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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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Just A Little More Change Required

By: Kevin McLaughlin, Executive Director, Recovery Allies

Part of my job is to organize the “recovery” community. How can we organize the community if we don’t know who they truly are. Those who suffer consequences due to a substance addiction do not all look alike, nor are the paths they take to become free of that addiction all the same. The more I learn about recovery and the people in it, the more I learn that the paths out of addiction are varied.

I think many of us make an assumption that in general the recovery community is made up of people that have messed up their lives really badly. They have legal issues, medical issues and money issues. There is a certain image that comes to mind when we hear the word alcoholic or drug addict.

Unfortunately, this negative image is not only true coming from the general population (those who don’t have negative consequences due to use) but some of those in active recovery as well. If those of us in recovery have a misguided notion of what we look like, how can we expect those that don’t look like that to change? And how can we reach those that don’t fit that description?

In an effort to help as many people as possible, we need to change the distorted image we have of those with addiction. This message is for those in recovery, for those that simply chose not to drink or use drugs, for those struggling in active addiction, and for those who treat people for addiction.

Let’s look at the clinical categories for people with addiction. The categories are separated into three groups: mild, moderate and severe. I think that the general population and the treatment industry think of ALL people with addiction as being in the last category of severe. This is due to the fact that by the time this person surfaces for help, they are in the later stages of addiction. Before we go on about the two categories of mild to moderate we need to talk about the three different ways people identify themselves who are no longer using.

Recovery Identity 

It is important to know that for 5 to 10% of the drinking population (regardless of their socio-economic status), addiction is a normal side effect of continued use of a drug.

Remembering that, lets look at three kinds of recovery identity or association to recovery.

First is called recovery neutral. This person says simply “I don’t drink”. They never connected to the recovery community and never had a need to. They had problems of some sort and just stopped. Typically these people don’t have any trouble saying they “had a few problems” which is why they quit. If asked how long they have been in recovery they may say, “what do you mean?” Labeling it and counting the days is not a part of quitting for them.

Next is the recovery negative identity. For this person it is a bad or shameful thing to be associated with the recovery community. This person doesn’t tell anyone they have a history. They fear judgment and stigmatization. For many it’s for good reason. The employer may change their attitude about an otherwise stellar employee, which may result in a missed promotion or a change in position. But for most, experiences like those aren’t necessary for the feelings of shame to exist.

The last group is the recovery positive group. The person in this group is proud of the achievement of such a monumental change in themselves. They have no problem sharing their story especially in the hopes of helping someone else.

Now that we understand how people may think of themselves in relation to no longer using substances, we can look at the mild and moderate groups. The mild to moderate group identifies typically with the recovery neutral group and very often is made up of kids. The group is also made up of young professionals, stay at home moms and dads and lastly retired people. I propose that we develop a different language to get this group’s attention. If they only have a few consequences it is more likely they will fall into the “recovery neutral” group. If we suggest a lifetime of abstinence we usually lose them. If we say that recovery is a journey and will require a ton of work for a long time we could lose them. If we say they have to change everything especially friends we lose them. So why not change our approach?! We could start by listening to the individual and actually believe them when they say “I don’t think I’m an alcoholic”. They may not be. But then again they might.

I also find that by sharing my path (ie my early reluctance to be labeled or join the recovery community,) the ground is laid for further discussion. My experience has been that the more I learn about them and adapt my language to fit their situation, the more engaged in change these people become.

Another fascinating thing I’m finding is that many people are “coming forward” and sharing that this is exactly their experience with addiction. Some have failed treatment yet ultimately reached a place of overall well being without “joining” a recovery program. One reason they typically don’t talk about this within recovery communities is that their experience is often challenged, discredited, or discounted. When coaching a person, seeking wellness and recovery, I absolutely love the response a person, usually young, gives when they hear these words: “you may not be an alcoholic”, or “you don’t need to attend a support group to get well,” or “you don’t have to identify with the recovery community or call yourself anything other than human.” It is as if a heavy weight is lifted off their shoulders.

For those unfamiliar with the history of treatment, labeling is a necessary thing used to establish a system of being able to pay for treatment. To treat someone we need a diagnosis and the ability to measure the effectiveness. Labels serve a purpose for that goal; let’s use them just for that. I think we should be allowed to define ourselves.

We at Recovery Allies have had to open ourselves up to some new and different ideas and facts and then take the next steps and make a sincere effort at changing such things as our language and assumptions of what the recovery community looks like. The result so far is people who don’t fit the image of an alcoholic or drug addict are coming to us and talking. They are doing so because they have a desire to help those that may identify with their story. After saying all this, the funny thing is, it seems like people that don’t identify or relate to those in the recovery community look an awful lot like someone who does….


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The New Face of Recovery and The Age of Multiple Pathways

By Tom McHale – Recovery Supports Coordinator, Northern Michigan Substance Abuse Services, Recovery Center, Gaylord MI

In recent years research has painted a very different picture of what recovery looks like, not in terms of its visual appearance, but in how people gain access to and define their recovery. The old picture of a single recovery pathway has evolved into a broad range of diverse pathways and an expanding definition of what recovery means. Examples of diverse  pathways include medication assisted recovery, harm reduction, secular recovery, faith based recovery, twelve step  programs, spontaneous remission and the list goes on.  Whether a person sees this new face of recovery as positive or negative doesn’t change the fact that 23 million Americans have recognized their alcohol/drug use as a problem and took corrective action. This is a reason to celebrate. It is also a time to express gratitude for the efforts of individuals and groups that forged the initial recovery path. The message emanating from the face of recovery is clear, however there  is  no single pathway.

I had hoped treatment facilities in the private and public sectors would begin offering clients support options based on this new picture of recovery and the diverse pathways now available, but I continue to see a great deal of reluctance to get on board with multiple pathways and I have even read affirmations from treatment facilities expressing loyalty to the one pathway. I fully understand that there are people working in the treatment industry, who are in recovery, and maintain  their recovery by using a 12 step pathway. This is great for that individual. I am concerned however with insistence on  guiding everyone down the same recovery path. It is disheartening that clients unwilling to embrace a prescribed  pathway are identified as recovery resistant or worse dismissed until they get so sick they will accept a program of recovery they didn’t accept during better times. I believe as the field of addiction treatment moves toward the implementation of evidence based practices, the pathways introduced to an individual will represent the diversity now available. Choosing a pathway is a personal decision based on the person’s beliefs, values, culture, and other extenuating  circumstances. The role of the therapist is to help the individual find his or her own personal pathway. The treatment industry has an ethical obligation to support multiple pathways until the research tells us different.

Personally, I believe that we’ve been totally unfair to the initial pathway by creating an unrealistic expectation that this  pathway alone could  help EVERYONE. As a result, this pathway became a dumping ground for individuals that society  did not want or could not serve, and the practice of forcing people to attend, compromised the supportive atmosphere for those who want to attend.

The solution to addiction and maintaining recovery is not likely to come in one nice neat package. By supporting  and  facilitating multiple pathways  we stand a much better chance of growing the number of people who stabilize in an addiction free lifestyle. Just think of how many more lives we can reach by being open to multiple pathways that all work toward a common goal: to afford everyone the opportunity to recover from his or her addiction. I  suspect that treatment facilities that learn this lesson will be the first to come out on top

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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.”