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Published May 13 2012

Sister’s Path leads addicted parents to rebuild lives (Part 2 of 2)

FARGO – Deb Soliah describes Fargo’s Sister’s Path program as the most Scandinavian of programs.

And in a way it is. It’s located in a buttery tan building northwest of West Acres, which makes it indistinguishable from any other apartment complex in this neighborhood.

It has received little publicity or media attention.

But quietly and unassumingly, this recovery program helps single, addicted parents rebuild their lives.

“We’re simply here to serve our clients and residents,” says Soliah, executive director of the foundation for ShareHouse, which oversees Sister’s Path. “It’s a gem in this region that most people don’t know about.”

Sister’s Path was opened in 2004 to help a long-underserved population: single, homeless parents (almost always moms) whose lack of funds and need to take care of their children prevents them from receiving chemical-dependency treatment.

The program is a joint venture of ShareHouse, a Fargo-based addiction treatment center, the Fargo Housing Authority and Beyond Shelter Inc., a nonprofit developer of low-cost housing.

Several characteristics make Sister’s Path unique for this region, says Julie McCroskey, program director of Sister’s Path.

For one thing, it is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, so its residents can receive free or extremely affordable treatment. “Nobody is turned away because of insurance,” McCroskey says.

For another, it provides long-term housing – anywhere from seven months to more than two years – and a holistic approach that addresses everything from 12-step groups and grief recovery to parenting classes.

The program also offers a carrot to keep residents from leaving before they’re ready.

Those who stay at Sister’s Path for at least seven months receive a Section 8 housing voucher.

This subsidy guarantees they won’t pay more than 30 percent of their income on an apartment, for as long as they meet income guidelines.

“Some of them have such a poor credit history or have felonies on their records. We don’t want them to have to go back into that drug-infested, slum-lord type of place,” McCroskey says.

It’s no free ride

Within its first five months of operation, Sister’s Path’s 12 apartment units were already filled.

Demand is so great for the facility’s services that the waiting list is six months long.

“The only downside is the wait,” McCroskey says. “That’s pretty hard if you’re struggling to stay sober and you are homeless.”

Sister’s Path is an excellent chance to start over, but it is not a free ride.

“You don’t get to take your kids to day care and nap all day,” McCroskey says.

Residents must transition from the chaotic life of an addict to a structured environment filled with rules. They must keep their apartments clean, heed a curfew and help out with community chores.

Residents can be immediately discharged for smoking in apartments, getting involved in relationships with other ShareHouse clients and, of course, using drugs or alcohol.

“We can drug screen and breathalyze at any time,” McCroskey says. “It’s for their safety and for their kids’ safety.”

Still, the number of violators is surprisingly low: In eight years, three women have been discharged for bringing in drugs, McCroskey says.

Residents also must work their way through a three-level system before they are ready to venture out on their own.

Level I is the most restrictive, but it’s also designed to give them a low-stress environment where they can concentrate on healing. Residents are discouraged from working jobs or attending school.

“We take care of them and get them stabilized. We want them to focus on their sobriety and their children and how to parent sober,” McCroskey says.

At Level II, residents are encouraged to start thinking about life beyond Sister’s Path.

They discuss education or job plans and map out future child-care options, such as applying for child-care assistance.

Level III residents have the most autonomy and privileges. “They are basically managing their own lives,” McCroskey says. “We are getting ready to launch them.”

From trauma treatment to parenting help

At all levels, residents are required to attend 12-step recovery groups in the community as well as special treatment groups through Sister’s Path.

Many of the in-house groups are tailored to serve the special requirements of the female addict.

A special group was formed because many residents have a “dual diagnosis” – an issue like depression in addition to their addiction, McCroskey says.

She also estimates that 90 percent of women who come through the program have experienced or witnessed trauma such as childhood abuse, rape, battering or some other form of violence.

So Sister’s Path mandates all residents to attend a women’s empowerment group. Attendees learn cognitive-behavioral techniques like EMDT (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) to deal with their trauma, McCroskey says.

Sister’s Path also provides some help in the parenting arena.

The facility’s case manager recently received a grant that allows her to do play therapy with the children.

The moms “have a lot of shame and guilt,” McCroskey says. “They feel bad about what they’ve put their kids through, so often they wind up being too permissive.”

Part of their parenting education is to “beef them up in their mother role,” so they are again the adults of the household, McCroskey says.

“We let them know that their children will still love them even if they’re a little tougher,” she adds.

Above-average success

One of the biggest hurdles to admission into Sister’s Path – besides the waiting list – is a 45-page application, which consists of a background check.

Sister’s Path staffers don’t expect addicts to have sterling records, but they won’t accept parents who are sex offenders or who have records of significant violence.

Sometimes, residents aren’t invested in the process and they are asked to leave. That decision is difficult, McCroskey says. “We get very, very invested and attached to these families.”

Even so, the program’s comprehensive structure has given it a higher-than-normal success rate. It retains 77 percent of its residents for at least six months, compared to the 35 percent of people who successfully complete other treatment programs, McCroskey says.

“In my experience, the typical treatment is 30 to 90 days,” McCroskey says. “For us to have the luxury to have a family here so long – it seems they have a better chance to make it.”

Adds Soliah: “Hopefully, we can break the succession of addiction from generation to generation. It’s changing lives.”

More information

Contact Sister’s Path at (701) 478-6652 or go to www.sharehouse.org


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525