British Columbia

As overdose crisis rages on, wait lists grow in recovery programs for women with children

There are urgent calls for recovery supports for new mothers as overdose deaths continue to rise in B.C. There's a growing waitlist for beds in centres where women can seek addiction treatment without being separated from their newborns, says the director of perinatal addiction for B.C. Women’s Hospital.

Moms who can stay with their newborns have a better chance at success, doctor says

Mallory Fewster says having a coveted bed in a centre where she remained with her daughter was integral to her recovery. (Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada)

Amid mounting evidence that keeping moms and newborns together during addiction recovery is beneficial to both, the overdose crisis is highlighting a lack of facilities to accommodate them, says a leading expert in addiction at the time of birth. 

"[The crisis] has impacted many families and many women. Certainly, it's affected the women of reproductive age across the province," said Dr. Charissa Patricelli.  "And keeping moms and babies together is really vital and important"

There is a waiting list to access services, explained Patricelli, medical director of FIR Square Combined Care Unit at B.C. Women's Hospital in Vancouver. It was the first facility in Canada to care for women who use substances in the same ward as their newborns.

Fewster's daughter Lilly was removed from her care at the age of two at a time when the mother says she was not receiving adequate support. Lilly remains in her father's care in Ontario 10 years later. (Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada)

Mallory Fewster had her first daughter Lilly while living in foster care at 16 years old. As she battled addiction, she turned to prostitution to make ends meet and Lilly was removed from her care at two years old. 

"That took every bit of hope I had left in me, that took every bit of pride that I had in myself, that took every belief that I was worth anything, out of me. And that's partly why I went down the road," said Fewster, who became a survivor of sex trafficking. 

Now at 28, she's been sober for two and a half years. Fewster believes her stay at the Ellendale Residential Treatment centre in News Westminster while pregnant with her second daughter Mareika was integral to her recovery and ultimately allowed her to continue to care for her child. 

Fewster participated in the Ellendale Residential Treatment program while pregnant with her second daughter Mareika and has been sober for two and a half years. (Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada)

"I think with me finding a safe place that I could be who I was, where I was at my life. That's what made the difference between me getting sober or staying in that pain," explained Fewster. 

Had she been able to receive the same stigma-free support for mothers with Lilly, she believes she would have been in recovery sooner and may still have her in her care. 

"There's not enough help. I know people personally who are right now trying to get into detox and they're not going to make it to detox because there's not enough beds," she said. 

Tamara Straiton, program manager at Sereenas House for Women, hugs her 10-year-old son. (Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada)

Tamara Straiton is a mother in recovery and a program manager at Sereenas House for Women in Vancouver. She believes the stigma of substance abuse has created barriers to supports. 

"I felt like I couldn't be honest if I relapsed because, you know, out of fear that they would take my child away,"  said Straiton who has not used drugs in five years. 

Her son Kado was temporarily removed from her care during a relapse years ago. 

Straiton's struggles with substance use began at the age of 14. She now provides support to other mothers battling addiction. (Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada)

"How am I supposed to be clean without him? There's just like this hole, you know, just this emptiness and loneliness," she said.

Patricelli describes a long list of benefits to keeping mother and child together during treatment.

"We see improved outcomes for the baby, such as decreased need for admission, decreased length of stay in the hospital after they've been born, decreased need for pharmacological management to manage their withdrawal symptoms," she said. 

Dr. Charissa Patricelli is the director of perinatal addiction for B.C. Women’s Hospital in Vancouver and medical director of the FIR Square Combined Care Unit. (Camille Vernet)

"I think one of the biggest challenges for the health-care system in general is for us to let go of judgment and the stigma around it and treat it as really a health-care issue,"  she added. 

The team at B.C. Women's Hospital has established guidelines of the rooming-in model in hopes of encouraging other hospitals to implement the practice. 

There are currently 3,083 publicly funded substance use treatment beds throughout B.C., the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said in a statement. Among them, 56 beds are for women and their children. 

 "We know that gaps remain in the system and we're working quickly to improve access to treatment and recovery services to ensure that no one slips through the cracks," said the statement. 

Staying with her child has made a huge difference in her life, Fewster says. (Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada)

Research out of the University of  British Columbia found a direct link between women who have a child removed from their custody and the increased likelihood those mothers will experience an unintentional overdose — especially if they are Indigenous.

Among almost 700 mothers studied, losing custody of a child was directly associated with a 55 per cent increase in the odds of an unintended non-fatal overdose, said co-author and UBC clinical assistant nursing professor Meaghan Thumath. 

With files from Camille Vernet