Written and published by The Spokesman-Review, December 26, 2017
Cassandra Moffitt knew she needed a change when she went to the hospital to give birth to her son, Zek.
Moffitt, 26, had already lost custody of her four older children when she went to Deaconess Hospital for her C-section in October. She remembered shooting up with meth before the birth.
“All my kids were born drug-addicted,” she said.
Normally, that would lead to the state seizing her baby. But this time, Moffitt was given another option: enroll in a residential treatment program, and keep her newborn.
Moffitt and 2-month-old Zek are one of eight families now enrolled in Rising Strong, a live-in treatment and parenting program for families in danger of losing custody of their children, often due to drug use.
Parents began moving into the dormlike rooms at the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary convent in October, with kids following a week or two later.
The program is run by Catholic Charities with funding and support from the Empire Health Foundation, as well as Premera Blue Cross and Providence. The goal is to keep kids with their biological parents and give those parents the skills they need to get clean and find jobs.
When Moffitt was growing up, her mother was in and out of prison and jail for drug possession, forgery and identity theft.
“At 12 years old, she showed me how to make bathroom crank,” she said. Moffitt was using it a year later.
When she was young, she promised herself she’d be nothing like her mother.
“I sit back now and I’m the spitting image of her and it sucks,” she said.
For a while, she held down a job, but that ended as her addiction deepened. She lost custody of her three oldest children, who are with her grandmother. Her fourth child was taken away from her after birth because she was still using meth.
She’s had no stable housing for the past decade, and she said that before she enrolled in Rising Strong, she usually slept around the Safeway on Market Street. She argued with caseworkers and the court commissioner assigned to her children and was angry most of the time.
“I’ve worked on my anger, worked on my temper,” she said, though she can still swear a blue streak.
One of her counselors was able to help her calm down by finding a meditation video called, “(Expletive) It and Let that (Expletive) Go,” which blends New Age music, the relaxing voice of traditional meditation and a heavy dose of cursing.
Moffitt said it’s done wonders.
At Rising Strong, she’s learned how to swaddle Zek in a wrap covered with blue whales. He was getting over a bout of bronchitis and the flu this week, she said while bottle-feeding him.
“Every time I burp him, it comes out the wrong end!” she laughed.
Rising Strong will eventually take a total of 20 families for the pilot program. When parents graduate, they will be clean and will have earned either a GED or associate degree.
Child care is provided on-site for kids who aren’t school-age, and parents have a demanding all-day schedule of classes and group sessions focusing on addiction recovery, parenting skills and job readiness. Several said having a daily routine is helping their recovery by keeping them busy and out of old habits.
A single van serves as transportation for the families to get to doctor appointments, school and other places.
“We’re not going to let them fail. We’re going to help them stand up until they can,” said Teri Kook, the vice president of family resiliency at Empire Health. She’s “on loan” to Catholic Charities temporarily to help get the program off the ground, and gets to help cradle and feed the babies while parents are in classes.
“It’s the joy of my life to do this,” Kook said.
The on-site staff include peer support specialists who have experience losing their own children to foster care.
One of those specialists, Melissa Zielstorf, said she started using opioids at 14, then added other drugs. She moved to Spokane five years ago because her mother was here and she wanted to get off heroin.
“I called her on Christmas and said, ‘I need help,’ ” she said. After her first try at drug treatment, she kicked the heroin but picked up a meth habit. She lost custody of her kids 20 days later.
“Losing my kids was the worst thing I’ve ever been through,” she said. A second round of treatment helped her get clean and get her kids back.
Zielstorf now works with families at Rising Strong to show them recovery is possible and offer support.
“I truly believe I went through everything because this is what I was made to do,” she said.
Tiffany Link and Anthony Whitehead share a room on the third floor of the convent with their infant daughter, Zamariah, who was born in July.
The couple have three older children who are 5, 3 and almost 2, who are scheduled to move into neighboring rooms Dec. 22. That just happens to be their third wedding anniversary.
The couple were homeless before joining Rising Strong. Whitehead was working in a restaurant while Link cared for the kids, but the two struggled to stay off meth and afford an apartment while supporting their children. They voluntarily surrendered their older children because they couldn’t care for them without housing and struggled to get custody back because of drug use.
“This program was our saving grace,” Whitehead said. “If it weren’t for this, we wouldn’t have our kids.”
Whitehead quit his job to move into Rising Strong and dedicate himself to recovery full time. He’s formed such a bond with Zamariah that she starts screaming if he leaves the room.
Residents support each other, and while there are tensions and frustrations, there are also inside jokes and moments of caring.
The group has started calling the small cribs provided for babies “taco beds” because they’re oblong and fold up to be stored. Whitehead is known as the “sheriff.”
Moffitt calls Zamariah the group’s “lucky bald baby” and said many of the babies in the convent like to wake her up first thing in the morning to play.
While walking through the halls, Link looked wistfully at the small kitchen on the fourth floor near Moffitt’s room.
“This is the nicest kitchen,” Link said.
“That’s because we keep it clean!” Moffitt responded. The refrigerator is covered with children’s artwork, inspirational quotes the parents have written for each other and sobriety certificates. Moffitt is on day 59.
For her, even the worst parts of parenting have become a privilege.
“I have yet to have any kind of urge to use,” she said as Zek stretched and started to cry in her arms. “This little cry right here is the reason why.”