It was Christmas Eve, and 13-year-old Tara Peterson had a house full of uncles and aunts and cousins. The adults started drinking, and once they started, they usually didn’t stop until they were falling down drunk.
“It was normal behavior,” Peterson remembers. “It’s just what people did.”
Feeling grown up, she joined them. And that’s how her drinking problem began. Not sneaking around and hiding it but right in front of her closest relatives. With them.
Marijuana came next, then harder substances.
“When I started experimenting with drugs,” she says, “I never really got in trouble or punished for it, either. Everybody just acted like it was normal, too, and I guess for my family it was.”
By the time she was in her mid-20s, Peterson had been arrested a dozen times, mostly for drug possession and writing bad checks, and she had lost custody of her daughter. It took two years and court-ordered rehab to gain permission just to see her again.
Waiting for the first afternoon play date to begin, Peterson sat in a therapist’s office and fidgeted nervously.
Would her now 5-year-old daughter still call her Mom? Would she want a hug? Would she even remember Peterson at all?
More importantly, in the long term, would her daughter follow the family’s same destructive path? Would she face drug and alcoholic abuse? Endure violent, abusive relationships? Go in and out of jail?
“I wanted a better life for my daughter,” Peterson says. “But somehow, I had to get a better life for myself first.”
‘Struggle and fall’
The theory behind ACE scores is that social problems become generational. If a parent, for example, goes to prison, it becomes an “adverse childhood experience” for the kids and makes them more likely to struggle in school, have unwanted pregnancies, abuse drugs and alcohol and go to jail themselves someday, according to ACE studies.
Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any other state, with roughly 400 women a month booked into the Tulsa County jail alone. And 80% of those women have children, which makes losing a mother to prison one of the most common adverse childhood experiences in the state. And it partly explains why Oklahoma children have some of the highest ACE scores in the country.
The Women in Recovery program, operated since 2009 by Family & Children’s Services in partnership with the George Kaiser Family Foundation, is trying to break the ACEs cycle by keeping mothers out of prison, offering counseling and rehabilitation instead of incarceration.
Tulsa judges divert a small percentage of defendants into the program, sometimes with a prosecutor’s recommendation, sometimes against it. In exchange, the women have to follow a strict regimen, living in WIR apartments while spending 40 hours a week at the WIR offices in downtown Tulsa to take part in a carefully blended mix of group therapy, one-on-one counseling and parenting classes.
“It was the hardest thing I ever did,” says Shelby Caudle, who was facing 10 years in prison if she hadn’t been redirected to the program. “There are a lot of rules. Be here at a certain time. Be back at your apartment at a certain time. Do this; do that. It was not the kind of mindset I was used to.”
Caudle lost custody of a 2-year-old after passing out drunk in a car and waking up to realize the boy was missing. Police found him 45 minutes later at home by himself, and Caudle was arrested for felony child neglect. Alone, that probably wouldn’t have meant serious time in prison, but she was already on probation for burglary, DUI and hit and run.
Women in Recovery, however, offered Caudle another chance, not so much for her own sake, but for her son’s. Sending her to prison would have added another point to his already high ACE score.
After therapy, Caudle understands the effects her childhood experiences had on her as an adult.
“Growing up sexually abused, physically abused, my parents in addiction, all I ever knew, and still know, is that pain is love. Addiction and abuse is all I know. That’s all I know. That’s what I expect and what I crave for.”
With WIR’s help, however, she has been sober for two years and has regained custody of her son. And now, she is involved in WIR alumni activities, which offer support indefinitely for women who have graduated from the program.
“They say the two-year mark is where a lot of people struggle and fall back,” she says. “So I have to be vigilant. I can’t slack off now.”
‘Generation after generation’
Like Caudle, Peterson saw the Women in Recovery program as a chance to break her family’s long, multigenerational cycle of addiction and incarceration. She hadn’t seen her 5-year-old daughter in two years when, thanks to making progress in rehab, a judge let her have a play date at the Women in Recovery offices.
As soon as Peterson’s daughter came into the room, she yelled “Mom!” and ran to throw her arms around her mother.
Peterson could breathe again.
“That’s when I knew everything was going to be OK,” she says. “I mean, it wasn’t like everything was suddenly fine again. It was still going to take a lot of time to repair the damage I had done. But when she hugged me, I knew it was going to be OK eventually.”
Having completed the Women in Recovery program, she has regained partial custody and currently works as a family advocate for Tulsa BEST, an anti-poverty program funded through the George Kaiser Family Foundation. But her daughter still worries about Mom “disappearing” again.
The little girl already has an ACE score of 2: one point for her mother’s addiction, one for her mother’s time in jail. But Peterson gave birth to a second child just weeks before this spring’s Women in Recovery graduation. And that child has a chance to grow up with an ACE score of zero.
One child will have at least faint memories of her mother as a drug addict, and it remains to be seen how those memories will affect her later in life. The other child, however, will never know that kind of environment, Peterson promises.
“My family has faced these kinds of problems with addiction for generation after generation,” she says. “It stops with me.”