At 10 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, a line of parents pushing strollers filed into a conference room at the Sacramento County Courthouse. They sat at rows of narrow plastic tables, shushing their babies and gazing up at a man in a black robe.
Hearing Officer Jim Teal sounded his gavel. “This is the time and place set for Early Intervention Family Drug Court,” he began, gazing sternly at the rapt faces of parents who sit before him. “Graduation from this court is considered a critical factor in determination that the children of participants will be safe from any further exposure to the danger and destructive impact of parental substance abuse.”
Substance abuse is a factor in up to 80 percent of cases in which a child is removed from home. Recently, the number of children entering the foster care system has surged after years of decline. Roughly 265,000 kids entered foster care last year — the highest number since 2008, according to a recent government report. And there are signs that the opioid epidemic may be to blame.
Parents who receive addiction treatment are much more likely to get their kids back, but four in five parents fail to complete their treatment regimen.
The Early Intervention Family Drug Court in Sacramento aims to change that by helping parents complete treatment before their children enter the foster care system. If they fail, they’ll be sent next door to a formal family drug court, where their children are taken away and given attorneys of their own.
But before that, the parents get this opportunity to enter recovery, through a mix of support, medication-assisted treatment and tough love.
Many parents in the court entered the system after having babies born dependent on opioids or other drugs, while others were reported to Child Protective Services by friends or family. All are at risk of losing custody of their children because of their drug abuse.
Emma, 20, a striking woman with long blond hair, approached Teal’s podium. California Healthline is withholding her last name to protect the child’s privacy.
“Good morning,” said Teal. “Who do you have with you there?”
“My daughter, Cailynn,” Emma answered proudly, bouncing her cooing baby on her hip.
Emma started using drugs when she was just 16. At first it was methamphetamines, but she quickly transitioned to heroin. Then she got pregnant.
When Cailynn was born, the baby tested positive for opioids. Child Protective Services came to the hospital and took her into custody.
“I regret every moment of it. It’s hard. But I’ve gotta keep my head up and keep going,” Emma said. She wanted her daughter back.
Usually, Sacramento County has a three-month wait for people who need substance abuse treatment. But by volunteering to participate in the early intervention court program, Emma was able to get treatment right away.
“So Emma, it says here you’re 63 days compliant,” Teal said from the podium. “And 63 days in the program, so you’ve been good. You’ve been doing what you’re told. Congratulations.”
The other parents in the room burst into applause — this is a major accomplishment. The six-month program is rigorous. In addition to monthly sessions at the court, the parents must attend almost daily group meetings, submit to random drug tests and take parenting classes. Many, like Emma, go to inpatient rehab. Medication-assisted therapy for opioids is also available. And once or twice a week, they get a home visit from their social worker.
Emma attributes much of her success in the program so far to social worker Matthew Takamoto, whom she calls “amazing.”
Takamoto has been a social worker for 20 years and has been part of the early intervention program since it began six years ago. The program, he said, is an important change in way the county handles addiction.
“In the olden days, we were quicker to send them to court,” he said. Their approach was “more blaming the addict verses giving them the tools they need.”
In the afternoon following the court meeting, Takamoto drove to the inpatient residential facility where Emma lives with her daughter. In the back is a grassy yard with a small jungle gym. Several mothers watch their children play. Emma sat in a plastic chair, holding Cailynn in her lap.
Takamoto seemed happy with her progress. “You take these clients from the very beginning where they’re broken and it’s the worst day of their life. And to see them slowly get back up as they have days of clean time, it’s been incredible,” he said.
But he said the hardest part of his job is realizing that not all parents are going to make it through the program — in fact, just one-third of parents end up graduating. “If these parents aren’t successful, it’s the kids [who] pay the price,” he said. “The parents are doing what they want to do, but the kids don’t have a choice.”
Just 5 to 10 percent of families in the country who could use family drug courts have access to them, according to Children and Family Futures, an organization that advises and evaluates family drug courts. Sacramento’s program is one of about 350 in the country, though most work with families after their children have entered the foster system.
Sherri Z. Heller, director of Sacramento’s Health and Human Services Department, describes family drug courts as a success story.
“People can overcome addiction if the motivation is strong enough, and this is the most effective motivation I have ever seen,” said Heller. She points to the early intervention court as evidence.
Just 10 percent of kids with families in the program end up being removed from their home, compared to 30 percent of children in families who do not participate. That represents a major savings to the county — about $21,000 a year for every kid who doesn’t have go into the court and foster system, for an annual savings of $7 million.
“The rush that comes with getting high is pretty spectacular. And it’s very hard physically, once the addiction happens, to overcome,” said Heller. “But if there is one thing that matters to people more than the thrill of getting high, it’s the thrill of doing the right thing for your children and keeping your family intact.”
Emma clearly wants to be a good mom. Asked by Teal how she sees her future in six months, Emma said she wanted to have her own apartment with her daughter. “Have a good life. Clean. Don’t have to have drugs no more,” she said.