The 14-month-old toddler wobbled over to his mom and collapsed in her open arms with a happy grin. It’s a milestone familiar to anyone who’s a parent.
But for this mom, her little son’s embrace is precious beyond price, the prize from her hard-fought battle with addiction and trauma.
Theirs is one of the first success stories to come out of a promising new recovery housing program run by Families In Transition (FIT)/New Horizons at the Willows substance use treatment center in Manchester. The program helps single moms, who have lost custody of their children because of substance use disorders, get back on track — and get their kids back.
The program opened in December with eleven apartments in the former Hoitt’s Furniture building that also houses Hope for New Hampshire Recovery and a mobile crisis response team. There’s been a waiting list from the start.
Kristen McGuigan, child and family program manager for FIT/New Horizons, said what impresses her most is watching these women push through barriers to reunite with their children. “It’s really an inspiration,” she said. “Their ability to be really present in their parenting journey through recovery is really beautiful to watch.”
McGuigan, a social worker with a background in early childhood education, said it takes a lot of work to repair relationships and rebuild trust between parents with substance abuse disorders (SUD) and their kids. But women who are working on recovery often do not have a safe place for their kids to visit. And that can present barriers to the goal of family reunification, she said.
The new program provides that safe space, where children can come for visits with their moms and even stay overnight. There’s a common play area, filled with donated toys, puzzles and books, where families can get to know each other again. Therapists provide child-parent psychotherapy, and intensive outpatient treatment is available elsewhere in the building. Free childcare and transportation, which can be critical pieces of the recovery puzzle, are available.
For these women, reuniting with their children is their motivation to stay in recovery, McGuigan said. “So seeing that, when we can really focus on rebuilding safety and finding joy and playfulness, that really empowers individuals to get on the right path,” she said.
The program offers a Circle of Security parenting class that helps women explore their own childhood traumas and learn to avoid repeating them with their children. Melissa Brogna, a child and family therapist at Willows, facilitates the group.
The class is an accessible way of teaching attachment theory, Brogna said; they talk about how children develop, first moving away from the parent to explore, then circling back for security. They learn about giving their kids the emotional supports they need, something they call “filling their cup.”
“It’s a simple way to understand a very complex idea,” she said.
A recent Monday morning was the final week of the class, so Brogna was reviewing what they’d learned. One mom, Sara, said she has used some of the techniques she’s learned with her 7-year-old daughter and she’s seen how it works. She’s also learned to take time for herself, she said. “I don’t have a partner,” she said. “I need to fill my own cup at times, and just sit back and take a moment.”
“I wish I had this class when my daughter was an infant,” Sara said wistfully.
There’s still time, Brogna told her. “We have an opportunity to change that now, and she doesn’t have to be 25, looking for something to fill her cup,” she said.
“Brenda” (it’s not her real name), the mother of the toddler, said her son woke one recent night at midnight, crying inconsolably even after a diaper change, a snack and a drink. In the past, she said, “I would have let him have his little tantrum.”
Instead, she said, “I picked him up and was walking around, rubbing his back. I was distracting him. And immediately he calmed down.”
Sometimes, she told Brogna, she realizes she’s seeking the same kind of affection and security from her own mom. “I notice myself trying to fill my cup,” she said. “I want validation. I want her to say you’re doing good ... I’m doing the same thing that my son does to me.”
McGuigan said this is one of the few programs in the state offering family-based treatment for SUD, something she believes is critical to recovery. “Addiction impacts a lot of people, and significantly impacts their children,” she said. “So how do we help them heal from it? It doesn’t have to be a secret anymore.”
“I’d hear these stories of women sharing their really horrific childhoods, abuse and neglect, and then to be able to see them playing so successfully with their kids ... they didn’t have someone who modeled that, but they’re doing it. And they’re understanding the power of that and wanting to change that cycle,” McGuigan said.
Brenda, 38, asked that her real name not be used for this story; she fears reprisals from a past that left her a convicted felon for selling drugs.
Her life has been marked by trauma. She got pregnant at 16 but the child, a daughter, died shortly after her first birthday from multiple congenital health problems. Brenda later married, but her husband was killed in a motor vehicle crash when she was five months pregnant.
In prison, then homeless
“That’s when I just didn’t want to feel,” she said. “Even pregnant, I did every drug that I could just to not deal with the situation.”
She ended up in prison for felony drug sales, and her two children were sent out of state to live with their grandmother. She tried to stay clean when she got out, but she was given opioid painkillers after an emergency appendectomy, and the cycle started again. “I just couldn’t stop using,” she said. “I tried, but I couldn’t stop.”
Even after she found out she was pregnant again, she kept using drugs, she said. “The obsession and compulsion was so suffocating; the need to use was just so intense,” she said.
Her little boy was born last year with neonatal abstinence syndrome and spent three weeks in the hospital before the state Division for Children, Youth and Families placed him in foster care, Brenda said. That’s when, she said, “My addiction spiraled out of control.”
She wound up homeless and her visits were terminated with her son. Then she got a call from DCYF, informing her that they were proceeding with adoption. “I went to treatment and I haven’t used since that day,” she said.
Living in the Willows apartment has been critical to her recovery and getting her son back, Brenda said. “For the first time in his entire life, I was able to be with my son alone,” she said.
She works every day on her recovery now, she said, attending 12-step meetings and going to counseling. She goes to church and brings her little boy and she’s repairing her relationships and trust with her two older kids, ages 10 and 15. Her face lights up when she talks about using a video chat to help her daughter pick out a pink-and-white gown for her upcoming Sweet 16 party.
“Because of a place like this, I was able to stop that cycle, and I can break the chains, and have a relationship with all my children and actually be a mom and be present for them,” she said.
On Monday, she’ll find out whether a judge will give her permanent custody of her little boy. And on June 19, she’ll celebrate one year of living clean and sober. “If it wasn’t for this place, honestly … I wouldn’t have the ability to walk into court and be reunified with my child,” she said. “He would have been in the state’s care and put up for adoption.”
So this Mother’s Day feels like “a gift,” she said. “Last Mother’s Day I was a hopeless junkie living in somebody’s basement. And this Mother’s Day I have my beautiful son in my life. ... I’m able to have a safe place for him to come. I’m able to be a part of his life. I have both my other children in my life.”
She learned that she had to find recovery not just for the kids but for herself, Brenda said. “I got clean because I deserved to give myself a chance,” she said. “I got clean because I deserve to have a life that is full of purpose.”
“I’m able to be a parent to my child, I’m able to give back to my community today, and I’m able to live with purpose,” she said. “And I’m grateful for all of it.”