Drug Court Program Helps Arizona Families Stay Together

By Alexandra Olgin
Published: Wednesday, January 27, 2016 - 9:15am
Updated: Thursday, January 28, 2016 - 2:53pm
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(Photo by Alexandra Olgin - KJZZ)
Parents who finish the dependency treatment court program create posters with tips and inspirational words to hang on the walls of the courtroom.

While the state and courts struggle to keep up with the growing number of kids entering Arizona's child welfare system, there is one small judicial program that is seeing success in keeping families together. 

In a colorful courtroom filled with homemade inspirational posters and baby photos, Judge Colleen McNally addresses a room of parents whose kids have been removed from their homes. They are all here because of substance abuse issues. 

"My role as the dependency treatment court judge is to hold you accountable to what you need to do on your DCS (Department of Child Safety) case plan and encourage you to be successful," said McNally.

McNally has been a judge in Maricopa County for 15 years. She has a candy bowl on her desk, a large basket of children's toys to the left and a life-size teddy bear behind her. 

She spends about 20 minutes talking to each parent about the specifics of his or her case.  

"Now, If you mess up in some way, let’s say you start using again or you are not going to treatment," she said. "I am going to talk to you about that. But I am not going to be mad. I want you to be here. I want you to keep coming so I am going to discuss with you what is going on. What is getting in your way.”

This is the Maricopa County dependency treatment court. The voluntary program has been in session for three years. Just enrolling improves a family’s chance of getting their children back. But the real gains come for families who finish the program. According to an analysis of the court, 95 percent were reunited with their kids. Compare that to those who don’t participate— only a third got their children back. 

"I’m authentic with my clients. I let them know I’m not (going to) sugarcoat things because it wasn’t easy for me. And it took a lot of work for me to get where I’m at today," said recovery coach Isabel Regalado.

In this court, each parent is paired with a guide to help them get through the legal system. Before becoming a coach, Regalado and her family had been involved with Arizona’s child welfare system. She used to be addicted to methamphetamine and alcohol. 

"When I can relate my experiences of being molested, being in domestic violent relationships, not feeling loved or like I had value or self-worth. That is what connects to our clients, there are so many of them who come in like that," she said.

Regalado and the other recovery coaches are there to help the families complete the program, which can be a challenge. According to a court report, only a quarter of those who started graduated the dependency treatment court.

Regalado tries to improve these odds, by just being there for parents who are struggling.

"If you need a ride there, I’ll take you there," she said. "When you feel like your husband or your boyfriend is giving you a bunch of crap, let’s talk about before you go and use, before you go and drink or before you take it out on the kids."  

While the family drug court has only been in place in Maricopa County since 2012, the one in Pima County has been around for 15 years. That court reports 90 percent of graduates have reunified with their kids. A number that reflects national trends. 

“It’s no longer an experiment, we know they work," said Chris Deutsch with the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

According to the advocacy group, there are 304 family drug courts in the U.S. as of 2014. 

“What we are seeing in the last few years is the pace starting to quicken and really I expect that number will increase over the next two, three four years," Deutsch said.

Deutsch said the courts only serve a small population of the families that end up in the child welfare system by design. He said the courts stay small because it allows for parents to get one one-on-one attention, which he attributes to the programs high reunification rates. The courts have also been shown to be cost effective, said Deutsch.

“The biggest cost savings off the bat has to do with child welfare resources. Family Dependency Treatment Courts reduce foster care having to be used on each individual child," Deutsch said.

A 2012 study estimates these courts have saved states approximately $10,000 for each child because of reduced time spent in foster care. That could go a long way for Arizona, which spent more than $84 million last fiscal year for out-of-home support services.

For Judge McNally, what is more important than the money is getting families back together and teaching them tools to keep them together.