A Critical Need: Substance Abuse Treatment for Women with Children

By Miller, Arthur F. | Corrections Today, February 2001 | Go to article overview
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A Critical Need: Substance Abuse Treatment for Women with Children


Miller, Arthur F., Corrections Today


There is a nationwide shortage of substance abuse treatment facilities for women with young children. According to the Addiction Resource Guide, there are only four accredited facilities in the entire country. As a result, the implementation of local outpatient programs, such as those listed in the sidebar, may be the only realistic option for meeting the specific needs of these clients.

A Critical Need

The physical and mental health consequences of alcohol and other drug use for women often are different from those of men. In addition, women usually arrive at substance abuse treatment later than men do. One reason for this is the notion that the majority of crimes women commit are less violent than those committed by men. Therefore, women are less likely to be incarcerated/placed in a controlled environment in which substance abuse treatment is coerced. In the case of single mothers, substance abuse treatment is given a lower priority than the adequate provision for the immediate safety and physical needs of their children. These factors require different approaches to the treatment of drug use itself and to the lifelong task of relapse prevention.

Women who are substance-dependent are more likely to have coexisting mental illnesses. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), more than one-third of females with drug use problems have experienced major depressive episodes during the past year and 45 percent have experienced at least one of several mental health problems. These rates are more than double those found in men with similar levels of substance abuse.

Substance-abusing women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence. The relationship between domestic violence and substance abuse is well-documented and recent consensus panels of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conclude that "failure to address domestic violence issues interferes with treatment effectiveness and contributes to relapse." SAMHSA also stated that women in substance abuse treatment had much higher rates of partner violence than non-substance-abusing women in comparative community studies -- often two, three or four times higher, depending on the specific type of violence.

Substance dependency also is related to increased involvement of women in the criminal justice system. According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, sales of illicit drugs and drug use have contributed to the enormous 386 percent rise in the female prison population between 1980 and 1994.

According to DHHS/SAMHSA, women are more likely than men to be heads of household, and substance-abusing women often lack parenting skills. Following the same dysfunctional family patterns many of them experienced in their own childhoods, they can overreact with harsh discipline or neglect their children out of physical/mental incapacity or apathy. Substance-dependent parents often are oblivious to the effects their compulsive-addictive behavior has on their children, and essentially are unaware of what they are inadvertently teaching them about the use of alcohol and drugs, effective conflict resolution and family management/socialization skills. For those who do realize that their children are being hurt, they may be too enmeshed in their addictions to do little more than wish for things to get better.

What Would Increase the Likelihood for Program Success?

Assist women in meeting their basic needs. Addressing families' multiple needs is critical for successful participation in substance abuse treatment and related services. Often, a family's basic needs (such as food, shelter and safety) are so pressing that they must be addressed before a substance-dependent mother has the ability to focus on her addiction. Further, a crisis in any single area of family life may cause women to relapse or drop out of treatment. If a treatment program does not or cannot help clients address what they believe to be a family's most significant problem(s), they are likely to view the program as useless.

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