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Broken Bonds: Family treatment court helps parents, children reconnect
Crystal Roughton with her daughter Carly, 2. She also has a son, Conway, 12.

Special report schedule

Thursday: A mother tells of why her child was taken into custody and what it took to get her back. Also, learn about the organizations that help parents get on track.

Friday: Read the story of a child abused but then adopted by a loving family and another story of a man who survived an abusive foster home.

Saturday: Many teenagers are referred to group homes, sometimes because their needs cannot be met in foster care and sometimes because there are no homes available to them.

Sunday: State leaders are looking to address the need for resources, with privatization of foster care high on the list of possibilities.

Crystal Roughton hitchhiked to get to the Hall County Courthouse on time. After her newborn was taken at the hospital, Roughton had to get her baby back.

“I was really angry ... I was so naive,” Roughton said. “I thought there were services there that would have been able to help me as far as the material things that my daughter needed. I thought I was going to be able to take her back with me as long as I was drug-free and she was drug-free. That’s how warped my mind was.”

She eventually was able to get her child back four months later as she began working through family treatment court in Hall County beginning in 2012.

She graduated in June, and said she keeps tabs with those still in family treatment court, a program with 32 participants. Less than half in the program have children in foster care.

“With the growing number of kids in foster care, especially in Hall County, you would think our number would be higher, but it’s not right now,” said family treatment court coordinator Marisa Sullens. “We’re trying to do some work trying to find out why people aren’t coming to us — where the ball’s being dropped.”

The program is designed to help, but it is not easy.

Completion should take 18 months, but many participants take nearly two years to finish, Sullens said. In total, a participant must go through at least 460 hours of treatment, the equivalent of 19 days.

Making a change

The first phase of family treatment is the most intense. Participants have nine hours of counseling per week and submit to random drug screening two to three times per week.

“We have off-duty sheriff’s officers going to the homes at night and they can really tell us what’s going on in the home,” Sullens said.

The removal of Roughton’s daughter resulted from her previous substance abuse and unstable living situation.

“I was living on a houseboat in Lake Lanier, and I didn’t have proper prenatal care,” Roughton said. “And when I went into labor, my daughter was clean, but I couldn’t prove safe and stable housing, and I had a history of drug abuse and I couldn’t prove a stable income.”

The second and third phases of treatment are called “celebrating families” and “strengthening families” and include lessons on parenting.

“The parents take turns cooking a meal for the entire group. They sit down and they eat together, and it’s pure chaos. You have kids from 0 to 17 running around, but we get to see how the parents are dealing with the children and how they’re dealing with the stress,” Sullens said.

With few foster homes in Hall County, many parents attempting rehabilitation lose out on the parenting moments that make the experience worth it, Sullens said. About 85 percent of children as of Oct. 2 were placed in homes outside the county, many as far away as Augusta or South Georgia.

“When your children are 50 miles away and there’s not good communication between the foster parent and the parent, the parents are missing out on a big component of what it’s like to really have to take care of that child and understanding the needs of that child,” Sullens said.

With their loved ones so far away, parents sometimes think they don’t even matter anymore, Sullens said. And that’s why visits and parenting moments are vital for recovery, she said.

“I think it would help just influence them to keep going — like, ‘I’m seeing just a little bit of progress. I’m connecting with my child, and they know I’m not gone.’ Because sometimes I think parents just become disheartened, like ‘Maybe they’re better off without me. Maybe they don’t need me.’ Once you get that in your mind, it’s hard to get rid of it,” Sullens said.

In the future, Sullens said she hopes to bring in a recovery coach who has been through the system and could empathize better than other counselors.

“Sometimes you don’t want to listen to someone that’s sitting at the desk. You really need someone that can talk the talk,” Sullens said.

Building a new life

Kicking a substance abuse problem often involves leaving behind friends and family who face the same addictions.

“A lot of times they’re having to get rid of everything they’ve known...,” Sullens said.

As a result, members of the family treatment court often create a strong buddy system for the hurdles of recovery.

“Being a stranger, not having one family member in Gainesville, I did not feel alone because of family treatment court,” Roughton said.

After 21 months, Roughton graduated in June, participating in a commencement ceremony at the Hall County Courthouse. Graduates will sometimes read passages about their life and how the program has bettered their lives.

“I had a lot of personal, heartfelt thanks,” Roughton said. “I wanted to give thanks to the people that helped me while I was in the program and how that helped me open my eyes to become a humble person and a person with gratitude.”

Retiring Juvenile Court Judge Cliff Jolliff presided over family treatment court, which will soon be overseen by newly appointed Juvenile Judge Alison Toller. The opportunity to work with the family treatment court prompted Toller to apply for the position.

“Working with treatment courts has always been a passion of mine, and I’ve always been able to see how Judge Jolliff’s involvement with families through family treatment court helps get them back together,” she said.

Starting in 2006, family treatment court has worked with more than 170 children. Of those, 43 children were returned to parents from foster care and another 88 were able to stay at home, never entering foster care.

Sullens still keeps up with Roughton today, as she does with many of her graduates.

“She really is amazing and was such a pleasure to work with,” Sullens said. “It is women like her that make this program worthwhile.”

Roughton moved to the small town of Temperanceville, Va., to live with her 2-year-old daughter Carly and 12-year-old son Conway, who spent most of his life living with his grandmother.

“I’m still going to AA meetings, and my life is filled around my kids,” Roughton said. “I couldn’t be more pleased with the joys in my life. And they keep me quite busy to tell you the truth.”

She said she has been relapse-free since entering family treatment court, with high praise for Sullens and the program.

While she now is grateful to be an active parent in both of her children’s lives, Roughton said, she sometimes feels sorrowful for being gone.

“With my 12-year-old, I get to see what the effects were being absent out of his life for 10 years, and that’s been a big realization for me — that alcohol and drugs didn’t just affect me,” she said. “I affected other people that loved me and needed me.”

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