Through their efforts and help during a specialty court, Dayton couple Jennifer Buehler, pictured, and Eddie Thomas were returned custody of their 11-year-old son last week. They were both applauded Wednesday in Montgomery County Juvenile Court’s Family Treatment Court, a program aimed to help keep families intact following parental drug use. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
Photo: Chris Stewart
Photo: Chris Stewart

New treatment court therapy aims to keep families intact

Jennifer Buehler and Eddie Thomas regained custody of their son last week, 10 months after Jennifer “was gone” from a drug overdose.

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“It took 14 Narcans,” she said. “When I came to I didn’t know nothing.”

But what Buelher soon learned was that her son had been taken away from them because Montgomery County Children Services determined drug use by both parents posed a risk to the now 11-year-old.

The Dayton couple volunteered in July to attend a specialty family drug court to piece their family back together.

“There isn’t any way I’m going to take a chance of losing our baby again,” Buehler said.

But while Buehler, 45, and Thomas, 66, are a success story and their son is home, they aren’t expected to graduate until October.

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A partnership within Montgomery County’s child welfare system hopes a new type of therapy will bring families torn apart by parental drug use back together within months rather than more than a year, lessening the strain on households, the justice system and the community.

While Functional Family Therapy has been used for years in cases of juvenile delinquency, the model has more recently been adapted to focus on parent-driven intervention strategies. A child welfare component is now used in two other states – New York and Louisiana. Montgomery County is the third location in the country to implement the therapy, said Barbara Marsh, assistant health commissioner, Public Health – Dayton & Montgomery County.

“This program will decrease the risk of children having to be removed from a home, or reduce the safety risk of children who have been returned to their home who are in the child welfare system,” Marsh said.

Montgomery County’s Children Services and Juvenile Court partnered with drug treatment provider South Community, Inc. to build and train a specialized unit of caseworkers that last month began working within the Family Treatment Court program with parents whose drug use jeopardized or already cost them the custody of their children and their freedom.

Montgomery County Children Services received more than 10,000 calls concerning the welfare of a child last year and on any given day had 665 children in custody, said Jewell Good, assistant director of Montgomery County Children Services. Another 500 children are not in custody but receive in-home services.

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About 40 percent of all Children Services cases are related to substance use concerns within families, she said.

“Because the family dynamics are so complex — with brain addiction added onto poverty and abuse — these cases are lasting longer and longer to the point we are seeing the increase in the number of orphans, if you will, children who are in permanent custody … because reconciliation and reunification with the family is just not happening within the time frames that we have to work a case with a family.”

Lisa Carter, chief operating officer for South Community, said the intense, evidence-based therapy is administered by a team of caseworkers collaborating with a family. It has been shown successful in more rapidly reunifying families besieged by drugs, which leads to reduction in the length of treatment and the amount communities spend on the child welfare and courts systems, she said.

“Studies thus far in the child welfare component — which is again a new component for functional family therapy — are already showing that length in time of treatment is being reduced from 13 months to five,” Carter said. “You can look at that from a clinical aspect, from a health and wellness aspect and you can look at that in money saved and put that back into other services.”

The new therapy model will further bolster the Family Treatment Court program, which began in October 2016, said Eric Shafer, Montgomery County Juvenile Court assistant administrator.

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A $2.1 million federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency kicked in late last year to help pay for the new program. The specialty court has also received more than $700,000 in previous grants from the state.

Seventy-one children have been impacted by the 49 adults who have volunteered for the specialty court, Shafer said. Ten children were able to return home and 16 have been able to stay in their homes during the four-phase program utilizing customized case plans, regular urine tests, home visits and other aspects. The court expects to graduate its first four families in March.

The more recent funding will soon allow the court to see up to 70 clients a week, Shafer said.

“We’re not looking to put them in jail. We’re not looking to punish like you might think the courts are designed for,” Shafer said. “We’re looking to support. We’re trying to find a team of people to put around folks to help them reach their goals.

On Wednesday, Montgomery County Juvenile Court Magistrate Nikole Xarhoulacos heard 18 people in the program, including Buehler and Thomas, who joined the treatment court so they don’t lose their daughters and sons over drugs.

“Your honor, he was able to come home,” Buehler said.

“I’m proud of you,” Xarhoulacos told Buehler. “You worked really, really hard. There’s not a lot of adjectives for me to use when somebody has worked this hard.”

“I’m proud of myself,” Buehler answered.

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