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State cuts jeopardize St. Petersburg drug rehab for women

ST. PETERSBURG

The recovering cocaine abuser read aloud the short autobiography.

Each sentence detailed how she had hurt or betrayed her parents, her four children, her boyfriend and even herself during her 20-year addiction.

When she was finished, Patricia Mitchell, 38, was overwhelmed by her own guilt. But then the drug addiction counselor told Mitchell the words she would repeat to herself every time she ached for her drugs.

"She told me, 'You did what you did, but you are not that person anymore,' " Mitchell recalled.

It's a message of transformation that has helped dozens of women overcome years of addiction and crime at Pinellas Bridge, a drug treatment center for inmates in St. Petersburg and one of a handful of programs across the state that cater to women.

But now the program might be forced to close its door as early as July 1 because of state budget cuts.

Facing massive budget reductions, the state Department of Corrections has notified substance abuse programs across the state that they might no longer be funded.

Pinellas Bridge, which has served 250 women since it was founded in 2004, would be out of about $575,000 in state funding, which covers most of the program's total operating costs.

Some women might be transferred to drug treatment centers as far away as Polk County. Others will be promoted from the program early and some might have to return to jail or prison.

Any of those options could potential derail the recovery process, said Terry Link, executive director of the Pinellas Bridge and a former heroin addict.

"They have a support system here," he said. "And we are going to just set that aside and get rid of the program."

The Department of Corrections said no budget decisions are final, but that the state Legislature has left its hands tied.

"It's not like we want to eliminate this program," said Jo Ellyn Rackleff, a department spokeswoman.

The state's reluctance to fund drug treatment programs has alarmed some drug counselors, who warn the demise of such services will accelerate the need for more beds in the state's already crowded prisons and jails.

At least 10 percent of all inmates are locked up because of drug possession crimes, according to the Department of Corrections.

Pinellas Bridge, a residential drug-treatment program in the Davis-Bradley center in Midtown, consists of a 25-bed women's program and a 75-bed male program.

For now, only the women's program is in jeopardy, but state officials warn more cuts could be on the horizon.

During the eight-month program, Pinellas Bridge clients learn to evaluate their lifestyle choices, Link said. They receive GED preparation, job training, counseling and group therapy. They learn to respect themselves, Link said.

Mitchell tried to quit drugs many times before she came to Pinellas Bridge in November.

Her 16-year-old daughter was removed from her care when she was born with traces of cocaine in her system.

Mitchell occasionally abandoned her other children when she disappeared to go on a drug binge.

While she was away, her youngest son would call and tell her, "Mommy, I want to be with you."

But it wasn't until after she wrote her autobiography that she realized she was tired of her former life.

She graduated from Pinellas Bridge last week and is preparing to apply to St. Petersburg College, where she wants to study to be a drug counselor.

"Being here is like coming back to life after being dead," she said. "It gives you a chance to change."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

State cuts jeopardize St. Petersburg drug rehab for women 05/27/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 30, 2008 11:50am]
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