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THE SAFE PASSAGES PROGRAM: HOPE FOR CHILDREN IN THE FOSTER CARE SYSTEM

In 1982, in response to the growing number of children in foster care throughout the country, Congress passed the Family Reunification Act. As its name implies, the purpose of this act was to increase the number of children returning to their biological parents following foster care. At that time, there were approximately 260,000 children in the nation’s foster care system. Now over twenty five years later, there are over 400,000 children in foster care in the United States!

Why is it that the net result of an act of Congress intending to increase the rate of reunification has been to increase the number of children in foster care by over 144,000? While there may be several factors, chief among them has been the failure to address the main reason children are removed from their homes in the first place. For years, it has been understood that 75% of the children in our foster care system have parents with untreated substance use disorders.
Some communities have chosen to address this issue in a variety of ways. Fortunately, West Michigan is one such community. On October 1, 2016, the Safe Passages Program opened—offering recovery support services to biological parents within Kent County’s foster care system. These services are funded by a grant through the Michigan Health Endowment Fund and provided through a partnership of D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s and Recovery Allies of West Michigan.
The Safe Passages Program offers the recovery support services of a certified recovery coach to a parent whose child is in foster care. The goal of the program is to significantly increase the rate of reunification of children in foster care with their biological parents. Currently, less than 40% of these children return to their homes; the goal of the Safe Passages Program is to return 66% of these children to their families.
In this blog, you will read about one of the recovery coaches in the Safe Passages Program. Her name is Brooke Bouwman. Like all recovery coaches, Brooke has “lived experience,” meaning she has had her own struggles with mood-altering substances and the foster care system. More importantly, she has had her own triumphs as well. Brooke’s story recounts those elements of her own recovery that made a very real difference and ultimately led to the restoration of her family. And, as you might expect, those are the very things she tries to bring to her clients.
As most of us in the recovery community know, there can be many different elements of recovery beyond sobriety: employment, housing, legal assistance, transportation, and physical well-being to name a few. Not everyone needs the same things—except, of course, one thing: hope. That is the most important element Brooke and her fellow recovery coaches will provide abundantly.

The reunification rate for foster care cases in Kent County is 38%. This means 38 out of 100 children get to go home with mom or dad. It also means 62 out of 100 children do not. My name is Brooke Bouwman and am a person in long term recovery. For me that means I have not had any mind or mood altering drugs for over 3 years. I am also a proud mother of two beautiful daughters. Arianna is 3 and one of the 38 able to come home with her parents. Lainey is 11 and one of the 62 not returning home with her parents.
Lainey was placed in foster care services with my sister Melissa in 2007 when she was 18 months old. A CPS and foster care case were opened at that time. I was addicted to drugs and not ready to quit. After a year of trying to get well, going to multiple inpatient treatment centers and mutual aid groups, I surrendered my parental rights to avoid termination.
I continued using drugs and continued entering inpatient treatment facilities as well. For many of us it’s as if we are divided into two parts, one part that can’t fathom getting well and one that won’t quit trying. I would consistently get successfully discharged only to pick right back up from where I had left off each time.
In February of 2013 I became pregnant. Again. There were not many, if any, who believed my partner and I could be parents to this child. I tried to convince myself to consider other options, either to terminate the pregnancy or consider adoption at birth, but I could not. I wanted to be a mother.
During my pregnancy I did the best I could at that time. I rationalized using prescriptions medications (illegally) because it was not heroin or crack. About 9 weeks before my due date I moved back to my hometown. The supports were too little and the temptations too strong. I began using heavily.
I went into labor on September 17, 2013. I was treated like any other mother at first. While trying to give me an IV, the nurse saw the tracks and bruises lining all the veins in my hands and arm. I was asked, “Are you an IV drug user?” There are many instances when a person addicted to drugs and or alcohol will tell you that telling the truth didn’t work out for them. This was one of those times. Through tears I said with all honesty, “Yes. I am addicted to heroin and crack. I just want you to know so this baby can receive the best possible care you can provide.” Unfortunately after that, I was treated very differently. The atmosphere changed in the hospital room. They were no longer smiling. My partner Ryan was told he was not allowed to hold my hand any longer while the planned C-section was performed. He was told to sit in the chair across the room and be quiet. Hospital security came in and our room and all of our belongings were searched. What was supposed to be one of the brightest days of our lives had turned very dark and dreary. Of course I knew it was because of the choices I had made. I just didn’t know why I made the choices I had.

Around 1:00 am on September 18, 2013 my youngest daughter, Arianna, was born. She was born addicted to heroin and crack. Later in the afternoon that same day a CPS worker came and delivered the message that we would need to be in court the next day. I was going to be given six weeks until termination of my parental rights. I was terrified of that. I was also asked many questions. I talked about the 17 treatment centers I went to and had been successfully discharged from. I talked about recovery. I talked about how I had confidence that I could get well and raise a child. I talked about how I had not given up. I talked about how I knew that no matter what, I can never quit quitting. I could never quit trying to change my life. What I found, though, was that the very argument ‘I have never quit quitting’ which I thought was showing my conviction to getting better, seemed to cement the case that I was ‘untreatable’.
Arianna was treated with great care and only needed treatment for one day as opposed to the sometimes two weeks needed. This comforted me. Mothers who go through this share how the guilt and shame are so overpowering all hope can be lost. For some reason, this time I had hope. Ryan was given a drug test and was cleared to take Arianna home with him.
Two weeks prior to my termination hearing, a CPS case was opened for Ryan. Since he had no previous cases with CPS and foster care services, he received the typical one year to get well. Because they were giving him that time, it was decided I would receive that much time as well. On December 4, 2013 I entered treatment. Ryan was arrested that same day. We did not know it at the time, but this is the day we entered long term recovery.  After 101 days I was successfully discharged from inpatient treatment. I think the difference this time was what happened after discharge. I was very dedicated to being the best mom I could be. I utilized multiple different pathways to maintain my recovery. These included Vivitrol, recovery housing, and a recovery coach. Although all of these played a role in my recovery, the presence of a recovery coach was critical. During the overwhelming process of putting a shattered life back together, one can and does experience periods of hopelessness. Sometimes as in my case we are putting a life back together that has new components. I had never really been a mother before. I had never really had to budget money or plan meals. I was suddenly going to have to be an adult! It was not really ‘me against the world’; it was more like ‘me and how do I survive in the world’. The coach was there during all of this. So while my therapist was helping with the ‘me’ stuff the coach helped with ‘world’ stuff. Together they helped to turbo charge my recovery. In October 2014, my youngest daughter was returned to our care. She moved into an apartment with her father and me. At the time, I was managing three women’s recovery houses in Grand Rapids. Her father has a fantastic job working for good people as a siding installer. Today I work as a Recovery Coach for Recovery Allies of West Michigan within the Safe Passages Mentoring program. The goal of the program is to increase the family reunification rate within the Kent County foster care system by providing comprehensive peer-based substance use disorder services for families. Giving back helps to make sense of all of the suffering I endured. I am grateful. My oldest daughter is now in Junior High. She still resides with family members. Lainey and I have a very good relationship. She knows I am her mother and she calls me “Mom”. She is able to spend a lot of time with her younger sister. I have talked to her about the Safe Passages Mentoring Program and the work we are doing. I told her about the statistics. I could see the thinking going on in her head. I asked her how it felt to know she was one of the 62 children who didn’t get to live with her parents, while her sister is one of 38 who was able to go home with her parents. Her response, ” I don’t like those number, Mom. Maybe we had to go through this experience because we were strong enough to make it. There are probably people out there are probably people out there who aren’t, so now you and your team will be able to be able to help them not to ever have to feel that way”.

The essence of what a Recovery Coach does.

 

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What is a Recovery Community Organization?

Recovery Allies is a grass roots organization that is for the people, by the people. We are considered a “peer run organization” and have 501c3 nonprofit status. We are funded by individuals and families affected by addiction, by private philanthropy and grants issued by the state for peer run organizations as well as various other organizations that want to see change. We are one of over 95 in the nation at this time and have taken many cues from those that have been doing it for a long time. We Advocate, Celebrate and Educate (ACE). The national RCO Faces and Voices of Recovery have this on their web site: “Recovery community organizations (RCOs) are the heart and soul of the recovery movement. In the last ten years, RCOs have proliferated throughout the US. They are demonstrating leadership in their towns, cities and states as well as on the national landscape. They have become major hubs for recovery-focused policy advocacy activities, carrying out recovery-focused community education and outreach programs, and becoming players in systems change initiatives. Many are also providing peer-based recovery support services. RCOs share a recovery vision, authenticity of voice and are independent, serving as a bridge between diverse communities of recovery, the addiction treatment community, governmental agencies, the criminal justice system, the larger network of health and human services providers and systems and the broader recovery support resources of the extended community.”

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Which Drugs Are Dangerous?

One of the most common questions when it comes to addiction is: “Which drugs are dangerous (or “hard drugs”) and which drugs are just recreational (or “soft drugs”). However, the assumption behind the question has a fundamental flaw when it comes to understanding the causes of drug addiction. That assumption is that the potency of the drug is the key variable in terms of increasing the risk of addiction.

It is important to keep in mind that there are a number of drugs which are capable of leading to addiction. In order to do so, they have certain common properties. They must be able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier, mimic the effects of normal neurotransmitters, and exert an effect on the pleasure center of the brain. This includes opiates such as heroin and cocaine, but it also includes alcohol, marijuana, and a number of prescription medications.

However, in order for addiction to take place, a second factor needs to be in place: the vulnerability of the user. It is known, for example, that some people are far more likely to become addicted to alcohol and than others. It is also becoming apparent that some people are more susceptible to cannabis addiction than others. While many question the role of genetically inherited vulnerability, ask yourself why is it that most people who drink alcohol do not become alcoholics. Similarly, why is it that most of those who use marijuana do not become addicted to it?

There is also a third factor which must be present to cause addiction: exposure. Regardless of the vulnerability of an individual, if he or she never uses alcohol or drugs, addiction cannot occur. This is why we sometimes find families in which addiction seems to “leap frog” over one generation. What often happens is that the son or daughter of an alcoholic, while inheriting the genetic vulnerability, avoids alcohol like the plague because of what they witnessed as children growing up in an alcoholic home. Their own children, lacking those negative experiences, might be inclined to start using alcohol like their peers, blissfully unaware of the risk they are running.

There is one aspect of exposure which also needs to be considered; that is, the age of first use of alcohol or drugs. It is generally agreed that, the earlier the exposure, the more the risk of addiction. While there are some who argue that early use of alcohol or drugs is an “effect” rather than a “cause” of addiction, there is no serious debate about the more serious consequences associated with early exposure.

In the treatment of addictions and in recovery circles, a common answer to the question about which drug is the most dangerous is pretty simple: it’s the one that gets you. When addiction takes over a person’s life, it becomes their primary relationship. When that happens, all other relationships—with family, friends, God—take a back seat. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s alcohol, cocaine or weed. These are just different deck chairs on the Titanic.

Mark Thomson is Director of Special Projects at D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s and serves on the Kent County Prevention Coalition, The Turning Point Advisory Council, and Recovery Allies of West Michigan, an advocacy group for those in recovery.