White Coat, Black Art

Certain she was 'bound to die in addiction,' she's now drug-free thanks to mother-child rehab program

The Portage Mother and Child Program lets mothers bring their young children with them to residential treatment, where they can get off drugs and learn to parent.

Quebec-based residential treatment program helps mothers build their confidence and skills as a parent

Amy Demers with her daughter Tayah and son Tristan. More than 18 months after leaving Portage's Mother and Child program with her son, Demers is drug-free and building a life for herself and her 2 children. (Submitted by Amy Demers)
Listen to the full episode26:27

Amy Demers's worst moments as a mother came when she would hide from her children in the bathroom so she could use drugs. 

"I kept telling my kids, 'Five minutes, five minutes. Mommy is gonna be there —  just give me five minutes.' But it would always be five hours. It was awful," said Demers, 33, who lives in Kingston, Ont. 

Demers started using cannabis and alcohol as a teen, then turned to cocaine and ecstasy. She managed to quit when she got pregnant at 19.

But gallbladder surgery 18 months after her daughter's birth led to an addiction to prescription painkillers and a years-long struggle with drugs. Stints in short-term treatment programs wouldn't help for long.

I didn't think I was capable of being a mother. I kept failing my children and myself.- Amy Demers

Upon her third pregnancy, she felt incapable of looking after another child, and arranged an open adoption. Her drug abuse continued, and at one point she attempted to take her own life.

"I was certain that I was just bound to die in addiction. I didn't think I was capable of being a mother. I kept failing my children and myself…. I just thought life was completely hopeless." 

Demers's family physician, Dr. Adam Newman, suggested going to a special mother-and-child program in Montreal run by Portage, a Quebec-based residential treatment program.

She saw it as a last chance.

"If this didn't work I was fully prepared to hand my kids over and, I hate to say this, but die a junkie," she said. 

Quebec's Portage treatment program

Portage is a non-profit centre, funded by the Quebec government and private donors. It opened in 1973, and has expanded to Ontario and Atlantic Canada, but the Mother and Child Program, which was piloted in 1993, is unique to Quebec. 

The Montreal facility has capacity for 25 women and 25 children, aged six years and younger, at one time.

Dr. Peter Vamos, executive director of Portage, says the program spends a great deal of time helping mothers become self-reliant and confident about their abilities to do the right thing for themselves and for her child. (Submitted by Dr. Peter Vamos)

Mothers bring their children to the centre for an average of six months. Dr. Peter Vamos, Portage's executive director, says the program's length allows women time to work on the issues behind their drug use, and to build their confidence and skills as a parent.

"Almost immediately we saw that women who have small children who came into treatment really struggled and often avoided staying in treatment because of having to place their children [in care]," he said, adding that some avoided treatment because they feared child protection agencies would take their children away.

On a typical day, mothers and children wake early, tidy their rooms and eat breakfast together. Kids are dropped at an on-site daycare that can support those who may have developmental delays, while mothers attend programs before picking up their children for dinner and bedtime.

Demers entered treatment in February 2018, and says the parenting skills she learned have stuck.

"We learn how to be happy in a completely different way. So instead of going out and buying [my son] things for like a half hour, we spent those half hours together playing, talking and cuddling," she said.

"It's a different type of smile and a different type of bond, and it's beautiful."

Amy Demers reads an excerpt from the Portage philosophy. 1:13

Life after rehab

Building mothers' self-confidence is important, Vamos said, because mothers need to advocate for their children in school and the medical system — places they've felt judged and stigmatized. 

"We spend a great deal of time … in helping the mother become self-reliant and feel confident about her abilities to do the right thing for herself and for her child," he said. 

Clients are followed for two years and get help with with subsidized housing, adjusting to the workforce and life outside of rehab. 

Demers entered treatment in February 2018, and says the parenting skills she learned have stuck. (Submitted by Amy Demers)

Demers graduated from the program in October 2018.  Her daughter, who is now 13, and her physician, Dr. Adam Newman came to the ceremony. 

Newman was astounded at what he saw. 

"I've known Amy for years and I saw her the way she was before she went ... and nothing I've ever seen is like that. It is remarkable," he said.

Nerman is now working to bring a similar Mother and Child program to Kingston, where he treats pregnant women with opioid use disorder.

There's also interest in replicating the program in Atlantic Canada, according to Vamos. 

Amy Demers, her son Tristan and his father, Douglas Thompson, who passed away in June. (Submitted by Amy Demers)

Demers credits the Portage program for helping her realize she can cope with life's ups and downs without turning to drugs — including the recent death of her children's father, who she calls her "best friend." 

"Today I can tell you I am exactly what my kids need. Since their dad passed, I am here for them. I am emotionally present, I am making sure their needs are met more than anything and they can get through this okay,  And we're closer because of it," she said.

"Portage saved my life, my kids' lives. I feel incredibly lucky, incredibly blessed to have gone. I love what it gave me — a life worth living." 


Written and produced by Dawna Dingwall.

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