Sofia, a 21-year-old mother of two, tears up as she talks about her kids coming home later this month.. She’s been living without her 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son since October, while she’s been fighting her alcohol and methamphetamine addictions.
On Tuesday, Sofia took a big step forward when she graduated from Sacramento County’s Juvenile Dependency Drug Court. It’s a program designed for parents whose children have been taken away by Child Protective Services because their addictions have resulted in child abuse or neglect.
About 25 parents graduated from the program this week in front of their families, friends and the recovery specialists who helped them through the process. As parents crossed the stage, their families took videos, children cheered and babies let out wails. Each graduate received a star trophy and many gave short speeches thanking their mentors, sponsors and family.
A number of graduates completed the program but couldn’t attend the ceremony.
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Sofia first came to the attention of CPS when she went into labor after using methamphetamine. The court-appointed advocate for Sofia’s children requested that The Sacramento Bee use only her first name to protect them. Her son was born with drugs in his system.
“When I was in the hospital with him, a social worker came out and told me, you know, this was my first time ever being involved with something like this, so I was going to take my kids home,” she said.
The social worker told Sofia she had to attend outpatient classes and support groups and submit to random drug tests. When she didn’t complete the requirements, CPS took her to court to take her kids away.
“For some reason, I just couldn’t pull it together,” she said. “It took me…to go courtside to finally just say that ‘This is it. It’s not worth me losing my kids and it’s not worth just letting my life go to waste.’ ”
To graduate from the drug court, a parent has to go 180 days without missing a class, appointment or drug test. Sofia said the hardest part for her was figuring out how to make it to all of the required appointments and classes.
“It was three to four classes, or I’d have go get drug tested, be at this parenting class, and after that I have court in the afternoon,” she said. “All these different things, just knowing it needed to get done and figuring out how it was going to get done all in one day on (public) transportation.”
Requirements are different for every participant. The parents take at least two drug tests a week for the first 90 days. They have to appear in court once a week, meet with specialists, and attend group treatment sessions and parenting classes.
Addiction treatment is provided by the Specialized Treatment Recovery Services program run by Bridges, Inc. STARS pairs each addict with a recovery specialist who helps them understand what it will take to get their kids back, said program manager Dana Martinez. The specialists are trained to help parents find the motivation to quit their vices, she said.
STARS’s recovery specialists are often in recovery themselves, she said, which gives them a personal understanding of the challenges of overcoming addiction.
“Somebody new in recovery coming in has to move through the process of denial,” she said. They’ll often think, “ ‘I’m being told this is what I need to do, so it’s not my idea, so it’s not going to work because it’s somebody else’s idea.’ We help them with finding their own solution.”
Juvenile Dependency Drug Court is a collaboration between CPS, STARS, attorneys, child advocates and the county’s drug and alcohol services. They draw up sets of goals for parents to meet to get their kids back.
About 350 parents are involved with the drug court at any given time, said Guy Clopp, program manager with CPS. About 70 to 80 percent of parents who have CPS cases are struggling with some form of substance abuse, he said.
A study of the drug court found that more than 45 percent of children whose parents completed the program were reunited with them. Only 18 percent of those who didn’t participate were reunited with their kids.
Kids spend about 11 months away from their homes when their families complete the drug court program, rather than 20 months for the non-participating group. Clopp said.
That results in lower costs to the county and lessens the impact of the separation on children.
“It’s a blessing,” Sofia said. “I’m just grateful for this whole program and for everything that’s happened within the last year because, honestly, I don’t know where I would be at today if CPS and STARS had not come into my life.”