Kentucky Gives Parents With Substance Misuse Disorders a Fresh START - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Kentucky Gives Parents With Substance Misuse Disorders a Fresh START

Kentucky Gives Parents With Substance Misuse Disorders a Fresh START

By Jordan Rosenfeld

This mentorship program helps addicted mothers double their chances for sobriety.


Because all parents deserve the chance to make sober choices for the future.

By Jordan Rosenfeld

One of the most successful days of Sarah Avery’s life was likely another woman’s rock bottom. On a patch of Kentucky interstate, a woman was found holding her young children out toward passing cars, trying to give them away after she’d had a bad reaction to the drug Spice (a synthetic cannabinoid product).

“Of course we intervened,” says Avery, a family mentor with the Kentucky START (Sobriety Treatment and Recovery Teams) program.

At the time, Avery didn’t know the woman’s name, but she didn’t need to — because the woman could have been Avery herself a decade earlier. A mother of three, she had struggled with substance misuse for 17 years before she became sober through an intervention program in prison.

Thanks to interventions much like those she now helps deliver to others, Avery has been sober for 10 years and is a long way from the shadow of the past self she recognized on the side of the highway. But Avery can still remember the times she chose intravenous drugs over the safety of her children, days when she was separated from them in jail, and when her children struggled emotionally and academically in response to the chaos in their lives.

The biggest gift I’ve received from sobriety is seeing that my kids are able to have dreams today.

Sarah Avery

“A year after my oldest son was born, my son’s father died. I lost all control and my substance abuse really became my priority,” Avery says. The mother of two boys and a girl, she says she felt terrible guilt for her children’s suffering, particularly when her daughter was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, due to drugs in her system at birth.

“I stayed stuck for a long time, but the turning point came once I really started looking at what it was doing to my kids,” Avery says. She calls kids the “silent victims” of substance misuse. “I always said I wasn’t hurting anybody but myself, but that’s the hugest lie anybody in addiction could tell themselves.”

And Avery knows that interventions, though brutal at first, can produce powerful and lasting ripple effects on a family. For example, the children of the woman standing on the Kentucky interstate were temporarily placed into foster care while their mother was in treatment, but three years later, Avery reports that the woman has been reunited with her children — and now serves as a peer support specialist for a treatment provider.


“Her family is doing great. It may be only one person that we work with, but that affects many,” Avery says.

Avery’s children, now young adults, are also excelling. Her oldest son is a specialist in the U.S. Army, her daughter is in her first semester of nursing school and her youngest son just started at Western Kentucky University.

“The biggest gift I’ve received from sobriety is seeing that my kids are able to have dreams today,” says Avery.

While Avery didn’t go through START herself, she is deeply immersed as a family mentor in the child-welfare-based program. Founded in 2007 for the state of Kentucky’s Department for Community Based Services, the program is currently housed within the University of Kentucky College of Social Work in partnership with the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. START, which employs nearly 75 mentors, social workers and family service supervisors, intervenes in families where the risk of child harm coexists with parental substance misuse, explains program director Erin Smead.

“Each family is partnered with a social worker and a family mentor. We get involved with the family very early in their intervention with child welfare, usually within 48 hours,” Smead says. “They’re coming to us scared, in oftentimes active addiction, and not always with a whole lot of support.”

Once START intervenes, it provides quick access to what Smead calls a “holistic assessment” of the situation, as well as treatment services for substance misuse, mental health and trauma.

START then pairs a specially trained child welfare social worker with a family mentor, an individual in long-term recovery from a substance misuse disorder. With a deep understanding of what the family is going through, the mentor acts as a guide and coach for family members.

Avery says family mentors like herself also bring a uniquely nonjudgmental point of view to guide others through the requirements of recovery programs, the child welfare process and the emotional challenges each creates.

“It’s a lot for somebody who has been high for a period of time to remember everything they need to be doing. Their brains are fuzzy,” Avery says. “You lose the ability to really think through the choices you’re making.”

The program has a tremendous impact on its participants. Research shows that mothers who participate in START are able to reach sobriety nearly twice as quickly as mothers who don’t go through the program. This can have a positive ripple effect in itself, as research also shows that children of those who misuse substances are more likely to misuse themselves.

Additionally, children in families that go through START were found to be half as likely to end up in foster care.

“One thing we are learning about addiction of all forms, including substance misuse, is that the patterns of behavior are often deeply rooted in trauma,” says Tyler Norris, CEO of Well Being Trust. “Changing addictive behavior is challenging,” he continues, “especially as the underlying trauma is often locked behind walls of shame and secrecy.”

Norris suggests that the START program breaks old patterns: “When parents get sober … as well as receive support in addressing their social, emotional, economic and environmental needs that can activate triggers … we begin to see healthy community ecosystems that can reduce the incidence of future trauma and addiction in their children.” In other words: Recovery pays it forward. In this way, family mentors can become powerful role models in showing others the “after” of substance misuse. For example, in what she calls one of her proudest moments, Avery recently stood in front of Congress alongside Dr. Phil McGraw to testify about the opioid epidemic. Both Smead and Avery agree that peer support is key to SMART’s success.

“As a family mentor, I’m meeting these people on one of the worst days of their lives. To have somebody say, ‘I’ve been through this and I’m going to help you,’ really breaks down barriers for the family,” Avery says.

For her, helping women find their own “after” makes it worth all the effort and hardship — while also reminding her of how far she has come. 

“This November, I’ll be celebrating 10 years of sobriety,” Avery says. “I can tell you that at one point in my life, I never dreamed that would be possible.”

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories