Addicted mothers in Anoka County gain hope, a future with kids

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 12, 2014 - 9:23 PM

Anoka County program remarkably successful in helping women beat drugs.

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Jackie Fairbanks has overcome her addictions thanks to Anoka’s County’s Enhanced Treatment Program for mothers.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii • rtsong-taatarii@startribune.com,

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Before telling her story of addiction, prostitution, violence, prison and, ultimately, recovery, Jackie Fairbanks held the hands of strangers and prayed.

She prayed for her daughter, whose own journey has taken her to a “darkness” that even Fairbanks never experienced. She prayed for guidance. And she gave thanks for a treatment program recently honored by the Humphrey Institute and the Association of Minnesota Counties, one that officials say may be unlike any other in the nation.

Anoka County’s Enhanced Treatment Program is a yearlong outpatient program for mothers in the criminal-justice system who risk losing custody of their children because of drug and alcohol addiction. It operates on a modest budget, yet produces startling results: Of the more than 9,000 drug tests given to clients over seven years, 98 percent have come back clean, county officials say.

“I had been through treatment seven times, I was doing meth, my life was unmanageable,” said Fairbanks, 51, of Coon Rapids. “But the Enhanced Treatment Program laid it on the line.

“For the first time, I was held accountable.”

The program eschews the traditional 28-day treatment model, instead using a rigorous 12-month effort that includes random testing and three mandatory meetings per week. When Anoka County launched its program in 2006, a handful of other Minnesota counties tried a similar approach. Now, only Anoka County’s remains, others having fallen victim to budget cuts. County officials and local treatment experts say they are unaware of others like it anywhere else.

The program sometimes has been on financial life support, anxiously awaiting last-minute state grants. But the results have been consistently eye-opening. All of the program’s 150 graduates are self-sufficient and 90 percent are employed, said Cindy Cesare, the county social services and mental-health director. Only 15 percent had jobs when they entered the program, she said.

Of the program’s first 51 graduates, 86 percent have custody of their children.

Others are noticing. In December, the program won the Humphrey Institute’s Local Government Innovation Award and the Association of Minnesota Counties’ Achievement Award. And Anoka County Judge Jenny Walker Jasper received the 2013 Robert H. Robinson Service Award from the Minnesota Community Corrections Association for her support of the program’s clients.

“Addiction was the No. 1 reason mothers would lose custody of their children,” said Rhonda Sivarajah, chairwoman of the Anoka County Board. “The standard 28-day treatment program just wasn’t working.”

Response to meth epidemic

The Enhanced Treatment Program grew from what Cesare calls “the 2006 meth epidemic.” That year, more than four-fifths of the women incarcerated in Anoka County were guilty of meth-related offenses, she said.

The county wanted a program that would not only treat addiction, but also develop parenting skills and healthy relationships and teach women to be self-sufficient. All of that couldn’t be accomplished in 28 days.

“When these ladies enter the program, they’re coming at a low point of their lives,” said Darcy Holter, program supervisor. “They’ve lost their children. They lack life skills. They’ve been victims of domestic violence.”

By the time they graduate, the women have been clean for a year, have earned their G.E.D. and have a place to live. Many become licensed drivers. Many are reunited with their children.

The program’s annual budget of $273,294 includes a $108,714 grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, with Anoka County covering the rest. But Cesare says that by ultimately uniting a mother with her children, the county saves $1,344 per child — the average cost for 62 days of foster care for one youngster. The program also has reduced the number of repeat offenders.

‘Now I’m clean’

Clients measure the program’s value differently.

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  • “For the first time, I was held accountable,” Jackie Fairbanks said of Anoka County’s Enhanced Treatment Program for mothers.

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