PROVO — Cheralee Johnson says she would have sought help for her drug habit years sooner if she hadn't been afraid of losing her children.
As it was, she tried to battle her methamphetamine addiction alone and lost her children — a boy and a girl — for more than a year.
A local House of Hope, a safe haven for drug-addicted mothers and their children, would have helped her avoid the forced separation, something she believes no mother and child should have to endure.
"Oh, man, I think that's the worst. I felt like my heart had been ripped out and stomped on," Johnson said. "It hurt."
A meth user since she was 13, Johnson bounced from treatment center to jail and back over 17 years. What started as a party game led to problems in school and in her marriage and to severe depression. One day her eldest child found her passed out on the floor.
"I knew then I needed help but I didn't know where to go. I was so afraid they'd take my kids away," she said.
Finally, after months of living in an abandoned trailer in an empty field, she called her family for help. They came to get her — but also brought along a social worker who took her children into state custody and an officer who had a warrant for her arrest.
Utah County's House of Hope, which opened this month, offers mothers like Johnson a place to stay with their children while they undergo therapy in a 90-day intensive program.
"We needed it because there are women who are not seeking treatment because they're worried about having to give up their children," said Justin Jones, a Utah County Health Department spokesman. "We're providing this service so they can keep their children and get the help they need to clean up their lives."
Jones said the program has three goals — preserve families, help mothers be better parents and prevent another generation of drug users.
Last year, more than 1,200 Utah women with drug problems and dependent children listed meth as their primary substance when they registered with health departments for treatment.
In 2002, Utah County had 113 women in substance abuse treatment who listed meth as the drug they most often used.
Utah County ranks the second highest in Utah for mothers seeking help for addiction to the drug.
Up to 16 women and their children can stay in the 42-bed facility, on the corner of the Ironton property in south Provo.
A $700,000 federal grant was awarded in October to the substance abuse division of Utah County's Division of Health and Human Services. That grant made the creation of the House of Hope possible.
"This is great," Johnson said. "It does no good to have one in Salt Lake City because moms like me have no transportation. I think this shows Utah County is getting a handle on this problem."