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.

“I struggled with addiction, I was selling drugs, the police raided my house and my daughter was taken from me,” said Erin Keegan, 32, of St. Paul, who graduated from the program in 2012.

“Now I’m clean, I graduated from college and my fiancé and I run our own business cleaning up foreclosed houses,” she said. “I owe it to this program.”

Jackie Fairbanks has been clean for more than five years, but still talks to counselor Julie Allen regularly. Fairbanks doesn’t take her sobriety for granted. She says she was beaten and sexually abused repeatedly as a child. She began drinking at 12.

By 18, blackouts were common. Becoming a mother at 23 changed little. Several arrests followed — for domestic assault and driving while intoxicated, she said. She became a prostitute to earn enough to support her meth habit.

“I asked God, ‘How do I get out of this?’ ”

Her apartment was raided and she told county officials her story. She was introduced to Allen and the enhanced program.

Recalled Fairbanks: “Julie told me that I’d better be on my ­deathbed if I was thinking about missing a ­meeting.”

Her daughter, Tiara Fairbanks, 21, also went through the program. Tiara was 12 when she learned her mother was doing meth. She says another relative molested her repeatedly.

“I was super depressed,” she said. “I wanted to kill myself. I was drunk all the time.”

On June 25, 2011, after a night of drinking, Tiara was driving at 55 miles per hour in Ramsey when her car hit another, killing Christine ­Flaherty, 28, the other driver. Tiara was 19, not old enough to drink legally. Her blood alcohol level was 0.10, above the legal limit for a 21-year-old.

With Allen in the courtroom, Tiara pleaded guilty to felony vehicular criminal homicide. Noting that Tiara had tested clean on 86 urinalysis tests for alcohol use during her year in the Enhanced Treatment Program, Judge Tammi Fredrickson sentenced her to a year in jail and 10 years probation — less than the four-year prison sentence state guidelines suggest. The last four months of jail time are to be served each June over four years to remind Tiara of the month she killed ­Flaherty.

“The day the accident happened was the last day I drank,” she said. “I knew I needed help. This program gives me hope.

“I think about her all the time,” she said of Flaherty. “I’d give anything for that day to have never happened. There are things this program just can’t do.”

 

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

 

 

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