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Becoming Whole Again: Achieving Family Reunification Through the F.I.R.S.T Program

DARRELL: It's an epidemic out there. No hope, no tomorrow. Dead end. There's people out there who are the walking dead. And when I took that first hit, I was still a baby ... my whole life ahead of me. And it was shattered with just one hit of drugs.

ALFREDA: My son got killed. My 12 year-old son got taken from me. It was hard. I continued to get high, not thinking about my son, trying to cover up those feelings.

DARRELL: While I was in prison my kids were taken from me. When I got out in 2004, I missed my kids.

ALFREDA: I had to get him back because of me. And I had to turn around.

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DARRELL: I was just tired of the way I was living, and the lifestyle for so many years. So I ... this is the last chance to get help for myself, and also to obtain my kids again.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: Even under the best of conditions, being a parent is never easy. Parents must feed and clothe their children, keep them safe and well, and provide good role models for living. Under the worst of conditions, a home where there is addiction to drugs or alcohol, being a parent is impossible. These addicts have lost control of their lives, and because of their addiction, they have lost their children as well. But where this might have been the end of their story, it is actually the beginning. This is Family Drug Treatment Court, and these are participants in a revolutionary recovery program called F.I.R.S.T., Families in Recovery to Stay Together. The program teaches addicts how to live clean, sober, responsible lives, and in the process gives them the chance to get their children back from foster homes supervised by the Department of Social Services. The FIRST program is strictly voluntary; when participants sign on they understand that even though there are no criminal charges against them, they are subject to jail time if they break the rules. For these hopeful F.I.R.S.T. parents, the stakes are high . . . and the clock is ticking, thanks to a federal law called ASFA.

TYRONE WADE: The Adoption and Safe Families Act. The federal government says children should not grow up in foster care. Because the government cannot parent, children need parents. They should be returned their parents if it is safe to do so, and if not the government, DSS, should look for alternative parents, foster homes.

SHERRI GLENN: The goal for YFS is to achieve permanency for children in one year. For the parents that don't grasp that, can't get control of substance abuse issues, then in one year we recommend termination of parental rights, adoption . . . It doesn't always get fixed in one year, but we have such an intensive program, they are allowed extra time.

DANNETTE SMITH: (1) Quite honestly we were seeing the same families, treating the same families, working with the same families, and wanted to find a way to make a difference.

TYRONE WADE: (1) When DSS is involved, a family is struggling with substance abuse. 80 to 90 percent of cases where we remove children from homes, it's because of substance abuse. It takes a lot of time to get a family back together. If you want to return children to a home you have to make sure the home is safe.

DANNETTE SMITH: (2) Sometimes they need guidance, support, structure, feedback on how important sobriety is in parenting. Many parents in F.I.R.S.T. haven't had people who would be honest, tell them the impact they have on children; what are the consequences when you aren't sober, putting kids at risk.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: The FIRST program, in association with the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, offers clients two levels of participation. Level I incorporates substance abuse treatment, monitoring and random drug testing. Participants may volunteer or be ordered to enter the Level II program, which includes substance abuse treatment and random drug tests, and introduces more intensive case management, biweekly court sessions, staffings, the Strengthening Families Program or Parenting classes, and requires NA or AA meetings. The road to recovery and reunification also includes locating safe and sober housing and finding a job to help support a family.

Before Family Drug Treatment Court convenes, a team of professionals meets to discuss each client's case. Attorneys, a case coordinator, social workers, treatment professionals and the District Court Judge work together to provide support to the struggling parent fighting to win custody of their child. Judge Regan Miller will hear about the progress, or lack of progress, from the F.I.R.S.T. program participants.

JUDGE MILLER: It's difficult for judges to get a feel for whether or not their decisions are having a positive impact. In Drug Court I see a progression, a positive progression in most cases. A person comes in with issues, mainly substance abuse. To watch a person progress through substance abuse treatment as well as mental health treatment, it gives the feeling that what you're doing is having a positive impact. The goal is to try to keep the family together.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: The Drug Court judge can be a benevolent father figure, understanding and forgiving. But when clients break the rules too often the judge has the power to force compliance. That can mean sanctioning time spent in jail.

(Judge is heard sentencing a client to jail for failing another drug test.)

CHUCK PORTER: (2) Some sanctions are difficult. Going to jail. I don't like to see that. It goes against the grain of what a defense lawyer is all about. But for them to be successful, sometimes you have to go through difficult time, jail. Sometimes jail is for the best.

ALFREDA: I got sick and tired of going to jail. It was devastating. But sanctions is good . . . If not for sanctions I would wind up back there. Just like a child, when he gets in trouble, it's consequences. No matter how it happened, I had a part to play in it, had to deal with it.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: Jail time, extra court dates, more meetings, more intensive counseling; whatever it takes to make a F.I.R.S.T. client realize that when the federally mandated deadline passes, there is no chance of getting back their child. Sometimes this puts added pressure on parents. And sometimes they falter.

DARRELL: (4) Failure has been my biggest flaw. My biggest letdown has been failure. I failed everybody, but biggest of all I failed myself. When I came to the program it gave me a chance. I had to be willing.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: Being willing means undergoing a substance abuse treatment program and attending meetings, such as this group treatment session at SAIL, a private substance abuse counseling firm. Souls are laid bare as fellow addicts listen to each other and offer support and confidence. Participants also attend 12-Step meetings such as Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous, sometimes as many as five meetings a week.

CARLY THORPE: Every person sitting in those group rooms is unique. Their situation is unique. So we have to be careful not to make them fit in our box, where we want them to be. We have to meet their needs. Often times we have to teach primal skills to survive; stay off drugs.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: Darrell's case coordinator meets with him one-on-one to discuss concerns he has with his job, money, his fear of backsliding, and his hopes and dreams. Darrell is in the more difficult Level II program.

ERICA OXENDINE-HALL: (3) Sometimes a client comes in who doesn't want to be there, and you know you have to work with them a year. You have to do a lot of digging, a lot of stepping back and meeting them where they're at. So when they come in each week, it's not a matter of "give me your meeting sheet, or urinalysis." It's "Who are you? What do you like, like to do?" Then we talk about their use. "What led you to this?" 'Cause you want to see why the person is there. Other than having the kids removed, what truly brought them to where they are? That builds a relationship.

(Darrell and Erica discuss problems with money and job.)

ERICA OXENDINE-HALL: (1) It's unusual to see a man come through Level II. Level II is more intense, more demanding. Normally it's the woman who steps up and changes her life. But now we have men coming through the program. It's a new phase where they're wanting to be a better father.

DARRELL: 6) I pay $200 a week for a hotel. It's hard to save money, me trying to get my kids back. They charge me $150 a month for child support from last year, which adds up. But the kids' mom is not charged.

JUDGE MILLER: (1) We only have a few men in the program, and those men, they have to foot the bill themselves, from a financial standpoint. There is no residential program in Drug Court. They have to go out and find that themselves. That's why their accomplishment and progress is much more of an accomplishment than some other participants.

DARRELL: (5) The difference in how a man goes through the program, who wants his kids back, and how a woman goes through the program . . . Lot's of agencies help women; CASCADE, housing; but when it comes to a man it's much harder for him.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: For Family Drug Treatment Court mothers, CASCADE provides the skills needed to be good parents, while dealing with their substance abuse issues. For many CASCADE clients, there have never been good parenting role models, no one to tell them right or wrong behavior or show them even the most basic mothering duties.

MELISSA DAVIS: (1) A lot of times parents who come into treatment with us are pretty much emotionally stuck in their own adolescence and haven't developed the skills to take care of themselves, much less take care of their children.

(3) Often it's a generational problem. A lot of women who come into the program are amazed when they get into the family disease class start doing geneograms and picturing their whole family . . . "Oh, wow, there's a lot of alcoholism and there's a lot of drug stuff and there's a lot of mental issues throughout. This isn't just me."

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: Addicted mothers attend treatment classes at another substance abuse counseling firm, CASCADE. There are group classes in sex education, parenting, substance abuse and the effects of drugs on the unborn child. As clients gain knowledge of what it takes to be nurturing mothers they come to realize that substance abuse doesn't just affect the physical well being of a child; it affects their emotional well being as well.

MELISSA DAVIS: What I hear a lot is, "I was only hurting myself by smoking marijuana, or whatever, I wasn't hurting my children." So during the First Level a lot of our work is breaking through that denial and getting them to realize their kids really did have a pretty good idea of what was going on. Just because children never saw them in the actual act of getting high they saw the result. They knew that Mom had different reactions to their behavior on different days, depending if she was high or not. Kids pick up on everything.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: Alfreda tends her small garden, a small patch of serenity in a wounded past. Alfreda's addiction had a direct affect on her children's behavior. It cost the life of one of her boys.

ALFREDA: (5) A son I lost as a part of getting high. He got killed last year. He started getting high. We got high together. I gave him drugs because others used him.

(6) I stay more focused because I know he's coming home from school. I have that responsibility to do the right thing and be a good mother.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: It's late afternoon when the school bus drops off fourteen year-old Jamaal. He has been living at home with Alfreda but is technically still under DSS supervision while his mother works toward FIRST graduation and permanent custody. For two years Jamaal lived in a foster home, while Alfreda struggled with her dependency problem. Jamaal still has struggles of his own, remembering how things were.

JAMAAL: Miserable . . . couldn't do nothing. Couldn't get clothes. She was always on drugs . . . Mad. I looked at other people, saw things they wore and I didn't have and I got miserable and mad.

Every time friends came over the door would be closed. Friends didn't come over usually 'cause around a neighborhood like that people do the wrong things.

CHUCK PORTER: (1) You never know which parents are suited for Drug Court. No way to predict success. I had a woman who was truly in the gutter outside my office building. I said there's no way she's going to be successful. Six months into Drug Court she had a job and she did get her children back.

SHERRI GLENN: (5) It permeates the inner circle of the family then radiates out. Not only does the disease hurt the parent, it has a multiple effect. We have aunts, uncles, grandparents . . . so many grandparents end up parenting. We get reports from school; the kids are in trouble, involved in a gang. Often times the children are making poor choices because the parents aren't making good choices. So we have to heal the extended family as well as parents and kids. It's a tough job.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: The highlight of any family drug court session is graduation day. Before Family Drug Treatment Court, the success rate of family reunification was half of one percent. Since the FIRST program was introduced in 2003, the reunification success rate is over 25 percent. More than a third of all FIRST participants graduate from the program, and although they may or may not get their children back, they are well on the way to achieving a remarkable goal: a positive and productive lifestyle, free from drugs or alcohol.

For Alfreda, graduation day is bittersweet.

ALFREDA: (7) I've been waiting for this moment. But now it's here, I don't want to leave. Because it's like a family. I know we gotta move on, use the tools. It's a big day for me because I didn't graduate from school. And I'm just overwhelmed to be part of something like that saved my life. I'm ready to start living and being responsible.

(Judge congratulates her and asks her to address the court.)

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: A certificate, a plaque, a few words of congratulations from the judge, and Alfreda graduates from the FIRST program. But what happens next surprises everyone in the court room, especially Alfreda.

(Judge tells Alfreda she's getting full custody of her son.)

DARRELL: (7) When I heard him tell Alfreda that I wanted to cry. The first thing I felt inside of me was that "he did that for her and I am going through that same thing." If I get to that same level that she's at, then I know he's gonna do that for me. Just having faith once that day happens. I've already played it out a couple of times. It's gonna be scary at first, 'cause I have three beautiful kids.

ERICA OXENDINE-HALL: (2) Today is a good day. Tops it off . . . You see their gradual process as they're getting clean, getting kids unsupervised time, overnights, then kids getting placed back legally. When that happens you reflect and say, "that's why I'm here." To help them change their lives. Helps me change my life, too.

JUDGE MILLER: (3) I would describe the judge's job as being frustrating, particularly when you're in juvenile court. Dealing with families in distress, children in particular, and coming to a successful result is such a long process, particularly with substance abuse. Today we had an opportunity to return a child to a parent, and to do it in open court. As a judge I have to say it's very satisfying. We don't get a lot of those moments . . . just wonderful.

SHERRI GLENN: (4) There's nothing better than watching a parent a child reunified, and seeing the process of their becoming healthy, seeing a parent recover . . . I'm a parent as well. I couldn't imagine not being able to have my children. So when you hear parents go through this emotional period and saying, "I did it for the right reasons," and you see them reunited, it's fantastic.

CHUCK PORTER: (3) I'm pleased to see the smiles on clients' faces, to see the confidence they display after going through drug court and the thrill of getting their children back. Some successful for the first time in their lives.

JUDGE MILLER: (4) The most disappointing thing in drug court is that there's not ongoing, reliable funding for them, and additional funds so we can expand the program, so we can have more incentives to keep going . . . I wish we could have the public in to witness like what we had with Alfreda, because that's what we're trying to do here. If I had one wish it would be that we wouldn't have to worry if we can continue this program, whether we have enough resources and treatment facilities.

CARLY THORPE: (2) We reach such a limited amount of people, and we need to get out there and get more people involved. We need more community resources. It can be really frustrating to have a client who needs something and we can't get it because of lack of community support. Awareness. Sometimes people don't even know we exist.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: Darrell is still hopeful he'll soon follow Alfreda's example and win custody of his three children. Until then he still has his occasional visitations and a lot of hard work to do.

Alfreda and Jamaal have a new foundation on which to build a better life. But recovery is an ongoing journey, and it will take patience, perseverance and all their love to cement their shattered lives back together.

ALFREDA (VOIVE OVER): (repeat) I had to get him back because of me. I had to turn around.

VOICE OVER NARRATOR: The dark shadows of the past are being erased, one day at a time. Mother and son are well on their way to becoming whole again.

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