The first time Rita Sullivan saw a child removed from a parent she made a silent vow to change the system of child welfare. A mother was returning to drug treatment when police arrested her on an old warrant. Her 2-year-old reached desperately for his mother, crying, "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!"
Rita Sullivan, director of the addiction recovery program On Track, says it's not only often better for children to remain with their parents when proper supports are in place, but it's also less expensive for taxpayers.
Nearly 30 years later, this PhD clinical psychologist is on her way to keeping that promise. As the director of On Track, a Medford-based addiction recovery program, she's lauded as the driving force behind a major component of a state and local partnership that has helped reduce the number of children in family and relative foster care in Jackson County by about 50 percent, from 450 in 2005 to 225 in 2010.
Specifically, the On Track program seeks to reduce entry into foster care in the first place – just one of Jackson County's six ambitious goals to safely reduce the number of children in foster care.
"It only takes one person who is dedicated and persistent to spark this out," says Circuit Court Judge Patricia Crain. "Rita (Sullivan) was that person. Rita had the vision." Crain also credits Doug Mares, Department of Human Services manager for Jackson and Josephine counties, for the results she sees in the courts each week as parents regain custody of their children.
"None of my staff would want to remove a child if they could provide safety," Mares says of his agency's role. "This is a dream come true."
Jackson County's success stands out in Oregon, where the percentage of children placed in foster care is above the national average. The state has set a goal of reducing the number of children in foster care by 26 percent by 2011 through a partnership with the DHS, the Oregon Commission on Children and Families, the Oregon Judicial Department and Casey Family Programs as well as eight participating counties, African American groups and the nine federally recognized Oregon tribes.
On Track, with an army of community partners, is addressing the issue of foster-care entry head-on. Over three years, two federal grants have provided intensive services to 157 families, says Sullivan, with only two of the families failing to complete treatment and regain custody of their children. At the core of these efforts is supervised, drug-free housing, which allows families to remain intact.
As a result, she says, the state saved from $1.5 to $2 million a year in foster care costs for each of the three years.
Yet the future is uncertain. The non-renewable federal grants will expire in September 2012. Without new financial backing, the programs and services cannot be sustained.
"The majority of children are removed from their parents due to safety concerns related to their parents' substance abuse. Because the substance abuse can be treated, most of these children can safely remain at home," says Sullivan. "Many of these parents have difficulty with attachment problems because they were never parented appropriately themselves. Clinical services to improve attachment and teach effective parenting reduce foster care placements and the risks of intergenerational abuse and neglect."
Sarah Pressley tells her story as if she's reading the phone book: In foster care from age 8 to 13; started using marijuana and alcohol at 10; moved up to meth at 11; in juvenile detention 55 times; arrested for drugs, theft, burglary and robbery; in Hillcrest Juvenile Youth Correctional Facility from age 16-18; went back to using drugs after leaving Hillcrest.
After discovering that she was pregnant, Sarah stayed clean until the baby was born. Then she started using prescription drugs, including Oxycodone. She stopped breast feeding when she decided to move on to heroin.
Enter DHS and On Track with a unique brand of tough love.
Sarah Pressley spent time in foster care as a child and wants a better life for her daughter, Reece, 1. She says she's sometimes lonely and overwhelmed as a single parent, but she's learning to be independent.
Sarah, now 20, has been clean for five months. Her daughter, 13-month-old Reece, is walking and showing a healthy independent streak. They live in a spotless apartment, where Sarah displays her flare for decorating with flowers stenciled on the wall and sheer white valances draping the living room windows. "I couldn't do anything before. I didn't know how to cook, clean, keep a schedule. I wasn't good about feeding my daughter."
She says that fear of losing her daughter is keeping her off drugs. "I don't know if I could have gotten clean if she hadn't been with me."
Sarah's new life is non-stop: Narcotics Anonymous meetings twice a week, individual mental health therapy, daily group sessions, parenting training, home visits from a nurse, appearances in Community Family Court every other week, and now she'll be taking Reece to the Family Nurturing Center to address some behavioral issues. She's required to be home by 10 p.m. She's not allowed to date. Caseworkers from On Track visit her home unannounced, barely knocking as they enter.
Although she can't be certain that she'll be clean in a year, she's clean today. "I can't put myself or my daughter at risk. ... I've never had a baby before. I've never had any of the consequences fall on anyone but myself."
She says she couldn't have gotten to this point without On Track supervisor Kelly Fereira and case manager Chris Rock, supervised housing and all of the services. "I was the walking dead when I got here. I couldn't get a brush through my hair. I didn't shower on a regular basis. I couldn't do anything. They saved my life."
Sullivan broke child welfare ground in Oregon in 1989 with the first publicly funded residential treatment program that allowed mothers to keep their children with them. The results helped convince her that children can often safely remain with parents when the right supports are in place.
From that grew the two federally funded programs – one dubbed Permanency and the other Family Connections – and buy-in from local officials.
"This is a community working as a team," says Dawn del Rio, clinical supervisor at the Family Nurturing Center, which works to increase the social and emotional functioning of the children at the center of these cases. "There's been a very clear shift that family and children are the focus."
"If you can safely keep a child and parent together, that's tremendous," says Doug Mares, Department of Human Services manager for Jackson and Josephine counties.
Mares concurs. "If you can safely keep a child and parent together, that's tremendous," he says, emphasizing that community involvement can make the difference.
As a result of his commitment, DHS staff members work side-by-side with On Track employees, some of whom have been through the system themselves because of drug and alcohol issues. Together they assess families, determine services, monitor progress and make recommendations to the court.
When possible, families are told that their children will not be taken away if they move into housing with 24-hour supervision by On Track and comply with tough requirements. If it's determined that the children cannot safely remain with their parents, On Track and DHS work to keep the family connection through frequent visits and supportive services, including DHS-trained foster parents who act as mentors.
But this cooperation, says Mares, doesn't relieve DHS of the responsibility for keeping children safe. When there's a disagreement about whether a child can safely remain with a parent, the workers and supervisors talk it through. In rare circumstances when differences can't be resolved, DHS writes an independent assessment. "It's a healthy system of checks and balances," he says.
For Sullivan's part, the collaboration with Mares, the courts and others, is essential to gaining credibility and pushing the entire system forward. "If I'm out there by myself, I'm a crazy person – an extremist."
Serena and Jesse Cushman had already sent the three older children to live with relatives so that the kids wouldn't have to watch them come off methamphetamines. Then came a knock on the door. A police officer accompanied the workers from DHS and On Track.
Jesse was arrested for possession of meth, Serena was cited for child endangerment and their youngest child was sent to another relative. Five days later, Jesse was out of jail and they were living with friends, able to see their children for one hour a week. The visits, says Serena, were hard on them, but even worse for the kids. "Every time we left them, we saw the disappointment on their faces: That's mom and dad letting me down again."
Serena and Jesse Cushman say On Track supervisor Kelly Fereira fought for them to get their four children back, including Jessee May, 3, and Halina, 1. Now living in supervised housing, the couple says it's not always easy but they are getting the help that they need.
Then, in Jesse's words, "miracles started to happen."
Three months later the blended family is back together, living in a charming albeit cramped two-bedroom On Track apartment in Medford. Both parents are in treatment and attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Jesse is taking anger management classes and getting mental health therapy. Because she is pregnant, Serena gets services from On Track's Healthy Babies program. They've filled out an application to get services from the Family Nurturing Center, which assesses the family's needs and works with both the children and parents to improve the social and emotional function of the children.
Serena acknowledges that it would have been difficult for them to get clean on their own. "I had watched that drug destroy my family. Jesse was so wrapped up in it, I don't think he saw it." She appreciates the services they are getting. "It gives us a place to live. I'm not fighting to get my kids back. He's getting some help and understanding himself better."
Jesse says he's learned a lot. "I started looking at what Serena has done for me, what I've put her through. And she's still here," he says, taking a long pause. "That's love. ... This place is what helped me see that."
A half-dozen children play in the sprinkler on a 104-degree day outside the U-shaped 1920s apartment building in Medford. Their parents lounge in a shady corner of the yard, keeping an eye on the kids and bantering with an On Track case manager.
"My son loves me to death, and you can't buy that," Jesse Cushman says of Jaden, 4.
This, says Sullivan, is the cornerstone of the success that's occurred in Jackson County. Known as The King Street Apartments, this is the emergency housing made available to selected families as they first come into the system. With an On Track staff member at the complex 24-hours a day, parents can keep their children with them as they begin the myriad of programs that are intended to help them change their lives and the lives of their children.
As they get stronger in their recovery and parenting, they move to progressively less stringent supervision in other apartment complexes sprinkled through the city. They will look for work or return to school. They will eventually move into independent housing.
Without King Street and the intensive services families receive, DHS officials say, these children would be moved to foster care. Such a move, statistically speaking, would make them more likely to become involved in juvenile crime, become teen parents and do poorly in school.
The human costs of foster care can't be calculated, but the financial costs are obvious, says Sullivan.
While Jackson County has avoided $4.5 to $6 million in foster care costs over three years, those savings haven't yet been reinvested in the state or local foster care system. Sullivan wants to change that and bring the money back to Jackson County for programs that keep families together. In her usual style, she's seeking community support to make that happen.
Judge Crain, for one, supports Sullivan's plan. "I hope that this becomes sustainable. I'd like to see child welfare make this the way to do business."
Asked what will happen if the state doesn't replace the federal grant dollars that support her program, Sullivan begins to answer but stops and collects her thoughts.
"It will be sustained," she says in a quiet, determined voice. "You know why? Because it costs more not to do it."