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Gaudenzia’s Women and Children Programs provide safe havens, treatment and hope

By Sam Donnellon

She needed a place to hide. That’s how it seemed anyway. She was seven weeks pregnant from an abusive boyfriend, a man who eventually went to prison for attempting to strangle other women as he had tried to strangle her.

Nicole W.’s decision to enter Gaudenzia Inc.’s Vantage House in May of 2020 wasn’t just about reshaping her own life. The walls of the renowned facility in Lancaster simply offered the only nontoxic place to have her child, to navigate away from that abusive relationship, as well as her own alcohol abuse that had led to four DUI arrests, and to manage the initial COVID-19 surge that added another unwelcome peril to her life.

“Vantage House just gave me a safe place to go, not just from my addiction, but from all the trauma I had experienced,’’ she said recently.

“That safe place really changed my life.’’

Founded in November 1979, Vantage House was envisioned as a way to better serve the special needs of women – especially those pregnant or with children – who were undergoing treatment for substance use disorder.

Vantage was the first facility in Pennsylvania geared solely to women and their children. Now, Vantage House has become “the standard of practice” in the words of Florence “Sam” Paige, Gaudenzia’s Regional Director of Central Pennsylvania. This is, in part, because Vantage treats many of the unique factors that lead to addiction among women – specifically, overall physical and mental health and the underlying trauma that often leads to substance use disorder.

Gaudenzia, in creating Vantage and the programs that followed, recognized that mothers were often reluctant to pursue treatment for fear of losing their children. What mothers wanted most was a place where they and their children could feel safe.

That standard of practice has grown and morphed as both social and medical science research has increased the understanding of person-centered, trauma-informed care for substance use disorder. Gaudenzia has expanded this approach to treating Pregnant and Parenting Women to 14 centers across its regional footprint that includes Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

Gaudenzia is building a continuum for this population by providing six Women and Children’s long-term treatment centers (3.5 level of care), and three halfway centers (3.1).  The latest, The Bobby Spurrier Center in Kensington, will serve as the first halfway house in Philadelphia for women transitioning from treatment back into society.

Today, treatment at Gaudenzia’s Women and Children Facilities takes an overall approach that among other things examines how and why previous attempts at sobriety have failed and may provide legal advice and support, and help develop skills that help with child-rearing and employment. Programs sometimes provide legal advice and help current and about-to-be mothers with life skills including child-rearing.

“You have to meet mothers where they are,’’ Paige said. “This is a person-centered treatment that is based on their individual needs. We try to create a family atmosphere to help them in the recovery process.’’

These types of issues will be the focus of Gaudenzia’s 27th Women’s and Children’s Conference in Harrisburg on Nov. 3-4. The annual conference is aimed at healthcare professionals, social workers, drug and alcohol treatment professionals and other interested health and children’s service providers.

This years’ conference is focused on promoting healthier outcomes for pregnant women and families in high-risk situations, including HIV/AIDS, substance use disorder, trauma and violence. Speakers will put a special focus on many of the challenges this population faces: homelessness, significant medical issues, trauma/mental health challenges and a lack of overall support.

The past two years have posed special challenges in treatment centers such as Vantage because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Admissions fell in the early months of the pandemic because of a fear of isolation, said Tara Montgomery, program director at Vantage. For a time, visits could only be conducted through Zoom meetings. Now,  Vantage is dealing with a shortage of workers that is vexing the behavioral health industry and is still not at full staffing strength.

“It’s been a rough two years,’’ Montgomery said. “One thing I am proud about with Vantage is that we have been able to ride these tides and make the shifts that we needed.

“We don’t want anything to be a barrier for women to seek treatment and to get into recovery and be able to reunite with their family. That’s still our goal and we will do whatever is necessary to make that happen.’’

When Nicole W. arrived, she found that she had much in common with the other residents. There were seven other pregnant women among the 20 women housed at Vantage in the four months she was there, said Montgomery, who became Nicole’s counselor. Some, like Nicole, made it through the entire 4-month program, and are thriving in their new lives. Some did not.

“One of the girls who had a baby in there was 20,’’ said Nicole of one woman who left the program early. “I was folding clothes the other day and I saw a jacket she had given me that her son had grown out of. She’s dead. She’s not going to get another chance.

“Some people come to Vantage and they are not ready for it. They get kicked out or sent back to jail or they just leave. Because it’s hard.’’

At the start, that family atmosphere was a little too structured for Nicole W., a well-spoken 34-year-old woman who bounced among white-collar jobs amid the beer and vodka binges that began in her teens and led her down a destructive path. Up at 6:45 every morning. A rigorous day full of chores, engagement and programs like Trauma Recovery and Empowerment Model (TREM), an evidence-based, facilitated group approach to healing that combines elements of social skills training, psychoeducational and psychodynamic techniques, and emphasizes peer support.

“It helped me to process a lot of things I kept on drinking over,’’ Nicole said. “I kept drinking to numb my emotions because I didn’t know how to cope with them.’’

Seventeen months later, she is coping… daily.  She is pursuing her degree in chemistry, targeting a career in science policy. She works weekends at a local deli to be with her new son, and to cover her child support payments for two children she previously had amid her self-made chaos, and with whom she has resumed a healthy relationship.

Other trials lie ahead – like a pending court case for her last DUI. “It’s really hard to look at yourself when you’ve created these giant messes,’’ she said. “Another thing Gaudenzia gave me is looking ahead. If I was in my old mode, I would just be out there drinking, thinking, `What’s the point?’ But I’m able to see a lot further. Even if I had to go to prison tomorrow — I understand how painful that would be.

“But if I had to do it, I would do it in my recovery mindset. And I would be OK. I would get through it. Because I don’t want to do that to myself anymore. I just really don’t. I’m doing everything I can to stay in recovery.’’

More information on Gaudenzia’s 27th Annual Women and Children’s Conference can be found on its Eventbrite page. Those who are in need of treatment can call Gaudenzia’s 24/7 Treatment and Recovery Helpline at 833-976-HELP (4357).

ABOUT GAUDENZIA, INC.

Gaudenzia, Inc. is one of the largest nonprofit drug and alcohol treatment and recovery centers in the United States, with 51 facilities operating in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. The agency serves about 19,000 individuals annually and operates 117 and alcohol treatment programs for men and women. Since 1968, Gaudenzia has provided specialized services and programs to users of all demographics, including pregnant and parenting mothers, adolescents, people with co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders, and more. Those seeking help can call Gaudenzia’s 24/7 Treatment and Recovery Helpline at 833-976-HELP (4357). For more information, visit www.Gaudenzia.org.