START Program Offers Hope For Parents With Addiction

By Kelly Burch 04/09/18

More than 75% of children remain with or are reunited with parents who participate in the START program.

Mother and child high-fiving each other.

Fourteen years ago, Rhonda Maddox was using drugs without regards for the consequences. In addition to risking her own life, she was unable to care for her two children, who she eventually abandoned and left with a family member. 

"I began using drugs at the age of 9," Maddox told NPR. "My mom was gone [and] my dad was gone, due to their addictions. So I started using. It stayed like that for a long time, going on into high school. I had a few kids then, and then I abandoned those two kids on my granny.”

However, Maddox was able to get sober and regain custody of her children. Now she helps other parents do the same, as a mentor for Kentucky’s Sobriety Treatment and Recovery Teams (START) program, which offers an alternative to traditional Child Protective Services involvement for parents who are battling addiction. 

When CPS in Kentucky becomes involved with a family due to neglect that is made worse by a parent’s substance abuse, the parent can chose to enroll in the START program. All CPS cases involve drug testing, weekly meetings with a social worker, and adherence to a 12-step program.

The difference is that START also includes the participation of a mentor, like Maddox, who can help parents build their skills and realize the importance of sobriety in their lives and those of their children. 

"It's very helpful for the client to be able to relate to someone that's been in their shoes,” said Velva Poole, a supervisor for the START program. 

According to the state, that small change makes a huge difference in outcomes.

Women in START are more likely to stay sober (66% do, versus 36% of mothers in a traditional CPS program). In addition, more than 75% of children remain with or are reunified with their parents, and half of children who are enrolled with the program do not need to be removed from their homes. The program also makes economic sense, too: for every $1 spent on START, the state saves $2.22 on the cost of placing a child in a foster home. 

Foster care systems around the country are under strain because of neglect by parents who are addicted, particularly to opioids. 

"We've gone from having 2,500 children in care, three years ago, to having 5,500 kids in care. It has just exploded our systems," Judge Marilyn Moores, who heads the juvenile court in Marion County, Indiana, which includes Indianapolis, told NPR last year. 

Just as drug courts can offer alternative sentencing for people who need treatment for substance abuse, programs like START can better serve families affected by addiction. This includes children, who can be spared the trauma of being removed from their homes. 

"If you're pulling a child out of a home and putting them in a foster home, we're removing them from the only people they know—their family,” said former START director Tina Willauer. “They might have to leave their church; they might have to leave their community. So, everything they know. It's traumatic on many, many levels.”

Poole said she has seen firsthand how the program can benefit kids and parents. 

“It just makes you feel like, wow, what you did really did make a difference in someone's life,” she said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.