Special court helps mothers get sober

Posted: Tuesday, November 12, 2002

ANCHORAGE - A new court program is trying to help Alaska mothers get clean and sober so they can reunite with their children.

Family Care Court is a small experiment for parents who say they are ready to get clean. Only a dozen will be helped at the start.

Officials hope mothers will become sober and stable at work and home, helped by intensive monitoring and better coordination of services including drug treatment and counseling.

If the moms do their part, they should get their children back more quickly or may not have to lose them at all, under the court's rules. That will lessen emotional trauma and costs of foster care, officials said.

The court, operating for just a couple of months now, is anchored by a team that includes parents' attorneys, an assistant attorney general, a state social worker, a children's advocate and treatment professionals.

William Hitchcock, who hears state Division of Family and Youth Services cases as a Children's Court master in Anchorage, said he started a discussion nearly two years ago about the need for a special family court because of the current system's weaknesses.

The conventional system pits parents fighting for their children against the state. Parents with complicated problems often don't get the attention they need, he said. Judges concentrate on procedural hurdles.

"We're just barely managing the case," Hitchcock said.

Alaska's Division of Family and Youth Services, responsible for 1,900 children in its custody as of October, often struggles just to keep parents in touch with their children in foster care, a recent federal review found.

New pressures were put on parents under a 1997 federal law that gave them less time to shape up or they would lose their children forever. That led him to seek a wider role for judges through the new court, Hitchcock said.

In the new court, Judge Elaine Andrews works directly with a group of mothers who come before her every Tuesday afternoon. From court, she once called a detox center to find out how to get one woman into treatment.

When another woman needed shelter after being in a halfway house and wanted to live with her mother, who also has a court record, the family court team got involved. The court's coordinator, Muriel Kronowitz, talked it over with the mother's probation officer and the team was able to approve them sharing a home.

Andrews is technically retired but agreed to take on the new court. Her focus as a judge, she said, shifted from how to punish someone who failed to "what do I need to do for this person to move them forward?"

The approach is "You can do this. We are behind you," she said.

This experiment joins Anchorage's innovative criminal courts, including a special court for repeat misdemeanor offenders with alcohol problems, and mental health court for those charged with petty crimes who have serious mental illnesses.

Around the country, special courts to help offenders and parents with addictions have grown in number since one of the first sprang up in Miami in 1989. But more are needed, said Susan Weinstein, chief counsel for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals in Alexandria, Va.

So far, 750 drug courts are in operation and 450 more are being planned, she said. Most are for criminal defendants. Just 50 family courts such as the new one in Anchorage are operating, she said.

"This is stopping the revolving door, so this is very effective," Weinstein said. "The only problem is they are not reaching enough people."

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