When Timiki Auburn fell pregnant with her second child, she was too high on methamphetamine to realise.
- More than 100,000 people seek treatment for drug dependence annually in Australia, but long waiting lists mean only half receive the help they need
- Women with addictions have specific needs due to typically being the primary carer of children, having past traumas and additional mental health conditions
- Drug rehabilitation centres that accept accompanying children helps remove barriers to access help, but very few services exist
“I didn’t know I was pregnant because I was using [methamphetamine] every day,” she said.
“I was throwing up, but I just thought the drug was making me like that.
“I was shocked … and I just regret it so much that I found out in that way.”
Ms Auburn had been using methamphetamine for several years as well as dealing with the sudden death of her mother, and living in a violent relationship that left permanent scars on her face.
The news that she was two months pregnant prompted a life-changing decision.
The 29-year-old, who lives in the remote northern town of Broome in Western Australia, went out bush to detox then packed a suitcase for her seven-year-old daughter and checked them into a drug rehabilitation centre.
‘Being clean is the best feeling ever’
When Ms Auburn sat down to share her story with the ABC she was only six weeks into the rehabilitation program and the change was still fresh.
But as she sat under a tree at the Milliya Rumurra Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Centre, stroking her swollen pregnant belly, Ms Auburn said she was happier than she had been in years.
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“Being clean is the best feeling ever,” she said.
“I’m eating well and I feel calm for the first time in a long time.”
Ms Auburn is one of a growing number of women seeking help for methamphetamine addiction with children in tow.
She has been one of the lucky ones, securing a spot for herself and her daughter, I’Rah, at the centre quite quickly.
But, with a shortage of drug rehabilitation beds nationwide, and few facilities that accept children, many women face a long wait to receive help.
Long waiting lists to receive help
While the number of Australians using methamphetamine has reduced slightly in recent years, the percentage of people seeking treatment for amphetamines — as opposed to alcohol or other substances — is on the rise.
In many regions there are long waiting lists for residential rehabilitation centres.
Each year, more than 100,000 Australians seek treatment for drug dependence, but it is estimated that only about half of the demand is met.
Nicole Lee, from Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute, said there are a number of reasons women find it harder than men to access services.
“What we know is that women with drug and alcohol problems have specific needs,” Professor Lee said.
“They are more likely to be a primary carer for children, and they often have had a history of trauma, either as a child or as an adult.
“They often have a much higher prevalence of common mental health problems like anxiety and depression, and they are more likely to have economic barriers for treatment, and women-only services tend to cater a lot better to that group.”
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One of the biggest barriers is the fact that few residential rehabilitation centres allow recovering addicts to bring their children with them.
National figures are hard to pin down, but in WA, only three of the state’s 16 facilities accommodate children.
Professor Lee said, despite the growing recognition that there is value in including the whole family unit in the recovery process, there is a lack of facilities to meet the demand.
“There are nowhere near enough women’s-only services available,” she said.
“And not enough services where parents can take their kids in with them or be together as a family.”
A safe, happy place for children
A drug rehabilitation centre may sound a grim setting for a child’s birthday party, but when Ms Auburn gathered staff and residents to help celebrate her daughter’s eighth birthday, it was as noisy and joyous as any other.
There was a fast-melting unicorn cake and excited children running around the room.
Among them were Charna-Maria Kelly’s three children, who had been staying at the centre for six months while their mother tried to recover from her methamphetamine addiction.
A softly-spoken Yamatji woman, Ms Kelly said she would not have entered rehabilitation unless her children could accompany her.
“Alcohol was something I struggled with originally, and I sort of swapped one bad habit for another — I ended up using meth for about three years,” she said.
“I would have lost my kids unless my mum stepped-in to care for them, but when she became unwell I decided it was time to come here and sort myself out,”
“I feel great now. I’m in a much better place than I was six months ago.”
An escape from the chaos of addiction
There was a relaxed atmosphere at the centre, with big lawns ringed by bush and playgrounds for the children.
Each day the children from three families piled into a minibus to be dropped-off at school.
There did not appear to be a stigma about staying in a rehabilitation centre; instead, there was a palpable relief for families having a reprieve what the chaos that characterised their lives during addiction.
“I love my friends and family, but there’s too much alcohol and drug abuse out there in town,” Ms Kelly said.
“It’s so stressful having to constantly deal with that every day, on top of trying to ensure your kids are safe when you don’t have your own home — sometimes it’s just all too much.
“So this is a good place to be, a safe place, no drugs and alcohol to worry about and you can get your mind clear and try to make better decisions.”
Ms Kelly is close to completing qualifications in community services, and is looking forward to restarting her life on what she calls “the outside”.
Centre’s history of helping women
A key part of Milliya Rumurra is its post-release care, and helping the women secure accommodation so they can have space from relatives who still use drugs and alcohol.
The centre’s chairwoman, Kathy Watson, helped start the centre in the 1970s, back when alcohol was the sole temptation and focus.
“It’s always been important to have whole families be able to come here,” she said.
“Especially for the pregnant women — they can get cured from grog or meth, and it’s much healthier for them and the baby.
“It makes a hell of a difference because they’re not getting humbugged by people wanting grog and the meth heads.”
Creating intergenerational change
Experts have found that pregnancy is often a catalyst for positive lifestyle change, creating a window for prospective parents to try to address their drug dependency prior to a child being born.
Milliya Rumurra chief executive, Andrew Amor, said helping pregnant women to beat their addiction is a crucial opportunity to create intergeneration change.
“We’re making ourselves more accessible to pregnant women, because we can see the benefits — the long-term benefits — to not just the child and their family, but to the community in general,” he said.
“There are so many benefits to the unborn child for Mum to have good nutrition, and good healthcare … and to be free of toxic stress that can have life-long consequences.”
The effects of methamphetamine on a foetus are not as well understood as that of alcohol.
But Mr Amor, who has worked in drug and alcohol services for more than 20 years, said a stint in a rehabilitation facility can be the best way to ensure babies are born in optimum health.
“We think this is just so important for these kids to have a good start,” he said.
“It has wider benefits for the whole of society and in terms of generations to come.
“We have all these challenges ahead of us, with the global economy and social change and even climate changes, and we need to have young people who are growing up strong and resilient and intelligent to be able to deal with those [issues].”
A life free of a ‘terrible drug’
Ms Auburn said her days have been much quieter now than they used to be.
She does art therapy, creating artworks to decorate the home she hopes to create for her two children post-rehabilitation, while gently sifting through the past traumas that led her to turn to the oblivion of methamphetamine in the first place.
“It was all fun and games when I first tired meth, but I didn’t realise what it could do to a person,” Ms Auburn said.
“It is a terrible drug. You don’t sleep, you don’t eat, you turn away from your family and your own children.
“I just want people to know that you can get help, and you can get clean — life is so much better.”