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Addicts have long wait for treatment

Drug conference stresses need for more programs

At the same time officials have determined 80 percent of Utah's prison population suffers from a substance abuse problem, the availability of treatment continues to be a challenge for addicts who want to change.

At the second annual Drug Endangered Children Conference Wednesday in Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County's Pat Fleming said waiting lists for treatment are growing, keeping pace with jails overcrowded with inmates.

"There are 95,000 people in Utah in need of treatment, and of those, 15,000 are in the 12-to-17 age group. The public treatment options are 26,000 admissions. We have nowhere near the resources," Fleming said.

Fleming, who heads up Salt Lake County's Division of Substance Abuse, said the waiting lists force people to wait three months to get into residential treatment. "That is way, way too long. People relapse and make their lives even worse."

Fleming moderated a discussion about the importance of treating the entire family — not just the addict — in the aftermath of an arrest.

The panel included Karen Williams with Odyssey House of Utah, who described characteristics of children who have a drug-addicted mother.

"These children have few playmates, and usually, some stranger is the surrogate caregiver," she said. "They have experienced abuse, abandonment, isolation and silence. While they seem resilient, they are really the most fragile of children."

Treatment for the woman, however, works best if children are included.

"While mom is in treatment, a young child's life goes by and you can go backwards," said Lisa Heaton, manager of women's programs for the House of Hope.

Heaton said studies have shown the disease of addiction is more than just the problem of an "individual" but a condition that affects the entire family.

"Often the children experience trauma even more so than the parent who is addicted," she said. "Substance abuse affects the entire family."

The conference, which continues today, focuses particularly on the perils of addiction to meth, the major drug of preference among single, white women who get hooked while in their peak childbearing years.

Statistics provided at the conference show that 67 percent of addicted women have children, usually two, and in addition to lacking education, they have little social or family support.

"A lot of these women have lost everything," said Susan Mitchell, director of the Cottonwood Family Treatment Center, designed specifically for women and children. "Many of them start using early and drop out of school."

Treatment decades ago, she said, simply focused on fixing the addiction and failed to connect people in recovery with services to rebuild their lives.

"They go through treatment, they'd get sent out and then relapse because there was nothing out there for them," Mitchell said.

Treatment and aftercare has to focus on a vast array of services for those in recovery — from education to day care to safe housing, she said.

"You really need to have a whole constellation of services that surrounds these people."

Beyond rebuilding the life of the addict, however, is reshaping the life of the children thrust into circumstances beyond their control, Heaton said.

"Even if parents don't change, there is help for the children," she said. "There are some parents who will never get clean, but there are children who will never get dirty."