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Family Court uses Tough Love to Help Addicted Parents Rebuild Lives, Families

Judge Patricia Crain
Judge Patricia Crain, one of three judges who preside over cases in Community Family Court, says the court's approach helps break the cycle of addiction and neglect.

Photo: Jim Craven Photography

Judge Patricia Crain greets the woman with a casual "what's new?" only to hear the young mother seated at the front of the courtroom tearfully report that she’s separating from her boyfriend.


"You probably don’t have a choice," the Circuit Court judge says, reminding the woman that her sons come first. "He has to want it (sobriety), and he's apparently not there yet," Crain counsels.


After getting an update on the woman's progress in parent training, the judge asks her how long she's been clean and sober. "Sixteen months," the woman responds, winning applause from the judge and others in the courtroom.


And so the afternoon goes in Jackson County Community Family Court, a 10-year effort that's reversing the course of drug- and alcohol-addicted parents whose children have become wards of the state because of neglect. A new four-year study details the court's effectiveness, showing, for example, that each child spent 104 fewer days in foster care than children in similar cases handled in more traditional courts.


And while family courts are common across the country, this court relies on an unusual collaboration between the court, Department of Human Services, law enforcement and a host of community partners that provide services to support the families through recovery.


The collaboration is essential to Jackson County's success in safely keeping children out of foster care, says Doug Mares, DHS manager for Jackson and Josephine counties. (See related article: A network of family supports keeps kids out of foster care.) It also coincides with the state's effort to reduce the number of children in foster care by 26 percent by 2011 through a partnership between DHS, the Oregon Commission of Children and Families, the Oregon Judicial Department, Casey Family Programs and eight participating counties, including Jackson County.


"We've had some really brilliant people who've killed themselves to make this happen," says Crain. She credits Rita Sullivan, director of the Medford-based addiction recovery program On Track, who wrote the grants that finance much of the work. And none of this would be possible, the judge emphasizes, without Mares, whose agency is responsible for keeping the children safe.

"We were wrecking families instead of helping them," she says of the system that focused on removing children and punishing parents. That system, she says, perpetuated a cycle of generation after drug-addicted generation neglecting their children. "Now they're allowed to heal as a unit and make changes as a unit."


The healing comes, in her view, from the myriad of services -- innovative parent training from the non-profit Family Nurturing Center, home visits from a nurse through the Jackson County Health Department, case managers from On Track and caseworkers from DHS working in tandem -- that help keep the parents focused on recovery and being better parents. On Track sets some families up in housing with 24-hour supervision so that their children don't have to be put into foster care. If the children must be removed, DHS foster parents often mentor the biological parents and facilitate frequent visits between parents and children.


"As a CFC judge, you get to know the people – their triumphs and struggles. It makes a difference to the client to know the judge."
— Judge Lorenzo Mejia

There's also a high degree of accountability for the 50 families the court sees each year, says Judge Lorenzo Mejia, who also works in Community Family Court (CFC). "There are so many people on the team, if things aren't going well, we can address them before they get really bad."


The team Mejia refers to is in court each Tuesday, from 1 p.m. until well past 5 p.m., as a steady stream of parents comes forward.


On a recent Tuesday, a father can hardly control his enthusiasm as he tells the judge that he's completed his parole. Another father confesses that he's relapsed. A therapist tells the court that a parent is doing good work in group, and an On Track case manager challenges a mother to decide what she wants her life to look like. One woman asks for a letter explaining her situation to prospective employers. Court coordinator Susan Wahl, who skillfully choreographs the workings of the court, dishes out hugs and tells parents when they are due back in court.


The parents' successes are marked by applause, a handshake from the judge or a gift certificate drawn from a basket. Failures can result in a stern reminder of court rules, an essay assignment, community service or jail.


The positive re-enforcement and regular contact with the judges in a non-combative environment are essential, says Mejia, whose opinion is backed by research that shows the relationship between judges and participants is important to recovery. "As a CFC judge, you get to know the people - their triumphs and struggles. It makes a difference to the client to know the judge."


Participation in Community Family Court is voluntary and comes in addition to the usual child dependency court process. All of the parents in CFC must be in treatment either with On Track or Addictions Recovery Center. They've also agreed to stringent rules that include random drug testing, two 12-step meetings a week and no association with people who use or possess controlled substances. They are not violent criminals, and no criminal charges can be pending against them.


The court will oversee each case for at least a year, sometimes as long as 18 months. Court appearances are frequent -- weekly at first -- and a single judge stays with a case through its resolution.


"This keeps them accountable, and they like it," Crain says. "They know that we're watching and that we care."


The results of Community Family Court, when compared to cases handled in more traditional court, are good, according to a recent study by NPC Research. Beyond the court's success in reducing the number of days children spend in foster care, the study, done at the request of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, shows:

  • Parents spent nearly twice as long in treatment and were almost twice as likely to complete treatment.
  • Children were reunited with parents more often and significantly sooner.
  • Cases resulted in significantly fewer terminations of parental rights.
  • Parents were rearrested nearly half as often for any charge and 33 percent less often for drugs.

Perhaps even more surprising, the analysis showed a cost savings over more traditional methods. In fact, the researchers tallied a $5,593 savings per participant in the costs of criminal justice, treatment and child welfare.


"There is a clear benefit to the participants and to society in positive outcomes, and to the taxpayer ... in choosing the CFC over traditional court processing," concluded the study.


That endorsement pleases Crain and Mejia and underscores their shared view that the court can help end the generational cycle of drug abuse and child neglect.


"Some of them never knew a world without drugs," Crain says of the parents. "This helps them view the world through a different lens."


The court, says Mejia, can help participants become "productive parents who raise productive children. That's what we want."