A shortage of treatment facilities where drug-addicted parents can stay with their children is having a devastating impact on at-risk youth in B.C., advocates say.
Most facilities do not allow children to stay with parents who are getting help for a substance-abuse problem.
"There's the assumption that you'd be a crummy mummy, obviously, so we separate mother and child," said Shawn Bayes, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver.
The result, however, is that some mothers and fathers can get treatment only if they put their children in government care, while others delay treatment for fear of losing their kids, she said.
In both cases, children can experience trauma - either from being yanked away from a parent or from remaining in a situation where they are exposed to substance abuse, advocates say.
"It's tragic when somebody has to choose between being a parent and keeping their family together, or getting the help that she or he needs," said Michelle Fortin, who chairs the B.C. Association of Addiction Specialists and Allied Professionals.
Fortin, Bayes and other frontline workers in community-service agencies say the government needs to do more to treat parental substance abuse without tearing families apart. They note that once children are in government care, their chances of a better life often diminish.
Abbotsford's Peardonville House Treatment Centre, funded by the Fraser Health Authority, is one of the few facilities that accept mothers and pre-school-aged children. If the women are on social assistance, the Ministry of Social Development covers their $40-per-day fee as well as the $40 fee for each child.
Executive director Milt Walker said women come from all over the province for the program, which has eight spaces for kids and usually has a two-to three-month waiting list.
Community-service agencies say the government needs more programs like Peardonville to meet the demand and provide spots for parents with older children.
Fortin also argued that the services should be provided free. "I mean, this is a health issue," Fortin said. "You wouldn't ask a cancer patient to have to make a choice between paying for their rent or paying for cancer treatment. It would just be provided."
The working poor, who scrape by without social assistance, are unable to afford Peardonville and have no desire to draw the government's attention and put their kids at risk by asking for financial help, she said.
Victoria addictions counsellor Sue Donaldson said the situation is even more dire on Vancouver Island, where outpatient treatment is available, but there are no residential options for mothers with children. "There's a big gap there," she said.
Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said in an interview that the government has boosted spending on mental health and addictions by 53 per cent to $1.3 billion since 2000-2001. But even with that increase, it remains a challenging issue, she acknowledged.
"I know that there are needs that we're currently not meeting in this area," she said. "At the same time, there's definitely not a one-size-fits-all [solution]."
She said there are times when it makes sense to keep women and their children together in a treatment program. In other cases, the women are dealing with so much pain and trauma that it's better for children to stay elsewhere. There can also be safety issues, she said.
MacDiarmid, a doctor, said she is well aware of the social stigma that can deter women from seeking treatment. "It was my belief, and it still is, that you're far more vulnerable if you don't deal with the addiction or the mental-health problem or both," she said. "It often worked out well. We often found ways to get help, and the long-term relationship between the mother and child was maintained."
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