By Mark Powell
Bringing Families Back Together
Today’s opioid crisis is shattering families—but the devastation of substance use disorders is by no means a new story. Think back to the heroin crisis of the 1970s, crack-cocaine in the 1980s, and methamphetamine in the early 2000s and again now. Unfortunately, a tragic aspect of any drug crisis is child maltreatment related to addiction.
Two decades ago, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) embarked on a new approach for handling cases with substance use–related maltreatment. They wanted to get help for parents so that families could be safely and more quickly reunited. They sought and were granted a Title IV-E child welfare waiver by the federal government, allowing use of federal funding in support of innovative approaches.
With this waiver, the Family Recovery and Reunification Program (originally called the Recovery Coach Program) launched as a demonstration program with a goal to reunify families when the parents can provide a safe and drug-free home for their children. Through this program, case managers from Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC) provide assessments and place parents into treatment, and then continue to work closely with parents as they learn to live in recovery and re-learn how to parent.
“One misconception people have is that if someone really loves their child, they’d stop using,” says Pam
Rodriguez, TASC president and CEO. “If you understand addiction and what happens to the brain, you realize that the normal decision-making process has been hijacked. Once people get into treatment and their brains clear and recovery takes hold, they can become motivated to be good parents. They want to reunite with their kids, and they do. We support them because it’s a hard process and they’re trying to rebuild.”
Involvement in the Family Recovery and Reunification Program typically runs two years. There are nearly 300 participants in Madison and St. Clair counties (Metro-East region near St. Louis) and in Cook County. TASC case managers provide assessments, treatment recommendations and placement, and ongoing case management to support parents along the way. Case managers may have lived experience in recovery themselves, and are trained to provide instruction in parenting classes, individual and family counseling, and assistance in finding housing and employment. On average, parents participating in the program reunite with their children five months sooner than similar parents not in the program. Follow-up support is provided once treatment is completed.
When a parent is in the program, the state assumes temporary custody of the child while the parent is given an assessment and matched with treatment. “This happens on-site in the court building to provide less opportunity for women to walk away from the program,” Rodriguez notes.
“We provide a warm hand-off every step along the way. We take them to treatment, we drive them, whether outpatient or residential. It’s a complicated process, and a case manager is with them at every step to explain what is happening.”
Rodriguez says about two-thirds are female and one-third male. The program has not only dramatically increased access to treatment for its participants, but has made positive impacts in other areas as well. For example, re-arrest rates among adolescents whose parents were in the program were found to be 53 percent lower, preventing children with child welfare involvement from progressing to criminal justice involvement. And the program was found to eliminate racial disparities in family reunification. As a result of higher rates of reunification, quicker reunification, and lower rates of reentry into foster care, it saves the state money too.
But there’s another benefit as well, one that’s harder to quantify. The program means children are returned to their mother’s arms and dad can come home. It puts families back together again.
Family Recovery and Reunification Program was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
J. Mark Powell is an author, former network journalist, and veteran communications expert.