite the challenges of being the middle-woman between Child Welfare Services and mothers who want nothing more in the world than to be with their children, Rodriguez keeps an optimistic attitude. “The good thing is we have moms who are all here for one reason — they all want recovery — and their main goal is to be good mommies and have their families reunited,” said Rodriguez.
Although Rodriguez doesn’t think 6 months is enough time for clients to reach full recovery, she notes that about four out of 6 clients continue with their sobriety and she doesn’t see very many moms who re-offend.
“Santa Barbara has an amazing sober community, it’s like a little family,” said Rodriguez. “It’s really important for moms to continue to go to these meetings because it’s usually when they feel good and start thinking, ‘I feel great, I can have one beer,’ that they relapse.”
Jennifer Valentine has been sober for over a year and she and Rodriguez still stay in close touch.
“I’ve been in programs where you’re just ushered through the motions,” said Valentine, “but at Project Recovery they aren’t like that.”
When I met Valentine at Kid’s World, she was sitting on a blanket with her two beautiful little girls, a sparkle in her eyes, and a genuinely happy smile that you’d never expect to see on the face of someone who’s been through so much.