Jennifer Smith will never forget the second time her caseworker visited her home last year.
“I needed to lay on the rug that day, because I was in a lot of [sciatic nerve] pain,” said the local mother, who was connected with the caseworker through the Sarnia-Lambton Children’s Aid Society, amid a tumultuous time of alcohol, stress and a custody battle.
“Without much of a second thought, she positioned herself on the floor with me, and we were able to chat like we were long-lost best friends,” said Smith, whose name has been changed for this story.
“That’s when I knew I could trust this person.”
That caseworker is Tammy Martin, of Caring Connections, a partnership between the House of Sophrosyne (A women’s treatment centre in Windsor) and the Children’s Aid Society.
Her role, created in 2013 in response to a growing number of local women seeking addiction treatment at the Windsor facility, focuses on supporting women — namely expectant and new mothers —through recovery, sobriety, and ultimately, helping to keep children in their own care.
“Everyone has their own journey, but just knowing that someone is there to walk alongside you, in the community, with no judgment, it makes a huge difference,” said Martin, whose position is funded by the Local Health Integration Network and is unique to Sarnia-Lambton.
“Many women are fearful of CAS or they’ve had bad experiences, but things have changed a lot.”
Last year, Martin received 85 referrals through CAS. She offers a number of programs including Mothers in Recovery, Women on the Rise, Sweet Recovery (a drop-in program in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association), Getting Ahead (in partnership with Lambton Circles) as well as programs at Aamjiwnaang and Kettle & Stony Point First Nations.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing more women with addictions in Sarnia,” said Martin. The focus is on breaking the cycle of addiction in families, addressing trauma, and building resiliency and relationships with various community resources.
“The stigma of addiction and mental health is being broken down a bit, which is fabulous,” Martin said. “I always believe it’s their choice to determine what their path is; it’s very empowering when they can decide what they want their own story to look like.
“And when you see them get to keep their children, stay sober, and do well, there’s nothing better.”
Martin’s work in Sarnia-Lambton has been instrumental in supporting young mothers and keeping families together, said CAS executive director Dawn Flegel.
“We often hear about addictions in this community, but the narrative always seems to be missing the fact that there are children who live with these families,” she said with emotion. “And we all need to be thinking differently in terms of supporting them.”
She hopes the Caring Connections caseworker position will be implemented across the province.
“I can’t imagine not having (Martin) here; most of our work is with families dealing with addiction. This is what we do.”
Martin also provides individual support through harm reduction, relapse prevention, addiction counselling, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), advocacy and on-going case management with child protection and family support.
For Smith, the relationship with Martin was a godsend.
“She was more than just a worker. She came to court with me, gave me books to read, gave me her cell number, and was over at the drop of a hat when I needed her,” said Smith, noting Martin helped be a liaison between her and the CAS.
“She went above and beyond what she needed to do… she just bleeds love.”
After losing her parents at a young age, Smith said Martin helped her address the trauma she’d been holding inside for years; something she’d previously coped with through substance abuse.
“I don’t know where I would be without her,” she said through tears. “It sounds silly, but I truly believe she’s an angel that came into my life; like my mother sent her to me in a time of need.
“It was no accident.”