The recent New York Times Article, “Newly Born, and Withdrawing from Painkillers,” really hit home for all of us at Phoenix House’s Demeter House in Arlington, VA. Ours is one of four Phoenix House Mother and Child programs, and we are no strangers to the article’s tragic truth: the fact that so many babies are born addicted to opiates.
Olivia, one of the children currently living at Demeter House, was such a baby. When Olivia’s mother arrived here, she was six months pregnant and still using heroin. “I was so ashamed,” she says, “I didn’t want to admit that I was pregnant and still using drugs. It just seemed like the worst thing a person could do.” When Olivia was born two months ago, she was opiate-dependent; she had a low birth weight and tremors would shake her tiny body. Fortunately, she received timely treatment and is now, at eight weeks old, a beautiful and healthy little girl.
Olivia attends day care each day so that her mother can participate in our substance abuse treatment services and fulfill her other obligations. The Mother and Child program is a unique type of residential treatment; it gives mothers the opportunity to leave their children with a safe and trustworthy daycare provider while they focus on recovery and learning life skills. At the end of the day, they rejoin their children just as if they were returning from a day at work.
Motherhood is overwhelming on it’s own, but when addiction is involved, the child’s life is at risk. Addicted mothers are often unable to provide even basic care for their children. Both mother and child need a nurturing, structured environment where the mother’s behavior can be monitored and she can learn new, more positive, behaviors. Our program provides compassion, discipline, and resources such as parenting classes and family therapy sessions. With these tools at their fingertips, mothers can make a real commitment to their recovery and, most importantly, to their child.
It’s important to recognize that addiction is a disease, even during pregnancy. These mothers didn’t set out to bring opiate-dependent children into the world, and they need our help, not our judgment. Programs like ours don’t just help women get clean and heal themselves; they also save the lives of children—because no child’s future should be dictated by addiction.
Maura F. Roll, M.A.
Demeter House Program Director
Phoenix Houses of the Mid Atlantic