Nelida Colon

(WOMENSENEWS)–Nelida Colon suffered from alcohol addiction for 20 years and an addiction to crack cocaine for 12 years.

The reason she didn’t seek help? She says she was afraid of losing her four children.

“I was neglecting them, but I couldn’t seek treatment,” Colon, who is 38 and a single mother, said. “I wasn’t going to leave my kids. I didn’t have anyone to care for (them).”

Eventually, her 18-year-old son started having personal problems, which led school administrators to alert the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services to the problems in the family’s Lindenwold, N.J., home.

After charging her with child endangerment, the state referred Colon to Cooper House in Camden, N.J., where she began a six-month treatment program and has now been substance-free for five months. She was able to begin treatment right away due to a feature of the program that provided on-site child care for her 7-year-old son during the summer.

Colon is among the minority of female substance abusers who receive treatment for their problems.

Ninety-one percent of the 8.05 million American women who needed treatment in 2004 did not receive it, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Treatment Facilities Lacking

Among these women the lack of child care is a major issue, said Sharon Amatetti, senior public health analyst and women’s services coordinator for the federal mental health agency. “There is not a great capacity to offer treatment programs that either have child care–so women can bring their children–or offer residential treatment for women and children. That’s a continuing problem that we’ve been aware of for a long time. The problem is that providing residential beds for families is an expensive model of care.”

In 2005 less than 15 percent of U.S. treatment facilities accepted women who were pregnant and-or had children, according to the agency.

Because most national surveys of drug users do not ask whether the responders are parents, Amatetti said it is difficult to determine how many mothers do not seek or receive treatment due to lack of child care options or fear of losing their children.

Researchers in at least one state have homed in on the problem for women who have children and need treatment.

New Jersey Mothers

“NJ Women Count: Substance Abuse and Its Effects on Women,” released in the fall of 2006 by the Institute for Women’s Leadership at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, found that nearly half of the women who abuse drugs and alcohol in New Jersey are mothers, the majority of whom are single mothers.

Raquel Jeffers, acting director of addiction services for the State of New Jersey, estimated that for every mother who receives substance abuse treatment at least one more is in need of these services.

She said she did not believe that mothers who abuse drugs and alcohol are being served in proportion to the problem. “The services aren’t client-centered and aren’t always addressing these women’s very complex needs,” Jeffers said.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimated that the cost of drug abuse to American society was $160 billion in 2000.

Amatetti, of federal mental health agency, said substance-abuser treatment helps lower crime, welfare caseloads, infectious diseases and the problems school systems face in helping children cope with the repercussions of living in homes where drugs are present.

But states often take a myopic view of the problem, she said. “The agencies that benefit most from persons not having problems are not as actively involved in funding treatment,” she said.

Federal Money for Partnerships

Federal legislation enacted last year allocated $145 million over five years for state child welfare agencies to form partnerships which help children affected by substance abuse.

Amatetti said states should make sure that such programs are adapted to the interlocking needs of children and their mothers.

To encourage this, the federal mental health agency mandates that a percentage of federal funding to states is allocated for addiction services which provide priority access to women who are pregnant or have children. The agency has also allocated funding from its discretionary portfolio for community-based organizations that support substance abuse programs for mothers.

Even where such services are available, another challenge is making women aware of them.

At Cooper House, where Colon is receiving treatment, the program’s director, Norris Preston, said about half of the women who come to the facility have already lost their children, because help has not come soon enough.

Colon said she wishes she knew about the services she is now receiving years earlier.

“There needs to be an anonymous program where women can walk in and say ‘I have a problem and I don’t want to lose my children,’ before they hit rock bottom,” Colon said. “It shouldn’t have to take a child being injured before (the state) realizes there is a problem.”

Kara Alaimo earned a bachelor of arts degree from New York University, where she studied journalism and gender and sexuality. She lives and writes in New York, where she is a press secretary for the City of New York.

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For more information:

NJ Women Count: Substance Abuse and Its Effects on Women

Institute for Women’s Leadership:

U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: