Meredith Mills' life story reads like a modern day Dickens novel. In her story, the villains were alcohol and drugs.
She began drinking and using drugs when she was 9 years old. Alcohol and drugs were daily companions by the time she turned 12.
Orphaned at the age of 13, Mills went to stay with an aunt and uncle who lived out west but it didn't work out for her. At 14, she returned to Florida. Escaping the notice of the child welfare system, she lived in her own small apartment on Social Security survivor's benefit checks.
Life on her own didn't go well for Mills. In and out of school, she had "basically dropped out in the fourth grade."
By the time she was 30, Mills had racked up 19 felonies and a host of misdemeanor charges—all of them drug or alcohol related.
Her addictions caused her to quit jobs, lose friends, and walk out on her husband and older son. "I gave up everyone for that life," she said.
Sober on and off during her two pregnancies, Mills said her youngest son Dawson, now 12, was born with drugs in his system and was taken into custody by the Department of Children & Families.
"I had burned all my bridges in life," she said. "I didn't know how to sustain myself (without drugs) or how to build support during the bad times."
At the time, Mills said she was facing a potentially lengthy prison sentence on charges of violating house arrest related to a prior conviction.
She turned herself in and when she appeared in court, asked the judge to be ordered into an in jail substance abuse treatment program and then be referred to the Susan B Anthony Center. She was sentenced to 106 days in the Broward County jail, where she attended an in-jail treatment program and later was admitted to the Center for long-term residential treatment.
It was her seventh treatment program. Although each had "planted its own seed," Mills said all the right components were in place at Susan B Anthony for her to start regaining the life she'd lost to addiction.
A happy ending for Meredith Mills and her son
"Susan B Anthony was a major key to my sobriety," Mills said. "They gave me a starting point and said they'd support me when I needed it."
A key component is that the Center was created to serve pregnant women and to allow mothers to keep their children with them while receiving the treatment. Its comprehensive array of best practices services are designed to teach mothers the skills they need to lead successful drug-free lives in the community while also giving their children the services they need to avoid substance abuse.
A nonprofit organization, the Center was founded to remove the barriers for women entering treatment and to prevent their children from being placed in Florida's over burdened foster care system. It is accredited by CARF, the national organization that accredits rehabilitation and treatment providers.
The Center's campus has grown since Mills was a resident. It now has the capacity to serve more than 60 families and includes 40 apartments, plus a child care center and an administration-treatment facility.
Services include 24-hour supervised housing, transportation services, family bonding activities, psychiatric services, individual, group and family therapy services, acupuncture, case management, nursing services, on-site child care center, hypnosis, trauma informed care, women focused groups, life skills management classes and a 12-step program.
Pregnant women and women with children may remain in the residential component of the program for up to 18 months depending on their source of funding.
Mills said she regained partial custody of her son when she was admitted to the Center. While she was in treatment, he was in a day care program. She and her son shared a two-bedroom apartment with another woman and her child.
Rather than being separated from her son and in an isolated environment, Mills said she received treatment services at the Center in a real life setting. "It was a real life with my son," she said, complete with all the daily responsibilities and challenges she had not learned to handle.
"I learned to function as a single mom in a supportive environment. There was always someone there to tell me how I could handle something without getting high."
After a year at the Center, Mills graduated into a studio apartment close to the Center. Reluctant to let go of the program that had been a lifeline for her, she participated in the Center's aftercare program. That continued support was "crucial," Mills said, giving her the courage she needed to stay sober and build a new life.
Women and their children may participate in the Center's aftercare services for up to three years after leaving the program. While the Center works diligently with the women and children to prepare them for life after they leave the program, staff believe that the lifeline attached to at-risk families like Mill's must be maintained as they transition to independent living.
Now 43, Mills has been "sober 12 years, 11 months and counting." She lives in Colorado with her son. She not only completed her high school education, but has earned a bachelor's degree in social work and is now working on a master's degree.
Her academic goal was temporarily sidelined when she had to go on disability about two years ago after being diagnosed with Dercums syndrome, a rare condition characterized by painful nodules throughout the body and other debilitating symptoms.
The illness forced her to "to take a time out" to get treatment, learn what she needed to do to take care of herself and adjust to its physical limitations.
Despite her health setbacks, Mills said life is good for her. "It's been an interesting journey and I'm glad to be where I am now and to be sober. I know that if things went wrong for me out here, Susan B Anthony would still be there for me, and I know that Marsha wouldn't stop until I got the help I needed."
"Marsha" is Marsha Currant, the Founding CEO of the Susan B Anthony Recovery Center, who says that stopping the intergenerational disease of addiction is paramount at the facility.
Currant, who was a foster care and adoption director for the Department of Children & Families in the 1980s, recalled that "all these children wanted were their 'mommies.'" Her work at the Center is now enabling her to give these children what they need to stop the cycle of substance addiction—a healthy Mom.
"The vast majority of children in our foster care system are there because one or both of their parents have a substance addiction problem," Currant said.
Currant said data collected by the Center since its opening in 1995 reveal that the majority of women it serves had experienced childhood sexual or physical abuse and/or domestic violence. She said these early life traumas led these women to abuse substances, often at a young age, as a means to dull the pain.
In addition to treating their mothers, the Center also sees that their children get individual and group therapy and developmental intervention services. Joanna Deangelo, the Center's children's program director, said that many of children enter the program either below normal on their developmental milestones or on the borderline for their age group. They may have health, behavioral and/or school problems, and may have had criminal involvement and substance addiction problems of their own.
An in-depth assessment is done of each child, and then an individualized intervention program is designed to help the child catch up or exceed their developmental milestones. Mothers are also taught parenting skills that will help them parent their children successfully to adulthood.
"The majority of the children residing in our program suffered psychological and emotional damage due to their homelessness and/or their mother’s addictive lifestyle," according to Currant.
Children with emotional problems are served by therapists trained in working with young children and adolescents. The goal of therapy is to enhance their chances of being successful in school, establishing healthy relationships, and avoiding an addiction problem. Services include assessment, a range of individual, family, and group counseling and therapy services as well as parenting instruction and groups.
The Center's goal is to prepare the whole family for successful re-entry in the community as productive citizens.
All of the families receive a range of on-site health care including nursing services, psychiatric assessments, physical assessments, medication management, maternal and fetal assessments, and well baby care. On-site child care services are also available.
Educational programs, including GED classes, as well as vocational training and employment services also are offered. The Center helps program participants link to the state's Vocational Rehabilitation and WorkForce One Programs and offers a job placement program.
"Susan B Anthony is multi-faceted," Mills said. "It all fits together: having a safe life, building relationships. Everything I learned there has come into use in my later life, from family relationships to holding down a job."
To learn more about the Susan B Anthony Recovery Center and its programs, call 954-733-6068 or visit its website at http://susanbanthonycenter.org.
The Center provides its services to without charge to pregnant women and women with children who reside in Broward County and meet income and other eligibility requirements. It also accepts private insurance and private pay for women from other parts of Florida and the U.S.