Jackson County program helps families overcome substance abuse, saves taxpayers money

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A Jackson County program is giving children hope and the possibility of a future free of addiction.

For 16 years, Jackson County Family Drug Court has provided services to parents who struggle with substance abuse and lose their children as a result of their addiction.

Melody Aber, 42, was one of these parents.

“I was hopeless,” she said. “As a matter a fact, I would lay on the couch and pray that I would die.”

Aber and her husband were addicted to alcohol and drugs like crack cocaine and meth. While her husband had a job initially, he lost it due to his substance abuse. Aber was a stay-at-home mother with three boys.

“I thought I was a good mother because every day, I was outside playing with them, they were riding their bikes,” said Aber. “I was very involved with my children.”

But looking back now, Aber realizes the picture wasn’t quite as rosy.

“Mentally, I was detached because it was all about how I was going to get high. Did I get high that morning?” Aber recalled. “It was no big deal for me to smoke marijuana in the driveway, on the front porch. My mind was completely on where's my next fix? Where am I going to get it? How am I going to get anything to drink?”

On March 14, 2008, Aber and her husband lost their children. Their drug dealer, who was also their next door neighbor, called the Department of Family Services. Aber said she and her husband had told the dealer they were no longer going to buy drugs from him, though they hadn’t planned to stop using.

“When the police and DFS showed up at our house, it was kind of a welcoming sight,” said Aber. “I mean, it was scary. My kids leaving was very scary, but at the same time, I remember telling the officer I wanted the monkey off my back.”

Aber and her husband qualified for Jackson County Family Drug Court, a special, intensive rehabilitation program to help people like them.

“Drugs and alcohol can be very destructive on so many different levels and it steals someone's life so we're here to stop the thievery,” said Penny Clodfelter, the program’s manager. “We want to make sure it stops now and the children of our participants have a chance.”

When participants first enter the system, Clodfelter, who is also a clinical social worker, interviews them to make sure they are a good fit for Family Drug Court. Once that determination is made, the families are immediately surrounded with services.

“All of the research indicates that if you get services in place when the person is in crisis, and they typically are in that 72-hour protective custody hearing, the motivation to change is much greater than if you, let's say, get two months out,” said Commissioner Molly Merrigan.

Merrigan helped start Jackson County’s adult drug court in 1993, the very first treatment court in the state of Missouri. She was there when Family Drug Court opened in April 1998 and became commissioner in December of that year.

“We try to motivate the adults to do what they need to do so they can get their children back,” said Merrigan.

Only 110 families can be in Family Drug Court. Court meets every two weeks. Each session begins with a staffing period where Merrigan hears from the treatment counselors, therapists and case workers. The parents must attend their hearing right after staffing and show proof that they’re participating in treatment.

“They learn very quickly that I have the most up-to-date information and trying to scam me isn't going to get them very far and they're going to lose credibility with me,” said Merrigan.

For the parents, one benefit of attending court so frequently is the possibility of being reunified with their children more quickly.

When Aber finally understood the importance of Family Drug Court, she became fully committed.

“Once I became willing, it became a lot easier to see that they were actually fighting for me instead of against me,” she said.

She was reunited with her children after being in the program for only four months.

“Drug court was such a foundation for me and the people that are there I began to trust,” said Aber. “They're just out for the well-being of our children and for us.”

The services that Family Drug Court provides are not just for the parents. The children also see counselors and specialists. They receive medical attention and go through developmental assessments.

The goal is to not only help the parent get clean, but to also stop the cycle of substance abuse.

“It's not uncommon for our families to have their family of origin struggle with substance abuse, where it's generational,” said Clodfelter.

Aber, for example, started drinking at a very young age.

“I was drinking at the age of seven,” she said. “I was making drinks for my dad and I would taste them to make sure they were alright. Not that he wanted me to do that but they tasted good. He passed when I was 14 and when he passed, I decided it was my job to clean up the bar downstairs.”

Aber ended up in treatment at the age of 15. She said she stayed dry for more than four years, but the desire was still there.

“I began drinking again after four and a half years and ended up with marijuana,” said Aber. “By the end, it was crack cocaine and meth.”

And that launched almost two decades of addiction.

“Substance abuse is an addiction. It's a disease,” said Clodfelter. “Once that disease takes over and that psychological and emotional, physical craving begins for that individual, that's all they see.”

That’s why, Clodfelter said, the wrap-around services that Family Drug Court provides are so essential. These families need support from all angles, she said.

The approach has proven to be successful. Since its start in 1998, more than 600 people have graduated from Jackson County Family Drug Court. Seventy-eight babies have been born drug-free to mothers who are in the program.

“It's the promise of changing the course of history for the children of our parents who come into drug court,” Clodfelter said.

It can also help change the entire community.

Drug Court programs not only help the people involved. Studies have shown states can also reap the benefits of individuals who are no longer addicted to drugs and alcohol.

“When you talk about the cost of foster care, when you talk about the cost of substance abuse treatment, you talk about the cost of long-term medical care,” Merrigan said. “If those problems are not arrested, they are intergenerational and they will not stop.”

According to the Missouri Department of Social Services, in fiscal year 2013, it cost an average of $20,134 per child in state-managed foster care. The average cost per child in foster care managed by a private contractor was $24,488. The average amount of time a child stays within the foster care system is more than 24 months.

That can lead to long-term trauma, which requires therapy and care for the children.

“They may develop difficulty trusting adults and then you have authority problems and acting out,” said Karen Allen, a licensed professional counselor.

Allen said the cycle of substance abuse can very easily continue among the children who experience this type of trauma.

“For older kids who witnessed a lot of substance abuse, then you may have children who, as they become stressed and move into adolescence, that may be the coping mechanism,” she said.

When a parent graduates from Family Drug Court, they are required to either be in school or have a job. Allen said when a child goes home to that type of environment, where the parent is clean and sober and working toward a goal, it can lead to a brighter future.

“If the kids are able to have consistency and grow up with stability, they're going to be able to finish school,” said Allen. “They going to be able to get jobs and be productive people and have some satisfaction in their life.”

A St. Louis cost-benefit analysis found for every dollar spent on drug court, the state of Missouri gains $2.80 after two years. After four years, the figure more than doubles to $6.32 for every dollar.

For example, Aber and her husband now contribute to the Department of Motor Vehicles by renewing the tags on their cars.

“Our vehicles are legal, which is amazing because we always drove around with temp tags,” said Aber. “Like three to four-years-old temp tags.”

They also both have full-time jobs where they pay taxes. They also pay their bills on time. But they recognize they’re not out of the woods and they may never be.

“I'm still careful with do I put vanilla extract in my cookies? Do I take Nyquil or Jack Daniels BBQ sauce? When I go out to eat, did they cook all the alcohol out of my food?” Aber said. “I try to just veer far away from it as I can and just not even take the chance.”

Aber and her husband still attend a 12-step program multiple times a week and will likely continue that for the rest of their lives.

But what they learned in Jackson County Family Drug Court stays with them.

“We treat each other with respect and love and kindness and try to treat other people the same way,” said Aber.

And they try to make sure their children are ready for a positive future.

“They actually have a chance today,” Aber said.

On Wednesday, May 21, several more participants will graduate and join Aber in a life free from addiction.

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