Walla Walla County starts court to treat troubled families

The program aims to stablize homes where children are at risk.

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WALLA WALLA — Mending broken families wasn’t directly on the menu when County Commissioners agreed to raise the county sales tax to help get more mental health services into the community. The 0.1 percent raise also added chemical-dependency treatment options in the county.

However, few realized Washington state law requires every county that authorizes such a tax increase to maintain a therapeutic court.

Such a court, designed to deal with families in such a state of crisis that children are being abused and neglected, is to start soon in Walla Walla County. It will be operated through the Juvenile Justice Center and, among other things, feature a “tracker” to go to the homes of troubled families to monitor needs.

The concept fills a need not often or easily addressed — getting a troubled family out, while keeping it intact and working toward healthy and sustainable, said Michael Bates, director of Walla Walla County Juvenile Justice Center.

Family treatment court includes a system of intense judicial supervision, coordination and oversight to reduce child abuse and neglect, to reduce the usual results — kids being removed from the home, moms and dads losing their parental rights and substance-use problems creating havoc in family life.

The typical time line goes like this, according to John Wiley, spokesman for Department of Social and Health Services:

*Parents make bad choices.

*Someone alerts Child Protective Services.

*If problems keeping children safe warrant it, child welfare workers will remove a child from home under court order.

*Return of custody requires parents to take actions decided by a judge and the Department of Social and Health Services.

That’s where family treatment court can enter the picture for motivated parents, Bates said.

“You think of a family where a child steps out of line, the family comes in with a lot of support. We have families that can’t do that. There’s a lot of folks out there without a support network.”

He and his staff are in the “behind the scenes” stage of getting family treatment court in place, but already have three families signed up as participants.

“We have another four families identified, and by the first of the year, we hope to have 17 families on the program,” Bates said. Eventually about 25 families will be on the rolls at one time, all at varying stages of progress.

Costs for the program are expected to run just over $200,000 the first year out, he added.

“If we have 15 families that first year and we keep those families together and kids out of foster care, do the math. It costs about $2,000 per kid per month in foster care, say a family has two kids, that’s $4,000. The parents are staying out of jail, becoming taxpayers, going to school ... it just goes on and on. Even if it’s 10 families out of the 15.”

John Cassetto, a former probation officer at Juvenile Justice Center, has been chosen to head the program. The change is welcome, Cassetto said. “I’ve been a probation officer for seven years. It was frustrating ... I can order kids to treatment, then they come home to parents and relapse within minutes.

The emphasis of family treatment court will be on parent-child reunification.

“We don’t want to leave kids just hanging in the foster care system,” Bates said.

Assistance to families will take several avenues as family treatment court team members identify the barriers for clients. Parenting classes, job skills, substance dependency programs, financial education, even help getting housing will be made available, he said. Participating families will check in weekly with a judge to report progress.

“They will be under a lot of scrutiny. And support,” Bates said.

Part of the scrutiny will come from the family treatment court “tracker,” an employee whose job it is to go into the homes at random and check for any number of things. Is there appropriate and enough food in the fridge? Will mom and dad submit to a on-the-spot urinalysis? Are the bills paid? If there’s a car, does it run well enough to get people to work? Does someone need to learn to drive first?

“We know families need this.” Bates said. “They might do well Monday through Friday, then Sunday you want to watch football and have a beer. Then the cycle begins again.”

Not every family facing loss of its children to the system will be a good fit, he said. “They have to be functional enough to withstand this, not so fragile that they crack.”

The plan is that clients will eventually wean off a need for the intervention, Cassetto said. For example, he said, “Children’s Services offers a host of voluntary programs that these parents may never have dreamed of participating in before.”

The idea is to form a cocoon around a troubled family.

“There are so many families out there just desperately wanting help,” Bates said. Life is over their heads, they just don’t know what to do.”

It boils down to the kids in the end, said Cassetto: “They all want to go home, no matter what mom and dad’s issues are.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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