Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: As substance abuse rises, need for additional programs comes into focus, experts say

Jillian Hauser spent more than a decade addicted to drugs, went through six rounds of rehab, did time in jail and lost custody of her two daughters.

She hit bottom when Westmoreland County Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio offered her one last chance to regain control of her life through the county’s drug court, a rigorous program requiring addicts to undergo months of therapy sessions and drug tests and to keep journals under the close supervision of probation officers.

Hauser, now 37, of Latrobe, took the judge’s offer and ran with it. She sees herself as one of the lucky ones. She found help and committed to it. She battled addiction and won.

But as the number of adults with substance abuse problems continues to skyrocket, Hauser sees an urgent need for more programs aimed at helping addicts and their children.

Sober for three years, Hauser has regained custody of her now-teenage daughters and completed coursework to become a certified recovery specialist, helping others escape addiction.

“I see terminations where parents lose rights. I see adoptions happening because parents aren’t willing to (give up drugs). I look at these cases and think, ‘That could have been me,’” she said.

Despite her lasting sobriety, she is mindful that, “I am only one bad decision away from ruining my life and the lives of my children.”

Hauser credits her success to drug court, Narcotics Anonymous and her mother, who took care of her children for years.

A handful of private nonprofits provide care for children away from family members dealing with addiction and, in rare cases, housing where mothers and children can live together while the mothers undergo treatment.

But the demand far outweighs the supply, Hauser said.

Sources of help

The Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, a private nonprofit, has stepped forward to provide resources.

The alliance, a statewide child abuse prevention group, has pioneered Families in Recovery, an education program designed to support families dealing with addiction.

Angela Liddle, president and CEO of the Family Support Alliance, said addiction’s impact on children is not addressed in programs often designed to deal with adult addiction.

“This is a cross-systems issue where we really have to look at the family. Too often children get lost,” Liddle said.

Pittsburgh-based Sojourner House, a licensed inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in East Liberty, tries to ensure that doesn’t happen.

It’s one of only a handful of such facilities in the country accepting mothers and children. Located on Penn Avenue, it boasts 14 one- and two-bedroom apartments where mothers can bring up to three children to live during their drug rehabilitation. The family can stay for up to six months.

Launched as a grassroots effort by a coalition of faith-based organizations and nonprofits in 1991, the organization serves families from rural and urban communities.

A large, well-equipped play space and indoor common area speak to the support offered for children. There are after-school programs and outings to support each family’s journey. Civic, faith-based organizations and community groups devote volunteer hours to support the effort.

“We have such a mixture — different economic backgrounds, different families. We take a holistic approach to the family. We’re trying to meet them where they’re at and acknowledge that they’re moms,” said Karen Upsher-Williams, a licensed clinical social worker at Sojourner.

Upsher-Williams brings real-life experience. She won a five-year battle with addiction and has been clean for 33 years.

“We look at their history. They may be dealing with generational addiction or dysfunction, and we’re trying to help them break that cycle,” she said.

Some journeys end at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Cambridge Springs in Crawford County. The women’s prison, often a final stop for those whose addictions have taken them through the criminal court system, offers an 11-month-long inpatient rehabilitation program for inmates looking to change and carve months or years from prison sentences.

Rose Tarquinio oversees the Cambridge Springs program that typically enrolls 60 to 70 women at a time. She has seen women whose children died as a result of their drug use and has heard seemingly endless tales of families destroyed by addiction.

“We see a lot of women who come from very abusive backgrounds,” she said. “We have cases where the father is also in active addiction. It’s astounding to me how many inmates come in and say they first got high with their mom or dad when they were 14 years old.”

Intensive counseling, treatment and group therapy are part of the program. Ultimately, it requires those enrolled to accept responsibility for their actions.

Soon, Tarquinio may see former inmates counseling others in addiction.

Cambridge Springs is shepherding 24 inmates through a grant-funded program that would lead them to become certified recovery specialists.

The decision to walk away from drugs rests with the addicts, she said.

“For a lot of these women, the biggest issue is learning to forgive themselves,” Tarquinio said. “We see miracles happening all the time. We also get reports of people who go home and die.”

From Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 16, 2023

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