The door creaked closed. She slid forward and stared through the slit. Her three-year-old was performing a ritual: ready match, crack pipe in hand, toilet paper in lieu of a “10-ball” of the drug.
Getting gang-raped in the forest after a smoking expedition gone wrong didn’t stop her. Trading sex for crack cocaine had become old hat. The guilt of leaving her children alone in a hungry house to hunt highs on the street was soothed by smokes. Even when she sifted through the dust, hoping to single out lost rocks, Beverly Morson didn’t hit bottom.
But this sight struck home.
“I asked myself what I was doing to my daughter,” she says. “That was my awakening.”
We’re flanked by shining rainy-season green on a winding, rise-and-fall road in Trinidad’s deep south, at Serenity Place, below the main road in Guapo, Point Fortin. That’s the residential drug rehabilitation centre for women that Morson manages, along with her husband, Garvin Cole—also a recovering substance abuser.
She shares her story en route to the bushier, more secluded site for its new state-of-the-art treatment, childcare and vocational centre on three acres in Palo Seco.
The project is spearheaded by Women in Action for the Needy and Destitute (WAND). The acronym has a fairy-godmother ring. And WAND’s dozen members—women of influence by merit of their jobs or their husbands’—have been welcome characters in Serenity’s story.
WAND knows who and how to ask for money. Over 10 years it has honed the art of fundraising through luncheons and dinner parties. It has no office, but that means no overheads. Every cent earned reaches the cause.
They’ve also got a knack for kicking things off with a bang. In 2000 Prince Charles visited the early childhood centre they built in the underprivileged area of Beetham Gardens. Two years later, Prime Minister Patrick Manning opened the fully equipped vocational school they erected for Vision of Hope, a home for survivors of domestic abuse. And in 2005 the president, Professor George Maxwell Richards, opened the vocational school they built and outfitted for the Eternal Light Community and its constituency of displaced young people.
Drug rehabilitation wasn’t on the agenda. But when Simone de la Bastide, WAND’s founder, dropped someone at Serenity Place three years ago, she was appalled at the Cinderella conditions.
“I vowed right then and there to convince my committee to agree to build a facility. The person I sent there,” she adds, “couldn’t stay more than two weeks.”
In the counselling area, smoke from a mosquito coil curls from under the table. Fans stir hot air. It’s a kitsch room, decorated with synthetic flowers and stencilled signs. In two bedrooms beds are arranged like Tetris blocks, so that a space one imagines might accommodate five actually holds 12 (sometimes more).
There are attempts at a feminine feel: hearts stamped on the walls and fashion-magazine cut-outs on the bathroom door. But there’s fading blue fabric where the ceiling should be, and, behind the plywood door, four toilet bowls face four shower heads, sans partition.
Three hundred women from five Caribbean countries have passed through Serenity’s small rooms. Forty are now known to be “clean” of drugs. One, a Guyanese woman, had shaken off the “crack jumbie” and was back to exorcise tobacco.
This is the lone women-only rehab centre in the English-speaking Caribbean. When it was founded in 1996, of the 107 spots for people seeking residential treatment in Trinidad, only seven were for women. After drug kingpin Dole Chadee was hanged in 1999, an all-male rehab centre was built on his 100-acre estate.
Marcus Day, director of the Caribbean Drug Abuse Research Institute (CDARI), appreciates the value of separating the sexes. His research shows male substance abusers outnumber females three to one. But smaller numbers don’t translate into smaller problems. A CDARI study of homeless crack users in Port of Spain, Castries and Kingston in 2004 revealed that 90 per cent of women surveyed sold sex, compared with 13 per cent of men. Sixty-one per cent of the Trinidadian sample reported using condoms less than half the time. One-third said they were HIV-positive.
Throw domestic violence, histories of sexual and emotional abuse, mental illness (over 60 per cent of substance abusers have a concurrent mental-health issue), and children into the mix, and you have a bitter cocktail that the rehab community seems hesitant to handle.
“The trauma women experience is much more than men,” says Day. “They’re also less likely to go into treatment because they have to hold families together.”
Morson identifies with that. In 1992, when she resolved to get clean, she left her sobbing toddler in the arms of her teenage son.
“Had I looked back, I would not have gone,” she says. Her anxiety was warranted. Over three months, Morson’s son was initiated by crack addicts. Her daughter suffered sexual and physical abuse while being passed from one reluctant family to another.
Cole also notes the difference gender makes. Though the call of the crack demon is the same (he recalls selling his gas tank to buy a fix, then reasoning that he might as well sell his stove) he knows that women have a harder time handling its stigma, especially on small islands.
“Before, she was a prostitute, drug addict, bad mother and bad wife. Society is not prepared to accept her back. People still call names and point fingers. It’s easier to go back to the old lifestyle, friends and haunts,” he says.
Serenity Place employs a therapeutic community model that combines behaviour modification and job training. The approach is unique for its lack of cut-off points. How long does recovery take? As long as it takes. The complete programme stretches over two years. Some require more time, others less. Many leave prematurely but are welcomed back.
Despite the glaring gap it fills, Serenity Place receives no steady funding and its staff is unpaid. Yet women are not rejected if their families can’t or won’t pay the fees. Along with championing the thrust for a facility that would accommodate 30 women, WAND has helped the organisation apply for a government subvention.
But it’s all in limbo. Seven fundraisers and several donations later, WAND is ready to start building. Since the last general election in November 2007, authority to distribute state-owned land has been passed to local government. The Cabinet now has the final say and WAND has been assured that they’ll say yes. But the matter is stuck in the bureaucratic pipeline. Meanwhile, rises in the cost of building materials have doubled their estimate to TT$5,000,000.
De La Bastide’s honey voice belies her frustration.
“Here you have an organisation that is doing something necessary. We have been proven to be trustworthy and transparent, we have the funding and the commitment—and they’re keeping us back,” she says.
Help is on the way
Trinidad and Tobago’s National Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programme (NADAP) is researching, among other things, the substance-abuse burden carried by each sex. Until then, the Ministry of Social Development is working with a ratio of five males for every female addict.
Asked why the Piparo Empowerment Centre targets men only, a ministry communications officer responded that “it was felt that there was a greater need to treat with male substance abusers.”
Altogether four substance-abuse rehabilitation centres and organisations run by non-governmental organisations receive a total annual subvention amounting to just under TT$2 million from the Trinidad and Tobago government, with over $1 million going to Rebirth House, another men-only centre.
The ministry said in a statement: “In the past it has been difficult to determine the extent of female substance abuse as women tend to hide the problem or they may be taken care of by their families. Therefore there is less of an expressed need for such facilities.
“The ministry acknowledges that the Serenity Place is currently the only NGO offering care and rehab facilities solely for female substance abusers in the country, and is prepared to support the organisation in its efforts to offer these services to the targeted population.”
The statement confirmed that approval is being sought from Cabinet for “a subvention for Serenity Place in its current place of operation” and that Cabinet “is also being approached for a commitment to fund the operational costs of the proposed facility.”
As for the Palo Seco land, Social Development Minister Amery Browne shared feedback from the Local Government Ministry that the hold-up was confusion as to which state-owned company actually holds the title. Dr Browne assured that the government wasn’t dragging its feet on the matter.