Ice, Ice, Baby

Arizona moms are abusing meth more than any other drug. Want to get them clean, save the family and save tax dollars? Try dangling their kids as the carrot

Some other findings:

The more intense the penalties for drug-addicted mothers, the less likely they are to enter themselves into intensive treatment for fear of losing their children.

It is imperative that programs are modeled specifically to meet the needs of females, and especially, females with babies or young children.

Saving a family can be less costly, in both financial and human terms, than breaking it up.
Claudia Ward
Saving a family can be less costly, in both financial and human terms, than breaking it up.
National foster care reformer Richard Wexler
National foster care reformer Richard Wexler

That the best programs offer comprehensive care in one location -- "one-stop shopping," as Lester called it. This, research shows, allows mothers to develop a relationship with a consistent team of providers, which has shown to reduce dropout rates.

Offering parenting classes is a must.

Family members should be included in treatment whenever possible.

"Most professionals agree that a comprehensive program is best for mothers," Lester wrote. "Services should be family-centered, community-based, multi-disciplinary, individually tailored and promote competency of the individual."

Again, while Arizona has succeeded at creating a multi-disciplinary, cross-jurisdictional approach to getting drug-addicted parents into the system and drug-affected children to safety, the state's leaders have generally failed at building the infrastructure needed to get the drug out of the household and get the family functioning again.

"I'm definitely the exception right now," Maggie Voss says. "The vast majority of women in Arizona aren't given a realistic shot at recovering from this drug."

It is hard to argue against Governor Napolitano's "children first" mandate to the child-welfare system. The basic idea: Get children away from dangerous situations.

The mandate was a response to a sickening litany of stories about children who had been returned by CPS to dysfunctional homes and later died at the hands of their abusers.

"It was the right thing to do," says Jeff Taylor, a counselor and program advocate for the Phoenix Rescue Mission. "But there is fallout. It's a policy that goes against the ideas that work best in treating mothers and reuniting families once the drugs are gone."

Taylor came over to the Phoenix Rescue Mission when the Harbor Light program was shut down at the Salvation Army. The closing of Harbor Light, Taylor and several other counselors say, was a sad day for Arizona.

"It just plain worked," he says. "It breaks my heart to think how many mothers have been denied the help they need since it closed."

The only statistics regarding the Harbor Light program are by no means of scientific quality. But they are intriguing.

In the last three years of the program, when Harbor Light offered full-time child care and full-scale residential treatment for pregnant meth-addicted mothers, 27 of the 28 women who came into the program pregnant delivered a drug-free baby.

Also, 60 percent of mothers who went through the intensive yearlong program returned two years later for an annual reunion picnic held for patients.

"Nothing scientific," Taylor says, "but you don't come back and celebrate with your counselors if you're actively using. You just stay away."

Compared with all men or women with or without children who went through the program, the mothers had the highest return rate at the reunions, he says.

Taylor also ran the Harbor Light child-care facility. There, he says, he saw as much hope as in the treatment facility for mothers.

"I don't know where this idea of 'meth kids' comes from," he says. "These kids were bright, engaged, full of love. The child with real emotional or developmental problems was very much the exception."

Once Harbor Light closed, Taylor says, only one program remained in the Valley for long-term residential treatment for indigent mothers in which their children can stay at the facility with them. That program, run by the Center for Hope, has 24 beds available.

"We know there are thousands of mothers out there addicted to meth," Taylor says. "So right now, we're giving about one-tenth of 1 percent the kind of treatment known to work. That's not good at all."

The Phoenix Rescue Mission is in the planning stages of a new facility for residential treatment of drug-addicted mothers, he says.

When that's completed, perhaps 100 women per year will have a shot at the kind of treatment that gave Maggie Voss and her four children their lives back.

Taylor and other advocates around the state will be asking the governor and legislators to work toward expanding these sorts of treatment programs for drug-addicted parents.

"Right now, the direction has been away from getting treatment for the family," Taylor says. "The governor was right to run with the idea of a child's safety first. But now, we need to look at the idea of putting foster care at the end of the line. If the parents fail, then it's foster care. If they succeed, the family is saved."

Support for this sort of reform isn't just coming from the experts in treatment. It's also coming from the experts in incarceration.

"We're still falling short on the treatment end," says Phoenix police Detective Ahumada. "Everything we do is a waste if the cycle continues. I know we can do better. And considering how important this is to so many lives, we absolutely must do better."

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