New court program lends helping hand to parents addicted to drugs

awomack@macon.comOctober 16, 2013 

When children are neglected or abused by parents addicted to drugs or alcohol, families often end up in the state’s juvenile courts.

In some cases, children are removed from their homes and placed into foster care. Some never go home.

Using a state grant, Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit Juvenile Court Judge Philip B. Spivey is using the circuit’s new Family Dependency Treatment Court to give parents a chance to kick their addiction and have children return home faster.

Like other accountability courts that offer alternative ways of handling drug and mental health cases, Family Dependency Treatment Courts work to help correct parents’ behavior without them losing their children forever, Spivey said.

The court partners with River Edge Behavioral Health Center and the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services to offer drug treatment, parenting support and other services.

Family Treatment Dependency Courts first started cropping up across the nation in 1995. More than 300 are in operation today. State records show 10 are based in Georgia.

The need for the courts grew out of juvenile court judges’ frustration with a law requiring judges to find a permanent placement for children within 15 to 22 months, Spivey said.

“A lot of times, addiction takes longer than that to treat,” he said.

DFACS doesn’t have resources beyond referring a parent to a service provider for help and at that point, “the parent either sinks or swims,” Spivey said.

In Family Treatment Dependency Courts, judges use a series of incentives and sanctions to provide parents with structure as they complete an average 18-month program, he said.

Program participants are assessed by River Edge in Milledgeville to determine their individual needs, said Jamie Gray, a River Edge marriage and family therapist who serves as treatment coordinator for the program.

In addition to providing treatment for mental health and substance abuse needs, River Edge sends a case manager into parents’ homes to provide parenting support and offer programs to help participants find work, Gray said.

The treatment is geared toward a holistic approach that brings in other family members to help strengthen the family unit, not just the parent with the addiction, she said.

Surveillance officers also make unannounced in-home visits as part of the program, Spivey said.

Examples of sanctions used by the judge include requiring more frequent drug testing, additional classes, the writing of essays and sometimes jail, he said.

At times, parents must start the program in jail.

“There are some parents who are not self-starters. Their lives are in complete chaos. They can’t stop using. Their judgment is extremely impaired,” Spivey said. “You have to do something to get their attention.”

Examples of incentives include gift baskets, gas cards or help acquiring things participants need like cleaning supplies, he said.

In hopes of helping parents get on their feet, Spivey said he is seeking out community partnerships to help provide program participants with housing, furniture, clothing and everyday necessities. The Eighth Judicial Circuit Drug Court Foundation is a nonprofit organization which can accept tax deductible donations to the program.

“Drug addicts typically have nothing. They’ve hit rock bottom,” he said.

With the $66,000 Criminal Justice Coordinating Council grant awarded in July, the program can help 25 parents in Baldwin, Jones, Putnam and Wilkinson counties. Eleven parents currently are participating, Spivey said.

The court also has applied for a $650,000 federal grant, which could expand the program to the entire eight-county circuit, which also includes Greene, Hancock, Jasper and Morgan counties.

Spivey said he has confidence the state will continue to fund the program if there’s proof children are returning home sooner and aren’t being removed again.

“I’m not fulfilled in my job if I’m not doing everything I can to get these children back with their parents and this program has given me the tools to do that,” he said. “I’m real excited about it.”

To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.

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