News Second chances

Drug court receives million-dollar grant to help reunite families

Julie Covington is not a local TV reporter, but she could be. Well-spoken and photogenic, she might easily fulfill such a role in front of a news camera. She demonstrated her public-speaking skills last week as she stood at a podium and faced a phalanx of local TV news crews that were set up in Judge John Specia’s 225th District Court.

But she wasn’t there to report the news. She was part of the story.

Julie Covington kicked a drug addiction when she faced losing her three children. She signed a contract in Judge John Specia’s courtroom, and now has her children living at home with her. She served as a keynote speaker last week when Specia announced a $1.2 million grant to the county’s specialized drug court, designed to reunite parents with their children. (Photo by Julie Barnett)

“I had a good childhood. I had the tools to be independent and successful, and I had a 10-year, successful career,” she said. “My husband got involved in drugs. I followed the same track. I quit my job, I lost my home, and I lowered my expectations.

I alienated my children and my family. And my children were sent by Child Protective Services to a shelter.”

Covington testified to a trying time in her life: She got hooked on methamphetamines. Her three children came to the attention of CPS caseworkers, and a family court judge removed her children from her custody after she was late for a court appearance.

But Covington soon decided that her children were more important than a recreational drug habit, and she turned for help to Judge Specia’s Family Drug Treatment Court, a two-year-old project that was founded with a $1.37 million anonymous grant through the Hidalgo Foundation.

And she served as spokeswoman for last week’s announcement that another $1.2 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration has been awarded to the innovative program that is designed to aid families separated by the effects of alcohol and substance abuse.

The parents, many of them single mothers, sign a contract with Specia, promising to complete treatment programs and participate in the drug court. In many cases, they have been referred by CPS after their children have been removed from their custody in children’s court. The latest grant will be used to help families receive intensive treatment, support, and supervision, and eventually get their children back.

“Drugs are a factor in 75 percent of all CPS cases,” says Gaylynn Shaner, director of the program since its inception. Shaner says that Bexar County’s two family courts, presided over by associate judges Peter Sakai and Richard García, have about a 25 percent success rate in reuniting parents and children. Many of the children were removed from the home not only for their parent’s drug and alcohol abuse, but also for other reasons: family violence, sexual abuse, or child neglect.

The drug court, however, had a 60 percent success rate last year; of the 130 parents that went through drug court, about 78 were reunited with their children. The difference in the success rates, Shaner says, is that reunions in family court can take a long time. Parents see a family court judge only periodically before a decision is made to return custody of children to their families, or to permanently terminate parental rights.

However, in drug court, parents visit weekly with either Specia or court personnel and intervention is more intense. The judge requires parents to participate in local treatment programs such as Alpha Home, the Patrician Movement, or Volunteers of America. Shaner receives referrals of parents who are likely candidates for drug court from CPS caseworkers. “When CPS has to remove a child, they (caseworkers) file an affidavit, and they are forwarded to me. I screen them, and they goo to drug court if I think they might be a good candidate.”

“I regained my self-esteem, and I gained the

confidence to go after what I want. I got my

children back and I have the strength to keep

my family together.”

Julie Covington

Parents in treatment must call in twice a week to case manager Melinda Barrientez. They participate in weekly group support sessions, take urine analysis tests to ensure they’re staying sober, and must agree to the terms of their contract with Specia.

“Most of them work with us about 18 months,” says Shaner. “The goal is to get the kids home more quickly; they could be reunified within six months. We stay involved so they stay stable.”

Parents who participate in the court must be accountable, but they also receive second chances as they work their way toward sobriety. Covington, for instance, had a couple of relapses, but regained custody of her children after she completed a month-long drug treatment program with Volunteers of America.

“Whatever you need, they take steps to help you do it,” she says. After she completed the treatment program, Covington took a parenting class and fulfilled the requirements of her contract. Specia authorized money for a deposit on a house two weeks before school started, and her children were returned to her custody the day before school started.

Last week, the district attorney’s office closed Covington’s CPS case, and the news was greeted with applause in Specia’s courtroom. She still will participate in drug court for up to a year, to ensure she stays clean and stable.

Specia last week thanked her for standing in front of the TV cameras to tell her story. “You’ve done so well, and you did wonderful yesterday. You’re calmer, you look great, you are self-possessed.”

“I regained my self-esteem, and I gained the confidence to go after what I want,” she told the TV cameras. I got my children back and I have the strength to keep my family together.”

By Michael Cary


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