Treatment Facility Lets Women Parent While Kicking Their Habit

Letty Owings Center was one of the first residential drug and alcohol treatment facilities in the nation to provide on site childcare
The Lund Report

May 10, 2013 – Ten years ago, Leah Hall was using intravenous drugs every day, and turned to crime to support herself and her daughter, who was then just one year old. Eventually, Hall went to jail and her daughter went into foster care, and she called her daughter's paternal grandmother and said she wanted to go into treatment.

Her daughter's grandmother drove her to Hooper Detox Center in Portland, and there she found out about the Letty Owings Center – a residential treatment facility specifically for women with children – and decided to check in. She and her daughter stayed at the 60-bed facility in northeast Portland for 13 and a half months, then moved into clean and sober family housing provided by Central City Concern. Now Hall is married to a man she met while in early recovery, has had three more children, all girls (her oldest is now 11), and works at Morrison Child and Family Services as a safety services provider, helping women in circumstances similar to hers navigate the court system and interactions with the Department of Human Services.

“While I was at Letty Owings Center, I learned things I never knew,” Hall said. “One of them was that I could live a sane and civil lifestyle.”

That women can bring their children with them while they seek treatment for drug or alcohol addictions sets Letty Owings Center from other residential treatment facilities – and that's by design. Co-founder Nancy Anderson said she was inspired to start the program when her sister, Holly, came to her for help kicking a cocaine habit.

“She wanted me to help find a treatment center, but did not want to separate from her five-year-old,” said Anderson, who, at the time, was in the process of adopting a child whose birth mother had been through residential treatment at the Native American Rehabilitation Association Clinic, paid for by the Indian Health Service, the only residential treatment she knew of where women could bring their children – but Anderson found no comparable programs for non-Native women.

“What we found was there was no treatment for women with kids,” Anderson said. “I detoxed my sister at my house.”

Anderson – a recovering alcoholic herself, then four years sober – started driving her sister to 12-step recovery meetings, and found many meetings were packed with kids, because their mothers had few options for child care. What options they had often included leaving their children with partners or family members who may themselves have been abusing drugs or alcohol, she said.

Initially Anderson conceived of a recovery club for women with children, where childcare would be provided during meetings, but eventually she learned that Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon intended to start a treatment center specifically for women, and she got in touch with a director there, and pitched the idea that women be allowed to bring their children. He said he'd never heard of anything like it, she said, so she suggested the presence of children would be a “good carrot”: “It's better than jails, better than court.”

“Eventually, we're supposed to do this thing for ourselves, but maybe young women will do it for their children,” Anderson said.

Letty Owings, the wife of a physician in Lake Oswego, got wind of the idea and added her name to it, helping Anderson with fund-raising efforts. The center initially did not receive funding for children's beds, but Anderson visited the few other facilities she knew that allowed children to stay on site, including the Austin Family House in Texas, which had opened in the mid-1980s with state and federal grant funding.

Then in 1991, all states in the U.S. were given federal funding for gender-specific treatment, with a priority given to treatment for pregnant women. That funding allowed the center to move to a larger facility – its current home in a residential area of inner northeast Portland, in a building that once housed a nursing home – with space for 27 women and 18 children. Many of the children at Letty Owings are technically wards of the court, who would be in foster care if they weren't in a supervised facility, she noted, and about half come to the center from foster care.

In the mid-1990s, housing became a major concern for low-income women leaving treatment facilities. So Letty Owings Center bought five apartment complexes to provide housing for women leaving treatment. In 1996, Central City Concern purchased the center and its apartment complexes, allowing clients to access more housing and healthcare options.

According to data released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 3.9 percent of residential treatment facilities nationwide offer residential beds for children, 7.7 percent, or 1.058 offer child care and 12.7 percent, or 533, offer specific programs for pregnant or postpartum women. (Women are able to come to Letty Owings while pregnant, and it is not uncommon for women to give birth while receiving treatment there.) SAMHSA estimates that 31.5 percent of all known residential treatment facilities offer services specifically for women.

“Half of [the clients] don't want to be here,” Anderson said. Many women come to Letty Owings through the court system or are referred by the Department of Human Services. Graduates – including Hall – speak at the center periodically to reassure residents they'll feel better eventually.

“I hated almost every minute that I was there,” Hall said. “But it wasn't until I left that I fully realized another life is possible.”

Lauren, a Letty Owings resident who spoke with The Lund Report on her way to sign a lease for family housing for herself and her two-and-a-half-year-old son, found the center after asking the Department of Human Services for help finding a treatment center to help kick a methamphetamine habit. Lauren had been through outpatient treatment before, and had entered a clean and sober house before relapsing. The assessment score she was given at DHS – which determined whether she'd be a better fit for outpatient or inpatient treatment – placed her just on the borderline, with outpatient treatment being more favorable.

“I asked if outpatient didn't work, if I could come to inpatient,” she said. “My caseworker called and said that was my last chance.”

In addition to providing child care for women attending group meetings and therapy, Letty Owings provides parenting classes. Many clients come from homes where addiction is the norm, and many didn't have healthy parenting modeled for them, Anderson said.

Hall said she learned to parent more effectively while in the center – specifically, that being a good parent meant playing with her daughter and paying attention to her, not just buying her things.

“I thought if she was clean and looked cute, no one would know I was an addict,” Hall said.

Now Hall's oldest daughter is 11. After graduating from Letty Owings, Hall started dating a man she met in recovery meetings, and they got married and had three more children together, all girls.

While recovery programs for the children and families of alcoholics and addicts have been around for decades, surprisingly little research has been conducted on the effects of addiction on a person's ability to parent, on effective interventions or on the likelihood that children of addicts are more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder themselves. A study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment in October 2011 found increased negative parenting behaviors among adults with a diagnosed substance abuse disorder, and suggested that interventions to improve parenting could take place in treatment centers, although it didn't make any specific recommendations about what those interventions would look like.

“My kids have never seen me in handcuffs or hungover or with track marks down my arms, and if nothing else, that's important,” Hall said.

Christen McCurdy can be reached at christen@thelundreport.org.

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