‘FIRST Steps’ supports parents in recovery through challenges of a lifetime

It’s hard enough to be a person in recovery from addiction. Imagine navigating recovery while pregnant or caring for a baby or toddler.

FIRST Steps Together is a federally-funded program that supports people in recovery through one of life’s most rewarding and challenging transitions: being parents.

The complexities of recovering from opioid or stimulant addiction while being a parent brings unique stressors and issues that the FIRST Steps Together program aims to address with compassion, common sense and practical support. The acronym FIRST stands for Families in Recovery Support.

FIRST Steps relies on a peer-coaching model to work with parents who are expecting and those with children under age 5 who are in recovery from opioid or stimulant use disorder. Participants are paired with family recovery and support specialists who offer support and guidance.

Administered by the state Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, services are provided by different agencies across the state; in Hampshire County, that agency is the Center for Human Development from offices on Northampton Street in Easthampton. As program director for the FIRST Steps Together sites in the Pittsfield and Easthampton, I have had the privilege and blessing of watching how the program transforms lives.

The Easthampton site opened in the summer of 2019 and now has 10 active parents enrolled. Two family support specialists, who are parents in recovery, provide peer mentoring. A clinician trained in Mothering from the Inside Out, a therapeutic evidence-based model of parenting support for families in recovery, works with participants. In addition, parents can receive guidance from an infant-parent relationship specialist and we make referrals to other social services such as early intervention services, housing, detox and food stamps.

Peer-led support groups are centered around wellness and parenting skills, and because they are led by peers, these groups provide a non-judgmental environment where parents share their experiences with others who know what they are going through.

Some of our families are involved in the Department of Children and Families system. Some are parents who are working really hard to regain custody of their children. The program offers support to parents trying to meet expectations from DCF while maintaining their journey of recovery.

Our staff can help with practical issues, working with parents to address safety concerns within the home, making sure basic needs are met (including having enough diapers and baby wipes), budgeting, creating a schedule. Sometimes, providing support means helping parents improve their connection with their children by learning how to play with them in age-appropriate ways. Recovery support specialists can be an ally and advocate for pregnant woman or new parents, helping to figure out how to best meet the needs of the entire family.

The program offers parents tools designed to improve or stabilize their recovery. For example, pregnant moms are asked to create a pregnancy binder that includes safety plans before delivery, which leads to a safer and less stressful birthing experience. Other tools are binders that include timelines outlining steps needed to meet DCF requirements or a wellness plan that identifies emotional triggers and warning signs for possible relapse and outlines ideas for healthy self-care to prevent relapse. These are all strategies that support the recovery of parents while they work to stabilize their home lives and strengthen their parenting skills.

Parents who have struggled with substance use disorders often cope with self-doubt, feel inadequate as a parent and fear that their instincts are wrong. They second guess themselves and their decisions on raising their children and babies. This cycle is harmful to the entire family. Working with the infant-parent bond specialist can transform this cycle as parents begin to better understand child development as well as how to interpret infant behaviors so they can meet their needs. Sometimes these specialists address unhealthy generational patterns that negatively impact the parent-infant bond.

During the coronavirus pandemic, participants have the opportunity to receive support through online offerings. Peer-led wellness and parenting groups on Zoom provide information, but also help participants feel they are part of a community. Monthly family craft activities through Zoom encourage families to spend time with each other and socialize with other families to enhance that sense of community. The program provides the crafting materials for these group activities.

For any parent, pregnancy and early childhood can be an exhilarating, yet also highly stressful time of life. For those in recovery, it can be doubly so. We want parents to feel that being in recovery does not mean they aren’t good parents. With support, the experience of these parents in recovery — and their infants and children — can be transformed into a beautiful experience that has parents feeling confident and empowered.

Ingrid Agis, licensed mental health counselor, is program director for Center For Human Development’s FIRST Steps Together, Easthampton and Pittsfield offices. CHD is part of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition run out of the city of Northampton’s Health Department. Hampshire HOPE members contribute to this monthly column about local efforts addressing the opioid epidemic.