Patricia J. Bland

(WOMENSENEWS)–Karen Foley was thrilled when a spot opened up for her in a Portland, Ore., drug treatment facility one day 15 years ago. She had a baby at home and knew she couldn’t go on using methamphetamine and other drugs, sometimes staying high for days on end.

The wake-up call came, she says, when the baby’s father opposed her plan for treatment. “He had never hit me, so I didn’t think of myself as abused,” says Foley, now a social worker in Seattle. “Eventually, I realized that one of the ways he kept me under control was by keeping me intoxicated.”

Now an authority in the fields of addictions and violence, Foley says her experience is typical. She had a history of trauma and drug use. Then she found herself living with a man who used her addiction as a tool to wield power and control over her. “He had gotten so mad that he punched a hole in the wall,” Foley says. “Had I stayed, that would have been me.”

Women with addictions traditionally have been screened out of domestic violence shelters and other services, and still are in most places, says Patricia J. Bland, who works for the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in Juneau. “Substances and domestic violence are problems that tend to hang out together, and if you have both of them, boy, do you have problems getting services.”

Advocates for battered women have difficulty working with chemical dependency programs that place an emphasis on personal responsibility, which can sound like victim-blaming. Treatment centers and substance abuse groups, likewise, often work with the assumption that sobriety must be the primary objective.

Bland, who travels the country training other agencies on a grant from the Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women, says that many addicted women are ultimately able to get safe, but that it can take them two to three times longer.

Push for Collaboration

Increasingly, however, leaders in both the battered women’s movement and in the chemical dependency field are beginning to agree that the two specialties need far more collaboration for either one to succeed.

More agencies for battered women are starting to include addicted women in programs and services and forming partnerships with chemical dependency agencies to serve this large crossover population. Drug abuse agencies are moving toward women-only programs and collaborations with domestic violence and sexual assault agencies.

Working with other providers is a cutting edge for a majority of domestic violence agencies, says Rita Smith, executive director of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Drug use doesn’t cause violence, but it does influence it. Substance abuse can involve a whole level of crime and coercion outside of the violence, and women are using the drugs to self-medicate besides, so the whole picture gets very complicated. That’s why it’s so important to screen women into the program, instead of out of the program.”

In St. Petersburg, Fla., the domestic violence agency CASA and the substance abuse agency Operation PAR Inc. have a partnership that has become a national model, says Smith. Staff from both agencies run programs in the sister agency, they work on joint contracts, and they coordinate services such as drug treatment, support groups and transitional housing.

‘It’s Common Sense’

“Our goal is to help a woman help herself be safe, and when she’s not sober, she can’t make safe decisions for herself,” says Linda A. Osmundson, executive director of CASA: Community Action Stops Abuse. “We work with the addictions people so they realize they’re not going to get her sober until they get her safe. When you understand the dynamics, it’s only common sense.”

Operation PAR’s gender-specific treatment programs and support groups are critical in addressing the role of violence in fueling women’s addictions, says Dianne Clarke, chief operating officer at the five-county agency.

“The coping skills you have, the self-confidence and self-worth are all things that affect the core of a woman,” Clarke says. “The issues involved in getting safe and getting sober completely overlay. It’s not about one or the other, it’s about both.”

Other examples of domestic violence agencies that have integrated addiction programs and have developed working partnerships with other agencies are New Beginnings in Seattle and Women in Transition in Philadelphia.

Still the Exceptions

But such programs are still exceptions, says Bland, co-author of “Getting Safe and Sober: Real Tools You Can Use: An Advocacy Teaching Kit for Working with Women Coping with Substance Abuse and Interpersonal Violence.”

While accurate figures about available services are elusive, the national coalition’s Smith says it’s fair to say that the majority of domestic violence projects are not providing adequate services and support in this area.

Figures from the National Institute on Drug Abuse show that 90 percent of women in chemical dependency treatment have experienced severe intimate partner violence during their lifetimes. Those figures are reflected in the “Safe Babies, Safe Moms” program at Pacific Treatment Alternatives in Seattle, where Foley works, she says. The program provides intensive assistance to recovering women to get treatment, housing, health care and legal assistance.

Other studies in Iowa and Illinois reflect substance use and addiction rates of 25 to 60 percent of women seeking domestic violence services, Bland says.

Marie Tessier is an independent journalist who writes frequently about violence against women.

This series is supported by a special grant from Mary Kay Inc.

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For more information:

Women’s eNews series, “Dangerous Trends, Innovative Responses”:

“Child Care Void Hinders Help for Addicted Moms”:

U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Web site on domestic violence:

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