Young mothers break drug habit. Boston program helps them cope and keep their children

SIX years ago, Andrea Stallings was ready to give up. She was eight months pregnant with her third child. She was serving time at a state correctional institution for prostitution. She was addicted to heroin and cocaine. And she had no one to turn to. Then Ms. Stallings remembered a drug-treatment program for women that she had heard about years before - a small residential program in Roxbury, the neighborhood she had grown up in. Women Inc. had a reputation for toughness, but for compassion as well. And it had an unusual policy: Mothers in the treatment program were allowed to have their children live with them.

In desperation, Stallings wrote a letter, pleading, ``If someone doesn't help me, I'll kill myself.''

The staff at Women Inc. moved quickly. Within two weeks, Stallings had been released into their custody and moved in. Two weeks later she gave birth to a baby girl. Then began the hard part, the battle to break a drug habit that had lasted 10 years. She spent 11 months at Women Inc., but when she left, she was drug-free. She's stayed that way.

``They offered me self-esteem,'' Stallings says, ``a feeling that I could do something with my life.'' Staff members helped her sort out her life, through counseling sessions and eventually through education and job-training sessions. During the long months of treatment, Stallings drew great comfort from her daughter. ``She helped me see what life is,'' she says. ``She was my dream.''

Today Stallings has all four of her children living with her in her own apartment. She has two cars and a job she likes - working as a counselor at Women Inc., helping addicted women find the strength and purpose to quit drugs, just as she herself was helped.

In the 14 years since Women Inc. opened its doors, there have been scores of women like Stallings who have found the help and hope they needed in trying to free themselves of drugs. Founder and president Katie Portis says her philosophy is simple - ``Empower women, keep families together, save lives.''

Ms. Portis knows from firsthand experience what the women who come to her are facing. She is a single mother who had her own battle with drugs years ago. The only treatment she could find was in an ``all-white, male-run program.''

In 1971, while working at a social service agency, Portis, who was off drugs by then, learned of a survey of women entering residential drug-treatment programs. The survey showed that many women never finished the programs. They left, she says, because they were worried about their children and their care. To compound the problem, there was no drug program that dealt with the children of the women who were in their care.

``That's how we got started,'' she says. It took a lot of explaining to government agencies, but Portis prevailed, creating a program that had living quarters for 25 women and 10 children. Over the years Women Inc., which is publicly and privately funded, has grown to include other services - child care for the community, and education classes not only for women in treatment but for women from the neighborhood.

The core of Women Inc.'s activities, however, continues to be its drug-treatment program, which can last anywhere from seven months to a year, depending on an individual woman's needs. Portis claims an 80 percent success rate, based on follow-up contacts for a full year after women leave the program.

``They come to us because of the children,'' says Portis, whose clients are from a cross section of racial and economic backgrounds. ``The average woman that we see has probably tried other programs, or done time [in prison].

``So by the time they get to us, they are much more serious about changing their lives and keeping their family together,'' she continues. ``The average woman comes to us because she can have her children with her.'' Although there is not always enough room for all clients' children, Portis says that Women Inc. staff members make sure that women whose children are in foster care have regular contact with their children, who often come for weekend stays, and with the foster parents.

When a woman's mind is at ease about her children, Portis says, she is ready to concentrate on herself. The first phase of Women Inc.'s three-part program is a matter of learning the rules (which includes a no-drug policy), settling down, and breaking through the haze of addiction.

``A lot of people forget about the mental thing that overtakes a person,'' Portis says. ``Drugs will wake you up in the middle of the night.''

Two months or so into a woman's stay at Women Inc., the second phase of the program begins: one-on-one and peer-group counseling sessions that force the often painful assessment of the toll that drugs have taken, as well as self-examination and the beginnings of a search for purpose and worth.

``There are women who come here who don't think they have the right to breathe the air,'' says Portis. ``There's a constant rebuilding of self-esteem and motivation. And it's very painful. But the end result is really worth it, to see a woman lift up her head, take control of her life, and make the decision, `I'm going to get through this somehow.'''

At the same time they are undergoing self-regeneration, women in the treatment program are taking in-house classes - learning about parenting, nutrition, and health care. Academic classes also can lead to a degree that the local public school district recognizes as the equivalent of a high school diploma.

After some five months in the second phase of the program, Portis says her clients are usually ready to begin preparing for life in the outside world - for job interviews, finding an apartment, putting a family back together. It can be a frustrating period, she says, because former addicts often carry with them the expectancy of instant gratification they learned from drugs.

``A woman will say, `I went out three times this week and nobody hired me!''' Portis says. ``So we talk about patience. ... We do a lot of talking about patience, about being patient with yourself, about being patient with the people out there.''

As wonderful as it is when a woman does land a job, Portis says, the real thrill for her is seeing ``a family reunited in a drug-free environment.'' Portis says she no longer feels as alone as she once did in the struggle to confront drug abuse. In the past five years, in fact, as Women Inc. has tried to educate the community, volunteers from local religious groups have begun helping out on a regular basis.

``Part of our job is to educate people,'' she says. ``I find that within every group there is someone who wants to be helpful. ... There's always going to be people that say, Well, that's their problem. But sitting right next to that person might be someone saying, `What can I do to help?'''

Portis does worry, however, that after all the recent uproar over drug abuse, public interest in the issue may simply fade away. She worries about trendiness - about the fact that one year the public is up in arms about child abuse, the next year about homeless people, the next year about drug abusers. That sort of fleeting attention, she knows, never really gets at the root of the problem - at the feeling of not belonging, of not being part of society.

``A lot of people don't feel that,'' she says. ``Right here in this community, we have people who don't go beyond Huntington Avenue [three miles away from Women Inc.]. The average drug addict's world is a block long. And it's almost like the rest of the world doesn't exist out there.

``A lot of people are not feeling like they're part of this boom that everybody's talking about and everybody's doing so good in,'' she says referring to Massachusetts' economic boom. ``There's a group of people doing just as bad or worse than they ever did.

``We're talking about people whose income is way below the poverty level,'' she continues. ``We're talking about people not only in this community, but in other communities, who have to decide whether they are going to buy a full amount of groceries or get some heat.''

In an environment like that, she says, drugs can become an easy out. Dealing drugs can bring in badly needed money. Taking drugs can ``make you feel good. You forget for a moment.''

But Portis finds hope in the fact that people today do seem to be more aware of the drug problem than they have been in recent years. Andrea Stallings - like other people living in minority communities - takes rather wry note of the fact that now that cocaine has hit the suburbs, white America is beginning to sit up and pay attention to the problem.

``I think we all - black, white, Puerto Rican, Spanish - all races should get together to discuss it,'' she says. ``Maybe then we can come up with some kind of plan about it.''

Second in an occasional series. The first ran on Dec.4.

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