Ask the Expert: Michaelene Colestock of ANEW Chemical Health Services

We feature an expert in the mental health and substance use disorder field to answer questions. This issue we talk to Michaelene Colestock of ANEW Chemical Health Services and Spence Specialties LLC about women in recovery who have children. 

Q: What are some of the specific struggles that women have related to substance use disorder (SUD)? In particular, women who are pregnant and/or have children?

Women encounter many barriers and struggles due to their SUD. The main struggle is obtaining treatment and finding housing for their SUD. Women are the primary caregivers for their children. Most women can’t just say, “I need someone to watch my kids for 30, 60, or 90 days while I go away to residential treatment.” Subsequently, outpatient treatment is often 9 months or more. During those times women are expected to manage their recovery, participate in all requirements they may be obligated to for child protection or probation, obtain employment or education, and obtain childcare for their children while they are doing all of their required tasks. Most women, at least the ones we serve at ANEW, are low socio-economic status. Therefore, they have to try and navigate very complicated systems to obtain housing support, food support, cash or general assistance to help with basic needs, and childcare financial assistance. These processes can take more than 60 days with the help of our staff who understand the processes. Women who are trying to obtain assistance on their own often give up because it is so cumbersome. If they cannot get housing and childcare, they cannot attend treatment, go to school, or obtain employment. Housing is another struggle that women encounter when they are working on their recovery. ANEW and Spence Specialties (the housing component of our program) are the ONLY programs in the state of Minnesota that allow children to live with their mothers in housing that is supported by the county in which they live. This program is called Housing Supports (previously called Group Residential Housing). There are limited beds available in each county that support room and board for residents. There is other housing programs available for single women and single men. Some are supported by Housing Supports, but many are self-pay homes in which rent is very expensive. However, even those programs are few and far between. There are countless housing and treatment programs for men with SUD, but not for women. Most likely that is because women have children and children take up space. Sober and supportive housing programs operate financially by the number of residents they can serve and when children come into the picture, they take up valuable space that could be occupied by single women. A home that could house 10 single adult women will only be able to house 5 adult women if they have their minor children living with them. Most programs need the revenue of as many residents as possible. Other programs are also fearful of the “liability” that they think may, and probably is, involved in housing children. Programs worry about what they will do if mothers return to use or are not properly caring for their children. So, for the sake of fear, liability, and space, they do not serve women with children.

Q: What are the additional risks, stressors, and/or traumas for children when their mother has a substance use disorder (SUD)?

The major, and most feared risk is that the mother will return to using and/or abusing substances. If a woman struggles with a substance use disorder (SUD) and she returns to use and has the child in her care, then we urgently need to find someone, or somewhere, safe to place the child/ren. We do have several options. Many/most of the clients in our program have an open child protection case plan. If the mother has a return to use, we always contact the child protection worker first. From there, we have to make several decisions. We have to assess how much the mom used, how often the mom was/is using, if the child is at risk of neglect due to the mom’s use, and if she needs a higher level of care to be able to stop using. Sometimes, moms have a one-time return to use and then they are able to stop again, and the children are able to remain in their care. However, if the mom continues to use actively, we have to have child protection, or another family member, remove the child from the care of the mother so she can go and get the help she needs.

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Q: How is the family system served when women can enter treatment and have their children with them in sober housing?

ANEW works with a family education nonprofit program called The Family Hub. They offer family therapy and education to the entire family of the woman who is seeking treatment. This is a free service for the client and her family. We are also able to refer the mom and her children out for ongoing therapy services through local mental health clinics. Our most common referrals are to a clinic called Art Lab Rx. This is a program that does art therapy with the mother and the children as a way to open lines of communication and facilitate better engagement for the children. We have another collaboration with a program called MN Care Partner. They offer therapy and mental health services to women and their children. They also provide on-site parenting classes, therapeutic yoga, and nutrition classes for our clients. We also refer to Ellie Family Services.

The most impressive way that the family system is served is in the parenting practices that occur in our sober homes between mothers. Hilary Clinton once said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” We actually get to see this concept in action in our program. Our sober houses are single family homes. Each home has 5-10 bedrooms. Each mother gets her own bedroom where she and her minor children reside. However, the rest of the house is open to all residents and their children. Clients and their kids share kitchens, bathrooms, and living spaces. The women in the home help each other out and essentially become a working and cohesive large family structure. All the mothers are able to care for not only their children, but the other children in the home including disciplining, teaching, feeding, redirecting, and guiding the children and each other. Moms help teach other moms and their children parenting skills. They often cook meals together and the children are raised like siblings. Many of the families live together for more than 9 months and up to 2 years in a home together. We have had several moms move out with each other into market rate rent apartments because they have become so productive at working together as a family unit that they want to continue on in that fashion when they exit our program.

Q: What are some important activities that can support family restoration and healing for women and their children during the holiday season?

The holiday season can be a particularly difficult time for our residents. The holidays often remind our women of their own childhoods that may have been traumatic. Society suggests that the holidays are a wonderful time and for many families that do not struggle with addiction, trauma, and abuse the holidays are truly magical. However, when a woman is being told that holidays are a time of joy, but that has not been her personal experience she can feel confused and disheartened. In an effort to make the holidays special for her own children, women who struggle with addiction often overcompensate. Our women tend to purchase gifts and items that they genuinely cannot afford out of guilt and shame that they have not been able to provide for their children in years past. They may not have even seen their children when they were in their active addiction during previous holidays. As mentioned before, the women in our program are of low socio-economic status. They do not have the financial means to provide the gifts for their children that they would like to. This can cause them to turn to alternative ways to get money to support the holiday season. Sometimes this means reconnecting with old abusers who have supported them financially in the past or returning to illegal activities to provide for their families during the holiday season.

At Spence Specialties and ANEW we want to remove the desire for women to overcompensate beyond their means. We want to help them make the holidays spectacular for them and their children. We do 2 large events during the holiday season. For Thanksgiving we do a “Gratitude Feast.” The Wednesday before Thanksgiving we have a big potluck at our treatment center. All the women and their children are invited to attend. Each sober house is required to prepare one or more dishes to share with all the other homes. Spence Specialties and ANEW provide the main dishes for the event. This includes turkeys, hams, refreshments, dishware, and the space for the event. Before we eat, we stand in a circle, hold hands, go around the circle and each client, child, and staff identify one thing that they are grateful for. After we eat, we have crafts and a holiday movie. Clients and their kids are welcome to stay as long as they like for fellowship. It is truly a day that fills us all with joy and gratitude.

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Christmas is our biggest event of the year. As mentioned, we want to make our women and their children feel special, loved, and important during this part of the holiday season. We want them to know that “Santa” has not forgotten about them. We have each woman create a wish list. On this list she identifies 3 items she would like for herself and 3 items she would like for each of her children. We ask people on our social media sites and former donors to “adopt” our families. Donors can adopt a single woman, a woman and her children, an entire sober house, or donors can purchase items for everyone. On top of getting the items on the clients’ wish list we also provide for each mother a new towel, a new pillow, a new pair of slippers, a new fuzzy/cozy blanket, a hat/gloves/scarf set. After all the clients and their children have been adopted, we have a huge Christmas party with everyone including all of our staff. We have a wonderful meal catered by The Little Oven, located about one mile from our location. We rent out a large hall, share our meal, let the kids run around, sing songs, and then Santa Claus comes and delivers all the gifts that have been donated. Each woman and her child can take a picture with Santa when their name is called, and they all open their gifts at the party. It is truly a sight to see! Last year we gave gifts to approximately 50 women and at least 40 children. This year, we have even more women and children as our program grows and grows year after year.
Previous donors include friends of the staff of ANEW, former colleagues of staff, former clients that have now been sober for many years, and many businesses in the local community.

If any of your readers are interested in donating, they can send an email to christmas.ssanew@gmail.com.

Q: How can the recovery community support women and children on their healing journey?

Minnesota is the “land of 10,000 lakes” and “the land of 10,000 treatment centers!” Luckily, there are many resources in the state for people working on recovery and healing. The best resource available is Minnesota Recovery Connection (MRC). They are a local non-profit organization that has thousands of resources. Here, women and anyone in recovery can obtain information about treatment centers, sober housing, how to access resources, sober fun events, self-help meetings, recovery coaching support, volunteer opportunities, and the list goes on.

Here is a link to their website: minnesotarecovery.org

The best thing community members can do to help support women is to become educated about addiction and mental illness. There is still so much stigma associated with people who suffer from the disease of addiction. People do not want to be addicted to chemicals. Most people who become addicted start out just as innocently as anyone else who experiments with drugs or alcohol in their teen years. It is very socially acceptable, until a person crosses the line from use to abuse and dependence. People who end up “addicted” have a genetic predisposition toward substance dependence or something traumatic has happened in their lives and substances are a source of relief. We need people to stop saying, “What is wrong with the women?” (who have a SUD) and instead ask, “What happened to her to cause her to become addicted?”

Q: What are some resources available?

Psychologytoday.org
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
Minnesota Recovery Connection
Recovery.org
Intergroup (AA and NA)
minnesotanorth-al-anon.org


Michaelene Colestock, LPCC, LADC, is the founder of ANEW Chemical Health Services and Spence Specialties LLC. Michaelene has been working in the SUD Treatment and Recovery field since 2001. After completing her Master’s level internship at Wayside House she found she had a genuine passion for serving women and children. Michaelene’s vision included providing sober housing to women and women with children, outpatient treatment services, and in 2021 included residential treatment services.

If you have a question for the experts, or you are an expert interested in being featured, please email phoenix@thephoenixspirit.com. Experts have not been compensated for their advice.

Last Updated on November 8, 2021

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