Family treatment court reunites parents with their children

Partnership between courts and community professionals allows parents to reunite with their children

Jo Wolff swings with her daughter Naomi, 7, as they visit Tucker Park on Thursday, March 20, 2014, in Hiawatha, Iowa. Wo
Jo Wolff swings with her daughter Naomi, 7, as they visit Tucker Park on Thursday, March 20, 2014, in Hiawatha, Iowa. Wolff is a graduate of Family Treatment Court. The court works with community professionals to help parents struggling with substance abuse that put them at risk of losing their parental rights. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG)

“It’s SUMMER,” seven-year-old Naomi yells on the first day of spring last week as she starts swinging and then goads her mother into a competition of who can go the highest.

“You wait and let me get up,” Naomi says as she kicks up her legs for more speed. “Just wait. It’s SUMMER.”

“It’s spring,” Jo Wolff says shaking her head at her daughter, who’s not about to listen.

Wolff, 33, is more than content to be prodded into games at the park and even have this silly argument because life without this rambunctious girl isn’t something Wolff wants to go through again.

She lost custody of her daughter for four months in 2011 because she was abusing pain pills, which became too expensive to buy, so she started snorting heroin and then her daughter was taken from her.

“My actions gave Naomi to DHS (the Department of Human Services), they didn’t take her away,” Wolff, clean and sober since 2012, said bluntly.

Kristine Pace, 44, couldn’t get her 2-year-old son, CJ, to stop throwing his small rubber basketball at the television screen, so she put him in timeout on the sofa and as he struggled to get out, she kept smiling and insisted she didn’t mind going through the “terrible twos.”

Pace, a professed drug addict since age 12, lost custody of her other three children because of drugs. She started using marijuana but tried many drugs and the one that ruined her life was crack cocaine.

She tried to “numb everything” after being molested as a child, and then drifted in and out of abusive relationships.

CJ was in foster care for five weeks, but she said if she lost this one, “I was going to kill myself.” Pace has been sober for two years.

These two women are grateful to have been accepted into the Linn County Family Treatment Court, a program that others may not experience because the federal funding runs out in September for the Linn court, along with the four other pilot programs in the state.

Two federal grants totaling $3.5 million were awarded to the judicial branch in 2007 and 2011 for Linn, Scott, Wapello, Polk, Woodbury/Ida counties family courts. The judicial branch budget included more than $400,000 for family courts in the 2015 budget request, which legislators will consider in the next few weeks.

The court is a partnership between courts and community professionals that not only involves substance-abuse treatment but addresses the problems that lead to drug addiction so parents can reunite with their children. Pace graduated in September 2013 and Wolff this past month.

Sixth Judicial Associate District Juvenile Judge Susan Flaherty said parents who have admitted to a substance-abuse problem and are at risk of losing their child because a Child in Need of Assistance case is pending are eligible for the court.

Flaherty, two substance abuse providers, an outreach worker, a DHS social worker and an assistant county attorney are the team that reviews applications for the court and provides counseling and services to the parents while in the program.

Some of the parents already have gone through drug treatment or will start treatment when they enter the court program, Flaherty said. They also are required to complete four intensive phases that can take more than a year to complete.

Those phases tasks parents with setting goals for sobriety and abstinence, parenting skills, education, employment, stable living and financial arrangements, strengthening relationships with family and community and volunteer work.

Flaherty said this is different from drug court because these parents aren’t facing jail or prison time, so it’s voluntary and they have to be motivated by wanting to keep their children.

The key to this program’s success is accountability and the parents are monitored weekly by the team to ensure they are working on their tasks and goals. They can only be discharged from court by Flaherty.

“This provides a safety net for them,” Flaherty said. “They have a support group with the team and others in court-something they probably didn’t have in their lives before (to overcome addiction).”

Flaherty holds court once a week and speaks with each of the parents about their progress with treatment. She also receives a report from the team on each parent so she knows what to address.

“We treat them humanely and give them an opportunity,” Flaherty said. “They aren’t all successful. Some have had their parental rights terminated.”

Linn County court has had 51 parents participate since 2007 and 16 have graduated. There were 29 discharged who didn’t complete the phases and requirements and there are six more on track to graduate this year.

Katie Eastvold, family treatment court coordinator, said the low number of graduates doesn’t accurately portray how many were helped. In some cases, a parent may decide the best place for their child is with an adoptive family or a parent may obtain full-time employment and can’t attend treatment court, which meets during the day, so they would be discharged without graduating.

Eastvold said if a parent has maintained sobriety and obtained employment with the help of the court team, they would be considered a success.

Flaherty said they are looking at other possible grant options to keep the program afloat, in case the budget isn’t approve by the legislature and the program is cut. They also have a volunteer network that helps with grant applications and planning some fundraisers.

Wolff said she hopes the court continues because she doesn’t know if she could have gotten her daughter back without it. The court team supported her every day.

“I remember the day Naomi could come back and live with me,” Wolff said smiling. “My motivation (to change is) … when you lose the most important thing in your life.”

Pace said this court saved her life. This is the longest she has ever been clean.“They loved me until I learned to love myself," she said. "I would say to anyone give yourself a chance because while you are high you don’t know who you are.”