SIOUX CITY -- The woman admitted to Senior Judge Brian Michaelson that she initially didn't want to show up to see him.
A mother battling drug addiction and hoping to regain custody of her kids, she'd had a relapse. She knew that Michaelson and other members of her treatment team would be aware of her positive drug test.
But rather than avoid the heat, she sat down before them inside a Woodbury County Law Enforcement Center courtroom on a recent Wednesday afternoon to hear what they had to say.
There was no stern lecture from Michaelson, only encouraging words. He told her to complete the "20-20 assignment." Hindsight being 20-20, reflect on what caused the relapse, Michaelson told the woman, and what she might have done differently. Yes, she loves her children and misses them, but her focus needs to be on kicking her drug habit.
"You need to take care of yourself first," Michaelson said in a gentle tone that some might not expect to hear from a judge dealing with someone who just failed a drug test.
The woman nodded her head.
"I'm glad I came today because you hold me accountable," she said.
For more than 10 years, Woodbury County's Family Treatment Court has held accountable parents like her who are battling substance abuse and facing the loss of their children.
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On Wednesday, the court conducted its 500th session. An important milestone, yes, but not nearly as important as seeing parents overcome addictions and become responsible moms and dads, those involved in the specialty court said.
"Any period of sobriety is a success. Returning children to their biological family is a success," said Ashley Christensen, a child welfare specialist who serves as a liaison to family treatment courts in Iowa's 3rd and 4th judicial districts. "That intensive team meeting and support has completely changed the trajectory of these families' lives."
Since it was established in 2008, Woodbury County Family Treatment Court has served 237 parents and 439 children and saved taxpayers roughly $2.5 million -- money not spent on foster care for children, social services, court costs and other expenses. Statistics provided by Iowa's judicial system show that 1,160 parents and 1,932 children have participated in family courts statewide, and they have saved Iowa taxpayers $10 million.
The Iowa Legislature appropriates nearly $300,000 annually to the state court system to fund the salaries of the nine family treatment court coordinators involved with the state's 12 treatment courts, including Northwest Iowa sites in Woodbury and Buena Vista counties.
Michaelson, who has spent 33 years on the bench and has been involved in Woodbury County's family court from the beginning, said the program's impact goes far beyond saving taxpayers money. It has helped dozens of people -- the majority of them single mothers -- straighten out their lives. Many now have full-time jobs and have gotten off of welfare. Some have gone to college. Their children are back with them in a more normal family setting.
"We can talk about the money all day, but the bottom line is we're keeping families together," Michaelson said.
That's what Michaelson hoped to see when former District 3 Court Administrator Leesa McNeil approached him about presiding over family court. As a juvenile court judge, Michaelson frequently presided over cases in which the state was petitioning to remove children from their drug-addicted parents. In many cases, termination of their parental rights was being sought.
"I was really getting frustrated with the number of termination of parental rights hearings I was seeing. I thought there must be a better way," Michaelson said.
Iowa had just received a $5 million federal grant to establish the courts, and Woodbury County established one of the first six in the state. Its goal was to help parents with drug and/or alcohol addictions, mental health issues -- or both -- stabilize their lives so they could keep custody of their children or get them back if they had been removed by the Iowa Department of Human Services.
Once the court sessions started, Michaelson found that having face-to-face conversations with each parent in an informal setting was often more beneficial than when they appeared before him in juvenile court, their lawyers doing most of the talking about why they should be allowed to keep their kids.
Michaelson also appreciated that others involved in each case -- addiction counselors, DHS caseworkers, lawyers, social service providers and others -- would gather to meet with him and each other to share information on each participant. Rather than being punitive -- the court doesn't send participants to jail -- the court is restorative, offering encouragement and positive reinforcement.
"What I found successful in this program is the support we give them," Michaelson said. "We don't want to enable them, we want to empower our parents to be on their own someday."
Unlike other Woodbury County specialty courts such as drug court or veterans treatment court, Family Treatment Court is voluntary and not a condition of a person's sentence in a criminal case.
Participants come to Family Treatment Court one of two ways: Either a Child in Need of Assistance petition has been filed on behalf of their children in juvenile court or a parental substance abuse disorder report has been filed. The report is basically a referral from any one of a number of people who deals with the parent: DHS caseworkers, addiction treatment counselors, lawyers, judges, social service providers, guardian ad litems and others.
Some of the parents may face criminal charges, but all are at least involved in a DHS action or a juvenile court action concerning their child because of abuse/neglect concerns. Some face termination of their parental rights, others still have custody of their kids.
A referred parent is invited to observe a court session, then it's up to them whether to sign up.
Once part of the program, they're expected to follow through on their addiction treatment and meet requirements of other social service programs they may be involved with.
"We're not the police. We're not going to come pick you up, but we're going to fight for you," Christensen said.
The court meets weekly, and parents are scheduled to appear as often as Michaelson feels is necessary. On average, parents will spend nine months to a year in the program.
Prior to each session, Michaelson hears from everyone involved in the parents' recovery to discuss what's happened with each parent since he or she last appeared in court. They talk about any changes in family circumstances and child custody. Perhaps some have had relapses. They discuss what steps should to be taken when the parent appears before Michaelson.
It's a key component of family court, said Brianna Steffe, Milieu Coordinator at Jackson Recovery Centers in Sioux City.
"I like the collaboration between all the entities. In my opinion, Family Treatment Court is extremely successful. I see participants stay sober long term," said Steffe, who has been involved with family court for 10 years and attends on behalf of Jackson Recovery to update the court on the parents' cases.
Court in session
Michaelson greets every parent at the start of each session with the same question: "Is there anything you want to talk about today?"
The participants know Michaelson knows what they've been up to. Some will come right out and admit they relapsed. Others talk about positive developments in their lives.
These aren't your usual stuffy court sessions in which Michaelson asks questions of lawyers, who relay information about their clients. Michaelson jokes with the parents or talks in stern tones if he needs to. Whatever approach he uses, some parents appreciate the chance to have a conversation with him about their situation.
"I think having a judge know you as a person rather than being a name on a piece of paper helps a lot," said Amberly Edwards, a family court graduate who at one time faced termination of her parental rights because of her substance abuse. With the court's help, she has remained sober and has regained custody of her children.
During their 15-minute sessions, Michaelson gives parents assignments to help them gain more insight into their situations. He'll give them a frank assessment of concerns he has about them. Or he'll praise them if they're doing well.
Each session ends with another question from Michaelson: "How many days has it been?"
Each parent tells him how many days since they've used drugs or alcohol. Everyone in the courtroom applauds.
Not everyone will successfully complete the program. Some quit. Others are removed for noncompliance. They will continue with their addiction treatment and work through custody hearings on their own, without the support of family court volunteers.
That support, Christensen said, is what has sustained family court.
"Some people are just not ready yet, and that's OK," Christensen said. "Any chance that we can get to work together to affect change, you're making a difference."
Michaelson will retire later this year. Ask him if he thinks, after 500 sessions, that family court has been successful, and he'll quickly tell you that a lot of people would be losing their kids if not for the program. He hopes to see it continue long after he's left the bench.
"I cannot see how anyone in the Legislature, knowing we are helping families stay together, finding permanency for children and saving money would say no to a continuation of Family Treatment Court."
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