Losing custody of her 2-year-old son Lincoln is what Lindsey Elrod describes as the “worst thing I had ever experienced.”
“That was an all new bottom for me,” said Elrod, who relapsed in 2011.
In a 13-year journey of recovery, Elrod said she found herself drinking and using heavier drugs before it “quickly escalated.”
“One day after an incident at my house, (Lincoln’s) grandparents showed up at my door ... and they had a temporary custody order for my son,” she said.
She soon met Marisa Sullens, the Hall County Family Treatment Court coordinator. Now in its 10th year, the treatment service offered Elrod a chance to regain custody of her son.
Elrod said she would do whatever it took.
“I didn’t want to be that mother that lost her kid,” she said. “I didn’t want to be that mother that chose using over her kid.”
Since her June 2013 graduation from the program, Elrod’s journey has come full circle; she now runs a weekly meeting for court participants that centers around young mothers.
Family Treatment Court began in 2006, an 18-month program following in the steps of Drug Court. The program aims to treat parents’ substance abuse issues while working in conjunction with Hall County Juvenile Court, the Division of Family and Children Services and the Hall-Dawson Court Appointed Special Advocates.
Before becoming Family Treatment Court’s coordinator, Sullens worked as a DFCS case manager tasked with giving a list of substance abuse assessment providers to parents.
With the system in place, parental rights terminations were high and cases were “falling through the cracks,” Sullens said.
“You didn’t see many kids going home where substance abuse was the primary reason for removal,” she said.
Retired Juvenile Court Judge Cliff Jolliff presided over the court before leaving the bench in 2014. Juvenile Court Judge Alison Toller took over for Jolliff.
Jolliff, who served as a backup judge to Judge John Girardeau at Drug Court, said the pre-2006 treatment options and the goal of restored parental rights were often not enough for those needing help.
“The addiction was so strong or the other issues going on with the parents were such that even though they knew they had to do that in order to get their children back, they might go to treatment once or twice and then drop out,” he said.
The most well-known tactic for the court, Elrod said, is submitting to the drug screen hotline for what the court calls “random and frequent” screenings in addition to weekly classes.
In the last three months, the treatment court has administered 751 drug screens to participants. They also attend about eight hours of counseling and groups each week.
“Seeing people say, ‘I can’t do this. I’m not going to do this,’ and basically giving up custody of their kids and not fighting for them showed me how addiction really is,” Elrod said of some in the program.
When she became the coordinator in 2010, Sullens said Family Treatment Court had 17 parents in the program. In 2016, the program has 37 participants and has 66 graduates to date.
Nine months after entering the program, Elrod was reunited with Lincoln in May 2012. Though she was allowed to visit with her son before his return, the separation allowed her to recover while he was in good care.
“Later on, I was able to see that it was such a blessing for his grandparents to have done that, because he was living with them while I was trying to get sober again and trying to get better,” Elrod said.
Sullens said the treatment court has been able to reunite 22 children with their families who were either in foster care or relative placements in the past two years.
When graduating from the program, participants often give speeches to “tell their story” of recovery.
“Most people don’t want to talk, but I talked for about 30 minutes,” Elrod said.
Sullens praised Elrod for her role in providing a “safe place” for moms to discuss transportation, housing and parenting issues.
Elrod said the experience has been rewarding as her group approaches its first anniversary next month.
“It gives me so much motivation to be there for some young woman when she wants to get sober, because I’ve been there and know what it’s like,” she said.