Dependency Treatment Court Helps The Youngest Foster Kids By Helping Their Parents
Jessica Rodriguez has told her story many times.
“Let me tell you a little about me, my case originally started due to a domestic violence phone call,” she recently told a few women gathered in a room for a pre-assessment group at Terros, a Valley healthcare organization that offers primary care, as well as substance use treatment.
“My drug of choice was cocaine, alcohol or marijuana,” she said. “Every other week I would get paid, every other week, I would rent weekly motels.”
These women are all here because a judge ordered them into treatment. They’re all facing a Department of Child Safety case and allegations of substance abuse.
And, Rodriguez’s story is meant to show them that success, sobriety and reunification with their children, is possible.
She told them about how she lost her job and ended up living in a park. “I mean, you’re asking for change, and collecting cans and all that stuff,” she said.
And, she told them about how her kids were taken by Child Protective Services after police were called to the apartment she shared with her boyfriend. He was abusive, sometimes violent, and she said her neighbors called the police often.
With substance use treatment, a commitment to therapy and after graduating from Dependency Treatment Court, she told them how she managed to turn it around.
“From the day it started, my kids were removed. Two years later, I was granted custody of both my children. Now it’s been two years since all that,” she said. “So, I’ve had them both back for two years!”
The women clapped for her and smiled.
Rodriguez is now a recovery coach at Terros, but, not long ago she was in the same place as these women, ordered into treatment and working to get her children back.
“I felt shameful. You know, I wouldn’t go around my family,” she said. “I would literally sit on the floor, holding a pillow, rocking myself back and forth, just crying. You know, I was heartbroken.”
For a while, she said she went through the motions of getting treatment. It wasn’t until the foster family offered to adopt her daughter that she woke up. The judge gave her one more chance to keep her.
“You know, she says, ‘if your case manager believes in you, and she feels like you deserve another chance, I’m going to give it to you,’” Rodriguez said. “That’s when I left. I left my ex and I told them I would do whatever it took.”
She went to live in a domestic violence shelter, started working in earnest with her therapist at Terros, and started going to weekly hearings with Judge Colleen McNally’s Dependency Treatment Court.
“It’s a pretty friendly environment,” according to McNally. “You notice the courtroom looks a lot different than most courtrooms. And I have to explain that to them, I have to say, I’m a real judge!”
It’s true. The Dependency Treatment Court looks more like a classroom than a courtroom.
“My role as the treatment court judge is to hold you accountable,” McNally said. “Are you calling your treatment provider to find out if you have to test or not? Are you doing your drug tests? Are you staying clean? Are you going to the treatment that’s been made available to you?”
If you are — “You’re going to get applause, you’re going to get a prize, we’re going to put a star on your contract,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh these are adults, they’re just going to roll their eyes and walk away,’ but they love that because it’s recognition that they’re making positive change.”
Structure builds a path out of a traumatic past
McNally said that the large majority of the cases in the state’s child welfare system have two components: substance abuse and neglect.
And, if a parent with young children gets involved with the Department of Child Services because of allegations of substance use, they can voluntarily enroll in the DTC program to work to get them back.
Rodriguez said the court gave her something concrete, when it everything else in her life felt out of control.
“I really liked the structure of it,” she said. “And just having that additional support on a weekly, bi-weekly basis, was really helpful.”
McNally launched the program in late 2012 as part of its Cradle to Crayons program for infants and toddlers in foster care. They got funding from the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to provide services like parent-child psychotherapy, visit-coaching to help parents learn how to attach to their kids, and trauma therapy for parents, McNally said.
“When parents come to Cradle to Crayons, the adults, the parents, we do trauma screens on them,” she said.
They found that the majority of the parents who end up in the program have experienced a lot of trauma in their lives.
“Being abandoned, losing family members to illness or other things, witnessing violence, being sexually abused, being physically abused, these are all things that can really add up to a really difficult trauma history," McNally said.
Most of them, she said, say they were in foster care themselves when they were young.
“We need to do better for these kids because that’s the next generation of parents,” she said.
Most program parents re-united with children
Now, a few years into the program, Maricopa County Superior Court reports that 95 percent of parents who graduate from the program are reunified with their children. For parents who don’t participate, only 33 percent reach reunification.
Rodriguez said the court taught her that there’s a consequence to every action, a lesson she continues to pass on today.
“It’s all consequences, you know,” she told the group of women at Terros. “Every choice has a consequence, whether positive or negative. You just happen to be here today.”
Now, in her work at Terros, she hopes she can be an example to parents who might feel like recovery and reunification are a long way off.
“Being a recovery coach, I’m able to provide that hope. And tell them, like, it’s going to be rough, and it’s going to seem like it’s never going to end, but it will,” she said. “And sharing my story with them, gives them hope. And that, to me, means a lot.”