What if, instead of punishing drug-addicted mothers, we approached substance abuse like an illness that needed treatment? Oddly enough, it seems to work!
Since the 1986 "War on Drugs" kicked off and introduced mandatory drug sentencing , the number of women in prison has risen 400 percent - amongst black women, the number is twice that. Of the women in prison, 80% have addictions, and more than 60% have minor children.
Addicts who give birth have it hard: because a woman can be prosecuted for using while pregnant, many avoid the prenatal care that their babies, in particular, need. What's worse, recovery programs, afraid of costly lawsuits, routinely refuse treatment to pregnant women. Once born, newborns who test positive for drugs are immediately put into foster care under the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act. Mothers entering treatment often have to waive all custody rights to their babies in order to get clean; the result is what the "Moms Living Clean" website refers to as "a generation of legal orphans." As one might imagine, the situation in prison is hardly less grim: from the mandatory handcuffing of women giving birth to the instant removal of new babies, the process is punitive and impersonal.
As an alternative to these traditional approaches, the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, a Division of Federal Health and Human Services, has funded 35 innovative residential treatment and recovery programs for pregnant women and mothers of young children, all non-violent drug offenders. A new documentary, Moms Living Clean, by filmmaker Sheila Ganz, spends three years with the patients at one such experimental program, Center Point, Inc. Women and Children's Residential Treatment in San Rafael, California.
The 40-person facility provides a 6 month residential program, transitional housing, and medical, psychological, educational and vocational counseling. The six women chronicled - an abuse victim, one mother trying to break out of prostitution, several introduced to drugs by parents - thrive in the new atmosphere, gaining confidence, independence and forging relationships with their children. Says program director Dr. Sushma Taylor,
I have a 100% success rate, because as long as they're with me, they're clean, they're living a happy life and they are with their children. And that is success. I equate long term success with family reunification and the self-esteem enhancement that we're able to provide for our women, who perhaps have never worked in their lives, perhaps are third generation recipients of public benefits. We attribute that to instilling a value system… that starts with hope and has a lot of love attached to it. We believe that there is goodness in our clients when they don't believe they're worth too much. And since we believe in them, they begin to slowly believe in themselves. And when they believe in themselves there is empowerment.
As the documentary would have it, the story is unilaterally feel-good, a triumph of good over indifference, people over policy. And that's great. But given the amount of care, counseling, and funding expended upon each woman, it seems hardly likely that the government will be willing to institute such programs across the board. Then too, these are six women we are seeing, and very possibly six women specially selected as good candidates for the experiment; it's hard to say whether a larger-scale operation would run as well. That said, the real barriers are philosophical: the "war on drugs" makes enemies of addicts, casts their illness in moral terms, and its policies hinge on the notion that someone who's subjected her child to such risks is, by definition, unfit. Prisons are not in the business of redemption; that's why it's still a story when it happens. But these are stories we need to hear - and in this case, see. Feel good? Sure. But sometimes that's earned.