The day William Welch learned he needed to go to rehab, a social worker got on the phone and got him admitted at a center in Abilene.
I caught up with Welch outside a café in Austin the night before he left. His sister Stacy is coming to pick him up to take him to the bus station.
As Stacy Welch gets out of her car, her face looks stern.
She’s tired, she says. She just left a 13-hour shift at a hospital kitchen. And, yes, she’s mad – or perhaps hurt would be the right word. She’s seen her brother battling his addiction for 20 years.
“I’m ready for my brother to be clean and sober,” Stacy Welch says.
For the last several months, Texas Standard has been following the lives of Courtney Meeks and William Welch. They’re new parents facing many perils. Meeks and Welch are homeless, they’re HIV positive and because of their addiction to drugs, Child Protective Services has been involved in the care of their baby girl since her birth in April.
Through a state program called “Drug Court” Meeks and Welch were ordered to go to rehab to get baby Eve back. But the two new parents have had drastically different experiences.
William says this time he’ll get clean for baby Eve – he doesn’t want her to ever touch drugs.
Tears choke him as he tries to speak, they stop him from sharing the dreams he has for his baby girl.
Stacy is tearing up too. But it’s tears of joy. She’s encouraged by the fact William was able to get into rehab so quickly.
Back when Stacy was battling her meth addiction she couldn’t find a rehab center that would take her.
The same happened to William’s partner, Courtney Meeks.
It took Meeks an entire month to find an available spot at a rehab facility.
On our way to her HIV appointment Meeks tells me that after Eve was born, she had no place to go. It didn’t matter that she had just had a C-section. After the hospital discharged her no other facility would take her.
“I had to sleep on a makeshift bed last night which was basically a sign on the ground, and then a carpet on top of that and then a blanket on top of that,” Meeks says.
The main difference between Williams and Meeks is their gender. Resources for women seeking treatment are scarce – not just in Texas – but around the country.
Kathryn Cunningham leads the Center for Addiction Research at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
“You indicated the possibility that there were differences in access for treatment – I think that’s true because men are more likely to seek treatment but I also think the barriers for women are still much higher,” Cunningham says.
All the experts I talked to said the same thing: Women, in general, do not seek help. It’s a mystery that baffles them.
But they also talked about those barriers Cunningham mentioned. One of them is the stigma associated with female addicts. It, in part, goes something like this: women are believed to be caregivers. Women have the potential to be mothers and therefore a woman who’s battling addiction is, among many other things, a bad mother.
Courtney Meeks is trying to overcome that stigma herself. She has a 12-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. The child is with her dad.
“My 12 year-old texted me saying ‘Don’t disappoint Eve as you’ve disappointed me,'” Meeks says.
Ivana Grahovac is familiar with all the labels female addicts carry. Grahovac leads Austin Recovery Center. It’s very small – there are only 15 beds – but it’s unique. It’s a place where mothers, like Courtney Meeks, are allowed to bring one young child into rehab with them.
“Until we can heal the stigma and educate our community that people do recover – and long-term recovery is a reality for over 23 million Americans – people will either fail to find good treatment or they will fail to be met with compassion, love and understanding from a society that will help welcome them into their families and into their jobs,” Grahovac says.
If, as Grahovac says, intangible resources such as compassion are necessary, tangible ones are desperately needed too. That’s why this year, the Salvation Army – the largest nation-wide provider of free rehabilitation services – will break ground in Austin on a 3.5 million dollar facility for women.
Jan Gunter with the Salvation Army and I are standing by the bare field that will soon be transformed into a 55-bed residence.
“Can you just picture the day when we’re able to begin taking women in and making it possible for people like Courtney to access those resources when they need them,” Gunter says.
I don’t want to quench Gunter’s enthusiasm, but the facility across the street – the one for men – houses twice as many people. That facility has been open for 23 years. Why has it taken so long to even think about the needs of women?
“I can’t really speak to that – but – you know? The best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago, the next best time is today,” Gunter says.
Today, fewer people consider addiction a moral failure and more understand it as a disease of the brain – a mental illness. It’s something that, with the right resources, can be managed and even sometimes cured.