Pubdate: Tue, 25 Dec 2007
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 2007 Star-Telegram Operating, Ltd.
Author: Max B. Baker
Bookmark: (Treatment)
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)


FORT WORTH -- Nine people are gathered in front of  Associate Judge 
Ellen Smith's bench to discuss the  future of a family.

A Tarrant County prosecutor is there, along with a  Child Protective 
Services social worker and attorneys  for the father, mother and 
children. In the middle  stands a fidgeting 28-year-old woman from 
Arlington  hoping to get her children back.

Smith is told that the mother is trying to clean up her  act: She 
attends counseling sessions, works the  midnight shift as a waitress 
and sees her kids every  weekend. But recently the mother stumbled: 
She tested  positive for cocaine.

During 13 years on the bench, Smith has heard that  story too many 
times. Still, it tears at her heart.

"Some cases are more heartbreaking than others," Smith  said with a 
weak smile after finishing a docket in  which half the cases dealt 
with drug-addicted mothers  on the verge of losing their kids for 
good. "I'm  looking for some success stories."

In an attempt to find more happy endings, Smith  recently joined a 
team of judges, prosecutors, social  workers and defense attorneys 
working in a new family  drug court with the goals of protecting 
children and  reuniting families.

Over the next year, 20 mothers who give birth to  drug-exposed babies 
will get a chance to go through an  intensive program in an effort to 
bring the children  back home. Team members will become so intimately 
involved in the mothers' lives that they will literally  walk them 
from the maternity ward to the courtroom and  then to a rehab center.

Since the court started its work, this month, a  16-year-old girl has 
entered the program and is  undergoing in-patient drug 
rehabilitation. She tested  positive for cocaine and delivered a 
drug-exposed baby  in November.

State District Judge Jean Boyd, the county's chief  juvenile court 
judge, estimates that drugs are involved  in 98 percent of the cases 
in which a child is removed  from a home. County officials say 55 
percent to 60  percent of those children end up in adoptive homes.

Although taking children from their mothers protects  them from 
immediate harm, it ultimately inflicts a  tremendous emotional toll 
on the child and adds to the  stress on a crowded foster care system, 
officials said.

"It is a never-ending cycle I'd like to break," Boyd said.

Prosecutor James Teel said he's heard all of the  excuses about 
missing counseling sessions, not checking  in with a social worker, 
failing a urine test. After  eight years of dealing with those cases, 
he's ready to  try something new.

"It's easy to terminate their rights," Teel said. "But  if you can 
create stability with the parents in  sobriety, if you can create 
economic stability, housing  stability, these kids are better off 
with their birth  parents."

Intensive care

Mothers on methamphetamine or cocaine may find out  about the new 
court soon after their babies are born.

When a drug-exposed infant is born, the hospital will  call Child 
Protective Services. An investigator will  meet with the mother at 
the hospital and determine  whether she is a good candidate. Ideal 
applicants are  women who are giving birth to their first or second 
child and have no history of violent criminal behavior  and no 
serious mental health issues.

Within days, the mother will meet Smith at the  courthouse to learn 
about the program. Also at the  hearing will be her attorney, mental 
health experts,  family counselors and treatment providers.

If the mother enters the program, she will be assessed  and possibly 
whisked to a treatment facility or program  that day. If the father 
is involved, the court will  work with him, but its focus will be on 
the mother and  child.

It can now take weeks to get a drug-addicted mother  help, so the new 
program is a drastic change. "If you  don't get control of these 
people early on, you never  will," Teel said.

In her first four months with the program, the mother  will have 
daily contact with the court through a family  team meeting. She will 
be asked to take drug tests  twice a week, attend weekly 
administrative hearings and  see Smith once a month.

Over the next six months, she will see social workers  less 
frequently as the program focuses on developing  skills to deal with 
her addiction and with life in  general. A court representative will 
see the mother  every three months.

During the final two months, contact with the case  manager will drop 
to once a week, and drug testing and  administrative reviews will 
occur monthly. If all goes  well, Smith's last review will come as 
the case is  discharged and the child returned for good.

Agencies involved will also coordinate their efforts to  prevent 
increased pressure on the mother. For instance,  a mother's 
anger-management problems may be handled in  counseling rather than 
by making her take another  class.

"These cases are real frustrating because it's hard to  get everyone 
on the same page," Teel said. "And while  the services are already 
provided, for some reason they  don't jump on the fast-moving train 
to get their lives  back on track."

Through it all, the judge, prosecutor and caseworkers  will offer the 
mother continual feedback. Rewards for  good behavior will include 
not only freedom from drug  testing and court appearances but also 
items such as  gift certificates from local stores.

But the biggest prize dangled in front of the mother  will be the 
return of the child.

Changing behavior

It is important to get mothers to buy into their  treatment, and one 
way to do that is to treat the whole  person, said Holly McFarland, 
the court's coordinator.  McFarland is a lawyer and social worker at 
Tarrant  County Challenge.

"They realize that you are treating them like human  beings," 
McFarland said. "We want to work with those  motivated to change."

Smith and others are convinced that the program will  work, but 
family drug courts are relatively new and  have not been studied 
extensively. There are 250 family  drug courts nationwide, including 
seven others in  Texas.

But similar problem-solving courts have existed in  other parts of 
the justice system since 1989, when the  first drug court was opened, 
in Miami, during a crack  cocaine epidemic. There are now more than 
1,600 nationwide, including at least 90 in Texas.

Tarrant County has three specialized courts: Drug  Impact 
Rehabilitation Enhanced Comprehensive Treatment  (Direct); the Felony 
Alcohol Intervention Project  (FAIP), a DWI court; and a juvenile drug court.

All can show that their approach has worked.  Eighty-seven percent of 
those who go through the Direct  program do not reoffend, while 
during the DWI court's  one-year run, one participant has committed a 
new offense, and two did not complete the program and were  sent to 
prison. In the juvenile drug court, 87 percent  successfully 
completed the program.

A study by Southern Methodist University also shows  that for every 
dollar spent in a specialized court,  taxpayers save $9, Teel said.

"I think that all of the courts have to be concerned  with people 
changing their behavior and not just  getting locked up for their 
offenses," said state  District Court Judge Sharen Wilson, who was 
key in  starting the DWI court.

If the family drug court had existed six months ago,  staff would 
have already run additional drug tests on  the 28-year-old Arlington 
mother, and she would be  attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings more 
than twice  a month, Teel said.

She would also probably be a lot closer to getting her  kids back.

Holistic approach

The new Tarrant County family drug court is a $175,000  pilot project 
being paid for with public and private  money.

The program received a $100,000 grant from the Sid  Richardson 
Foundation and a $25,000 grant from the Ryan  Foundation. Gov. Rick 
Perry awarded the program $50,000  through the Texas Drug Court Program.

Among the community partners involved in the program:

Texas Department of Family and Protective Services

Mental Health Mental Retardation of Tarrant County

Tarrant County Defense Bar

Tarrant County Challenge

Lena Pope Home

Recovery Resource Council

Court Appointed Special Advocates

Source: Tarrant County Family Drug Court
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom