(From left) Crystal Gutierrez, Victoria Webster and her daughter Aryan Nichols, and Diana Garcia and her daughter Eliana Ramos spend time together during a celebration for Mother's Day at Casa Mia.
(From left) Crystal Gutierrez, Victoria Webster and her daughter Aryan, and Diana Garcia and her daughter Eliana spend time together during a Mother's Day celebration at the current Casa Mia facility in May 2019. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Sitting at a picnic table covered in a pink plastic tablecloth, Crystal Gutierrez watches as her 5-year-old daughter Makayla drinks fruit punch and sorts black and red discs to play Connect 4.

Surrounding the pair were other mothers and their children gathered on the front porch for a picnic with fried chicken, potato salad, pound cake, and fruit brought in as an early Mother’s Day celebration.

“This will be a Mother’s Day that I will always remember, because I haven’t been out of my addiction or out of incarceration in years,” said Gutierrez as she sat with her own mother, who had brought Makayla to visit. “And I couldn’t even tell you the last time I spent Mother’s Day with my mom” but they will be together on Sunday.

Gutierrez, a 28-year-old mother of three, lives at Casa Mia, a Midtown home for mothers and pregnant women recovering from heroin addiction. She has been sober since late March and moved into the residence April 20. The youngest of her three children, 1-month-old Eternity, was born addicted to opioids.

Gutierrez is one of seven women living at Casa Mia, which opened in November and allows women and their children to stay indefinitely as long as they remain drug-free. Bexar County, which leads the state in babies born with drug withdrawal symptoms, and the City of San Antonio worked together to found Casa Mia as a way to help addicted mothers remain with their children while in recovery.

Three women have custody of their children, while the other four, including Gutierrez, are working on the sobriety and financial stability necessary to regain custody.

“I couldn’t stop using heroin,” Gutierrez said. “My daughter was born addicted, and I felt bad, but that didn’t stop me. I couldn’t stop. It had too strong of a hold on me and I wasn’t being helped, and I couldn’t help myself.”

“I am here working on staying sober and taking my methadone every day. I am held accountable here, and that is what helps me accomplish what I could not accomplish when I lived on the streets.”

Lisa Cleveland, associate professor at the UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing helped spearhead the recovery residence, which can house 20 mothers and children.

“Casa Mia is one of two intensive drug rehabilitation programs in Texas that allow children to live in the home with the parent,” Cleveland said. “Not everyone struggling with opioid abuse and addiction needs inpatient hospitalization, especially if they have access to medication-assisted treatment and are stable on their meds.”

Residents of Casa Mia spend at least eight hours a week in classes that focus on parenting, nutrition, and life skills, and are expected to make strides toward living independently. That could mean finding employment, following up on Social Security Disability payments, or applying for housing assistance.

“A lot of our ladies don’t have the skills they need to parent,” Cleveland said. “They don’t know what it means to be a role model, or how to develop positive and loving communication.

“We help them work on these things to they can reunite with their children, and we encourage them to stay the course and work on more long-term life goals, including stable housing and positive relationships – something they may have never had before.”

Casa Mia, which accepts residents from across the state, is funded by the Texas Department of State Health Services and a partnership with UT Health San Antonio and Crosspoint, a nonprofit that manages residential facilities in San Antonio for people with emotional and psychological problems.

Casa Mia case managers and nurses put a lot of energy into making sure that moms can reunite with their babies, something that is lacking in recovery residences elsewhere in the state, said Martha Martinez, associate professor at the UT Health San Antonio Nursing School.

“These women need support. They are searching for people to trust them because unfortunately nobody does. But what we have found is if we help them by trusting them to be a good mom and to continue on to recovery, it motivates them to stay on course,” Martinez said.

Diana Garcia, a 30-year-old Casa Mia resident, said that Martinez motivates her to be a better mother to her 1-month-old daughter, Eliana, who lives with her at Casa Mia. When Garcia arrived at the recovery home, she has been homeless and was using drugs.

Diana Garcia holds her daughter, Eliana Ramos.
Diana Garcia holds her daughter Eliana. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Child Protective Services allowed Garcia to keep custody of her daughter, despite her drug addiction, because she was staying at the recovery residence, and Martinez, along with other workers in the home, assured the agency they would work with her to say sober and build parenting skills.

“You don’t wake up and say: I’m going to be a drug addict,” Garcia said. “I got started on drugs because I had a boyfriend who used to tie me up and shoot me up with heroin, then I became addicted. And because I was also so sad, I wasn’t able to stop. And then my family gave up on me.

“Here, no one gives up on you.”

Garcia and her daughter share a room with other mothers in the residence, who all take turns caring for the children as they work on maintaining sobriety. The women walk to the methadone clinic together every day, attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and support each other as they prepare for life outside Casa Mia.

“The other girls here are my inspiration,” Garcia said. “Your family, when they try to help you, the gang up on you. The criticize you and shame you and make you feel embarrassed for things that sometimes aren’t your fault. I never wanted to be addicted. Here, the women tell me they understand the hard things I went through, and that helps me believe that I can be better, because I see people like me being better.”

Garcia went into labor with her daughter one week after entering Casa Mia, and the baby was born addicted to opioids. Her 2-year-old son was born addicted, and he has autism. Her 8-year-old was born healthy during a time in her life when she was not using drugs.

“Here I have the opportunity to give myself another chance – to give my kids another chance,” Garcia said. “Eliana has a good start being able to live here with me, and I see this situation as a privilege. And I am going to do the right thing and make it right. I am going to be successful for my kids and myself. I can’t change the past, but I can change the future.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.