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Parents confront addictions to try to regain custody of children
Bethany Sauls is the attorney for the families in Family Treatment Court. - photo by Tom Reed

Barbara, a mother in her late 30s and recovering drug addict, stood uncomfortably in front of the small, crowded courtroom in a black floral print dress, her lower lip quivering with emotion, while the judge stood by her side to tell her story.

Barbara’s freckle-faced adolescent daughter Alicia was taken from her home by the Department of Family and Children Services in February 2005 after methamphetamine was found in the house. Alicia was first placed in the care of relatives, then put in a foster home by March 2006, as Barbara struggled to meet the requirements of a state-mandated "reunification plan" that could result in Alicia returning to her.

By the fall of 2006, Alicia was still not back home, and Barbara "decided to take a bold step" by entering the new Hall County Family Treatment Court, Judge Cliff Jolliff said. The court-supervised treatment program lasts a minimum of 18 months — in many cases, two years.

"When she came here, she was shy, nervous, with no steady income of her own," Jolliff told a gathering of family, friends and local dignitaries who came to witness the court’s first graduation ceremony. "She had to rely on other people. What she did have was an incredible love of her daughter. But time was slipping away."

Determined to keep her daughter, Barbara submitted to frequent, random drug screens, five days of treatment each week, curfew checks at her home, twice-monthly court appearances and lived up to a promise to find steady employment. She has been clean and sober for 17 months.

"About six months into the program, her daughter was able to come home, and she’s been there ever since," Jolliff said to applause.

The ceremony’s emotional peak came when Barbara’s daughter, now 14, stood and embraced her, saying "I’m very proud of you," while Barbara’s eyes glistened with tears.

"Y’all helped me a lot," Barbara told the courtroom. "Y’all have been good friends, and I really appreciate it."

Failing in the old system

In the old way of doing business in juvenile court, Barbara "might never have had her child back," Jolliff said later in an interview.

"Without the support and the accountability of family treatment court, she just never would have been able to comply with the whole case plan" for reunification with her child, he said. "That would have led to a termination of her parental rights."

Termination of parental rights is considered the traumatic "end game" of child deprivation cases, in which neglect or abuse is alleged in the home. Hall County juvenile court hears deprivation cases for between 500 and 600 children each year.

When children are taken from the home, the initial goal is to place them with relatives or reunite them with their parents as soon as possible. It’s not always possible, however. And permanency for a child — a stable home environment, whether its in the house of a relative or an adoptive parent, is the ultimate goal, family court officials say.

"At 12 months, the state requires us to look at doing something rather than sending the child home" if a parent still hasn’t met his or her obligations under the reunification plan, Jolliff said. In many cases, that can mean the state petitioning for a termination of parental rights.

Those whose deprivation cases are rooted in substance abuse find that without structure and accountability, they flounder in "the system" without regaining their children, either by flunking drug screens or not meeting other requirements of the plan.

"The majority of our participants in family drug court have been in the system for a while, and they’re really not seeing any light at the end of the tunnel as far as getting their children back," said Bethany Sauls, the designated parent attorney who represents participants in family treatment court hearings. "Initially what you see is they are very desperate. Even though most of the time they’re still heavily into their addiction, they really want that extra help and know the old system isn’t working."

Jail time and termination

An hour after he praised his first graduate in a heart-warming ceremony, after the refreshments had been served and audience had left, Judge Jolliff sent three single mothers away in handcuffs.

It was what the judge later referred to as an "atypical day" for family treatment court’s 13 participants, including one who was scheduled to graduate from the program that day but had a last-moment relapse and a subsequent positive screen for alcohol.

Maggie, slender and tall and dressed for her graduation, blamed the dirty screen on cough syrup. She had avoided a negative screen and jail sanctions for the six months prior.

"No matter how close you are to graduation, everyone has to be treated the same," Jolliff said, before sending her to the Hall County jail for a five-day stay. "We’ll talk in a couple of weeks about where we go from here. You will be successful."

Another participant, Shanita, was called to task for testing positive for marijuana. She has a 1-year-old son and just completed a stint in residential rehab.

"What happened?" Jolliff asked.

"Overwhelmed," she responded. "Just overwhelmed. This is the first time in my life I’ve had to do things on my own, had this much structure over me."

Jolliff reminded Shanita of her obligations to her son.

"I don’t know who he can count on, if he can’t count on you," the judge said. Making reference to the address of the Hall County jail, he added, "You can’t take care of him on Barber Road."

Less than a month later, Shanita was terminated from the program for what officials called "chronic noncompliance." She was the fifth of 18 participants who have been terminated, though two quit early on.

"It’s just not working," the judge said. "We just get to the point where we’re not doing anything to help you."

The judge told Shanita, "you’re going to have to find another way" to keep her son.

"If (DFCS) feels his health and safety are at risk, they’ll have to file another lawsuit," Jolliff said.

"Now I can hold my head up"

The successes so far appear to outweigh the failures of Hall County’s family treatment court, the fourth such juvenile court program to be created in Georgia and one of four accountability courts in Hall County.

Family treatment court follows the same general model of Hall County’s felony drug court, DUI court and mental health court in creating a collaborative "staff" of court officials, treatment providers, attorneys and judges who largely put aside their adversarial roles to monitor and discuss the progress — or backslides — of each participant.

"Nobody’s pointing fingers at anyone else," said Sauls, who is designated as the parent advocate, but will also speak up if her clients are slipping in their obligations to the program. "Because we review these cases every two weeks, there’s no real chance for something to slip through the cracks. We still have our respective roles, but we’re all trying to work together."

Jolliff said the level of collaboration he’s seen, not just among the staff but with churches, nonprofits, the local housing authority and department of labor is unparalleled in his 18 years as a judge. Whereas in the past a parent might have to navigate through six or seven offices to meet the requirements of the reunification plan, the contacts have been reduced to one or two.

"There’s been this natural competition not to serve children and families before," Jolliff said. "This has really turned it around as it should be — a real collaboration by the community."

Tom, one of the few male participants in the program, spoke at a recent family treatment court hearing of the progress he’s made and the return of his daughter, Annie, to his home.

Family treatment court, Tom said, "got me sober and saved my life. Now I can hold my head up when I’m with my kids when they’re at their extracurricular activities at school."

Communitywide benefits

Family treatment court is about helping parents straighten out their lives and overcome addictions so they can get their children back, but it has other benefits as well, court officials say.

It cuts down on their reliance on government assistance, teaches parenting skills and strengthens family bonds, officials say. Barbara learned to read while she was in the program. Many participants worked for the first time in their lives. And it serves as a lesson to their children.

"By the parents getting clean and the children seeing that, hopefully it’s keeping them from following in the same footsteps," Sauls said. "Yes, we want the family to be reunified, but we certainly want to break that whole cycle."

Said Jolliff, "I also think it’s a community’s responsibility to its children, to try if at all possible to maintain the child with their family, whether its the church family or the school family. Foster care doesn’t guarantee that."

Jolliff said he hopes participation in the program grows from the present 13 to about 30, the most he thinks the staffing of the labor-intensive program can handle at this point.

"It’s the kind of thing that makes us think we ought to do this with every one of those 500 kids whose case comes to court, but we haven’t been able to bring it to scale yet," Jolliff said. "In theory, that’s how we ought to treat every one of these cases, but in reality we just can’t."

"Yet," he added with a smile, "maybe someday."

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