Gotham Gazette

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On a recent Tuesday afternoon, a parent in Manhattan Family Treatment Court faced Judge Gloria Sosa-Lintner. In a courtroom the size of an ordinary living room, the parent, a recovering drug user, sat in a bright orange plastic chair and told the judge and a roomful of lawyers and child welfare workers that she had been clean for 50 days.

“ How about some applause,” she demanded. Sosa-Lintner and the lawyers clapped enthusiastically. Then the judge granted her more visiting time with her kids. “You look good today,” Sosa-Lintner told the parent.

“ So do you!” the parent responded. “I love you guys! I love my program! I’m happy.” She turned to the bailiff and said, “I love you too!”

Such ebullience was understandable. This parent, one of many foster parents with a history of drug alcohol abuse, was one day closer to getting her kids back.

Substance Abuse and Child Neglect

According to the Child Welfare League of America, a least half of all kids in foster care have parents who abuse drugs or alcohol. The children of parents who abuse alcohol or drugs are three times more likely to be abused and four times more likely to be neglected than other kids. But typically, drug and alcohol treatment for parents with kids in care is kept separate from their dealings with family court and the foster care system. This makes it difficult for family court judges to monitor a parent’s progress fighting addiction and to make informed decisions regarding whether it will be safe for a child to return home.

Family Treatment Court tries to address that gap. At the court, parents who have lost their kids to foster care, or are in danger of losing them because of drug or alcohol problems, get support (and sometimes admonishment) for their efforts fighting addictions. The court provides intensive services and monitoring to help parents recover and get their kids back and enables judges to better assess parents' progress.

The court formed in response to New York City’s crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s that put so many kids in foster care. The program was one of the first of its kind in the country.

Back then, said court referee Susan Doherty, existing drug treatment programs were not working with people with crack addiction. Many kids whose parents were abusing the drug went into foster care and never went back home.

Much has changed since then. Now, when a parent charged with neglect is a substance abuser, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services has the option to send them to Family Treatment Court. Parents are not forced to participate. Instead they are assigned a lawyer trained in addiction issues who helps them decide if they are ready for the program.

A Difficult Journey

“ What we tell them is that treatment court is harder [than regular family court], because they have to come to court more frequently and follow extra regulations, like taking drug tests,” said Doherty. “But it gives them a better chance of getting their kids back or of keeping them from going into the system, and it gives them a better chance of getting rid of their drug problem.”

Confronted with these options, not every parent says yes. “People have to be ready and willing to change,” said Sosa-Lintner who, like Doherty, has worked at the Manhattan court since 1998.

Once a parent decides to participate, they must first admit to being a substance abuser. “They have to tell the court, ‘yes, I have a drug problem,’” Doherty explained. This is not only the first step in recovery, but is legally required if the court is to take on the case.

Once in the program, each parent meets with a case manager who matches them with the appropriate drug treatment program: a day-treatment program, a residential program or evening sessions. Whatever the program, it must send the court a monthly progress report about how the parent is doing, and if he or she has been making visits with their kids.

To graduate from the FTC, parents need to meet several goals. They have to complete a treatment program, stay clean for at least one uninterrupted year, be able to support their children and complete a parenting skills program. They also may have to find a new job or housing to get their kids back.

But even if parents do all of this, there is no guarantee that they will get their kids back. Some parents might take so long to finish the program that their kids have formed a bond with whomever is caring for them and they are staying with, and a judge may determine that it is not right to move them again While parents stay in the treatment court for an average of two years, it takes some much longer to stay clean and do what they need to do to care for their children.

Steps Forward – and Back

The potential for relapse is a reality in any drug or alcohol treatment program. Family Treatment Court tries to give most parents another chance, if they can explain why they relapsed and get back on track. “Parents relapse all the time. We recognize relapse is a part of recovery,” Doherty said. “What’s important for us is how they handle it.”

One afternoon in the court, one parent had tested positive for alcohol when she arrived. When the judge asked her about it, she revealed that she had downed some glasses of wine the night before at a party.

The judge got a little tough on the woman, reminding her that, if she wanted her kids back, she had to successfully complete a treatment program.

Another mother, who was in and out of her program, offered no explanation for dates she had missed. A court worker said that the woman had tested positive for cocaine that morning.

Sosa-Lintner said that the woman’s children would be placed at their grandmother’s house that night. The mother asked for a referral to a 28-day detox program. After that, she hoped she would be clean enough to continue through with the treatment program.

Other parents celebrated their success. One woman got a certificate as a reward for completing “Phase One,” after being clean for four months straight. Now she was ready for Phase Two, another four months of sobriety and treatment along with parenting skills classes.

Denise Dizzine, a court case manager, explained that the court uses rewards and sanctions. “Sanctions might be meeting with a case manager every week or writing an essay about why it’s important for them to be in treatment,” said Dizzine. Rewards include perks like a journal, a supportive message from the judge, or more visits with their kids.

This model has proven so successful that today there are 48 family treatment courts in New York State alone.

“ The court acts like a parent figure,” Sosa-Lintner in explaining its success. “The people that come before Susan and me are usually young people, who haven’t completed much in their lives. They are looking for praise, and they’re also looking for the court to chastise them if they do wrong. People come to treatment court because they’re hopeful something will click.”

And for many people who come through court it does eventually click. As of February, 2007, the court had worked with 916 parents from 816 families, and 354 parents had graduated. Doherty would like to see it reach even more families. “I think the court is working great,” she said. “I wish it was working better. I wish that these resources -- the close monitoring, the support -- were available to all parents in family court.”

This article by La’Quesha Barner, a writer for Represent, written by and for foster teens, is adapted from the pages of our partner, Youth Communication.