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Profile: Project SAFE
Reaching Out with Hope to Women


There are about 5 million alcoholic women in the U.S., and many others who abuse other drugs. These women often have additional problems that traditional treatment programs, designed with men in mind, do not address: greater societal disapproval than for men, lack of child care, lack of family support, and fear of losing custody of children. A resulting low treatment rate for addicted women has profound ramifications for them and their families. Women caught in the all-consuming cycles of addiction are often unable to provide adequate nurturing for their children. Not surprisingly, substance-abusing women are overrepresented among mothers reported for child neglect and abuse.

Project SAFE (Substance and Alcohol-Free Environment) began a decade ago as an experiment to see whether more women alcoholics could be engaged and sustained in treatment if their special needs were met. The program was later expanded to include women addicted to other drugs.

Moyers with Project SAFE clients

Bill Moyers talks to Project SAFE clients.


Caseworkers identify women who have been accused of child neglect or abuse and also screened as "high risk" for alcoholism. They make intensive efforts to recruit the women into SAFE. Traditional addiction treatment experts often held that if an addicted person did not find help herself, she wasn't ready for recovery, perhaps because she had not yet "hit bottom." Project SAFE's outreach workers handle the same "resistant" clients differently, calling them daily, knocking on doors, offering transportation to the clinic, and arranging child care. William L. White, one of the developers of the Project SAFE model, says, "The women we're trying to reach don't need to 'suffer more' before they get help. They've had plenty of pain. What they lack is hope."

The outreach worker who first recruits a client stays in almost daily contact with her throughout the intensive outpatient treatment, offering encouragement and serving as advocate, role model, parenting consultant, and even driver. "Interventions which might be pejoratively labeled 'rescuing' or 'enabling' for white, middle-class, alcoholic men," says White, "may be essential to initiate and sustain early recovery for a significant portion of addicted women."


The pilot program was launched in the mid '80s by the Illinois departments of Children and Family Services and Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. It targeted a population that has not historically responded well to traditional treatment approaches: poor, urban, minority women with children. Seventy-four percent of clients come from alcoholic families, and 95 percent have been sexually abused. Many still live with abusive partners when they start treatment or are homeless. Some suffer from clinical mood disorders.


Beverly, one initially resistant client, says that before SAFE began its intensive efforts to reach out to her, she was discouraged and desperate after repeated treatment failures and the placement of her three children in foster care. She says that in SAFE, she felt accepted for the first time. She completed the program, regained custody of her children, and will soon be graduating from a computer training course.

Outreach worker driving van

SAFE outreach worker Denise Johnson transports clients to treatment.

At the end of the first pilot phase, SAFE clients had promising rates of sustained abstinence and increased emotional health and self-esteem. Parent-child relationships had improved, and rates of child abuse were one third that for a control group. The program was rolled out fully to 19 sites and partially to 35 more.

For further information, contact Maya Hennessey, Women's Specialist, Illinois Department of Human Services, Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, at (312) 814-3022.

-- Donna Boundy


This description is not intended as an endorsement of this particular program.

This article is an excerpt from the Viewer's Guide for MOYERS ON ADDICTION: CLOSE TO HOME, produced by Thirteen/WNET's Educational Publishing Department. The entire guide is available, free of charge, by downloading it to your computer or requesting a copy by mail.

Top photo: Courtesy of Project SAFE

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