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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane area agencies prioritize fixing family relationships, rather than traditional foster care routes

Sometimes children are best left in “bad” homes.

Evidence is pouring in that keeping families together – even those deemed dysfunctional – is less harmful than pulling them apart.

It’s a U-turn in thinking and practice for child advocates, as new programs emerge with the aim of keeping children in their homes while fixing families.

“When the state has to be a parent, we do our best. But it’s never best for the state to be a parent if we have the family as an option,” said Kevin Quigley, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services.


Two weeks ago, Heather Cantamessa delivered the keynote speech at a “Better Me, Better Parents” conference.

What irony.

Years ago, social workers seized her kids again and again as she wrestled with poverty, drugs and an emotionally abusive lover who ping-ponged in and out of her life.

Two of her babies were born addicted to meth.

With her kids in foster care she despaired, but she quit drugs and began building a better life. Often the hurdles seemed insurmountable. And then seven years ago came the surprising phone call: Social workers wanted to put her family back together.

Today Cantamessa’s children thrive under her care.

She knows her story of hope and perseverance is a powerful example of second chances. Yet many families can’t achieve her success.

Does that mean they should lose their children? Cantamessa says “No.” And others agree.

No one advocates keeping children in dangerous homes. But the majority of state interventions are centered on drug abuse and neglect, not headline-grabbing horrors of violence and dangerous neglect.

Cantamessa, 36, started Spokane County’s Parents-for-Parents class called H.O.P.E., which stands for Helping Other Parents Engage. It’s among the growing efforts in Spokane involving government, community and philanthropic groups to heal families rather than tear them apart.

The Empire Health Foundation is a driving force. The Spokane-based nonprofit is supporting promising local efforts and has researched child welfare reform nationwide.

“The immediate concern for this community is how do we get upstream and keep these families together and get to the root of the problem?” said Antony Chiang, Empire Health Foundation president.

The nonprofit is interested in bringing a program to Spokane modeled after an initiative in Medford, Oregon, that is delivering impressive results.

Housing and life skills provided

Rita Sullivan’s heart breaks every time she hears of a child’s desperate plea to stay with mom and dad.

She’s made it her mission to quell those cries.

“The children removed from their parents do not fare well, and most are returned to their families with little change other than further damage to their already fragile parent-child bonds,” said Sullivan, a clinical psychologist in Medford. “The trauma and associated negative effects of removal can last a lifetime.”

Sullivan built the Jackson County Collaboration, an unusual program with a sharp focus on repairing people while families remain together.

To that end Sullivan took extraordinary steps.

She acquired and developed housing that offers in-house treatment facilities for mothers and their children and another for fathers. Parents undergo intense substance-abuse treatment, attend group therapy and learn to parent; they are not released without a place to live.

“Without this, I’d probably be dead,” one of the residents said last spring.

Most of the families who come into the program don’t have the credit or rental history needed to move into their own place. So Sullivan figured out a way to finance the construction of two low-income, drug- and alcohol-free apartment complexes where families can build new lives.

Apartments offer families the opportunity to build a functional home life, but they are monitored around the clock. Case workers are on site to teach families even the most basic skills, as well as problem-solving and coping mechanisms.

A.J. Oden moved into a unit earlier this year with his two daughters, determined to give up a life of meth use. He didn’t know how to cook a meal or clean a home.

“This is teaching me life skills,” he said, adding simply, “I want to be their dad.”

Valerie Green, Oden’s neighbor, said: “I like this because you get to work on this as a family. It’s a very good place to build a foundation.”

The counselors who oversee the units are all former drug addicts.

“If some ‘normie’ walks up and tells me what to do, I’m not going to listen,” said Mindi Patton, another resident. “What interests me is their wisdom. They’ve been in my shoes.”

Sullivan’s efforts caught the attention of a state senator who sponsored a bill to replicate the program in every Oregon county. Senate Bill 964 – Strengthening, Preserving and Reunifying Families – passed in 2012, and so far nine similar programs have been rolled out. The money each county saves in foster care will be reinvested in programs to keep families together.

So far, Jackson County, where Medford is located, has saved 50 percent in foster care costs. Even better, Sullivan notes: Fewer adults are mistreating their children after leaving the program compared to those who did not go through it, children are staying in school at higher rates and 100 percent of them are receiving needed physical, mental, developmental and health services.

The success didn’t happen overnight. Sullivan started building the program 20 years ago, firm in her belief that keeping families together is a better way to go. She made it her mission to demonstrate that to child-protection workers, politicians and judges.

Sullivan, who runs OnTrack Inc., an addiction recovery and counseling agency, was already familiar with many of the parents involved in child welfare cases because they’d been her clients, and she began to see their children coming through her office.

She believed that taking an addict’s child away meant they no longer had a reason to quit.

“Using drugs doesn’t mean you don’t love your kids, nor does it mean the kids don’t love the parents,” Sullivan said. “The highest motivational moment (for them to quit) is when (child welfare) steps in.”

Sullivan was determined to break the cycle of drug use and poverty in Jackson County that she’d witnessed as a counselor for more than a decade. That meant intensive networking for the British-born woman, who involved child-welfare officials, judges, lawyers and other counselors.

Sarah Robbins, a Jackson County public defender, said, “It’s a village here, and we are different puzzle pieces that go together.”

Patricia Crain, a Jackson County circuit court judge, said she “became involved kicking and screaming because judges are not trained be social workers.” But she saw the revolving door of addicts losing their children, getting clean, getting them back and then repeating the cycle, she said.

Sullivan thinks the program can’t fail.

“The entry point for child welfare is a jumping-off point for children – the beginning of so many problems,” she said. “What we’ve been doing doesn’t work. What we are doing now does. Fostering a child should be a last resort.”

Social workers trying a new approach

Not all deteriorating family situations in Washington require a deep Children’s Administration investigation. Sometimes families begin to buckle under the pressure of job loss, depression or emergencies.

Family Assessment Response is a new approach in Washington that involves an immediate response by a social worker to connect families with the right services – medical, mental, financial or social.

The program has been rolled out in Spokane, Aberdeen and Lynnwood.

“Family Assessment Response has potential to make us a much more innovative state, but it does come at a cost,” said Quigley, secretary of Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services. “You have to make the investment in getting to the services that the families need to get them back on the track.”

Under this program, social workers check on families after reports of mild to moderate neglect. The family is given the option to participate in the new process or go a traditional court route.

If they agree, the social worker finds out what’s happening with the family and learns what services they are already connected to.

“We talk about what they would like to see happen with their family,” said Shea Robinson, a family therapist at Empowering Inc., one of the agencies contracting with the Children’s Administration.

The family might need help paying a utility bill, assistance signing up for food stamps, clothes for their children, access to mental health services or lessons on how to keep a clean home.

“We create a chart that helps us understand what’s happening, their goals and what needs to happen next, and the process has to be completed,” Robinson said. “The biggest issue we see is helping them manage their children’s behavior without resorting to corporal punishment and teaching them how to respond appropriately.”

Empire Health Foundation is supplementing the state’s efforts by paying for a community health worker to respond with a social worker, helping families navigate health care and insurance.

Family Assessment Response began in January. The results so far seem promising: Only six cases have been forwarded to the state for an in-depth investigation due to safety concerns out of 264 referrals during the first six months. Thus, 258 families stayed together while they worked through their problems.

“If we fund it, we can take 60 percent-plus of our caseload and treat it in a fundamentally different and better way,” Quigley said. “That will make a difference in the number of kids going into foster care, which would be great.”

Since 2012, the state has invested nearly $20 million in Family Assessment Response, he said. To do this statewide would take millions more.

‘It’s a miracle, really’

Cantamessa’s Parents-for-Parents class is a promising local effort that Empire Health Foundation believes is worth investing in.

She offers advice, step-by-step instructions and encouragement to simplify the often lengthy bureaucratic process triggered by a Children’s Administration investigation.

She knows how it works: The mother of five went through it three times before, an ordeal of family separation and reunification she wouldn’t wish on anyone.

“I’ve had so much hardship over this,” she said. “I didn’t think I should have kids, and neither did anybody else.”

Her first son, Tyler, was born addicted and taken away by the state. Seven years later it happened again, with her third child, Robert. Her second child, Jonathan, had been born two years earlier and eventually was taken away, too.

Cantamessa quit meth and had two girls. She’d gotten a job and set up a home. But the “children’s needs outweighed my emotional ability to take care of them,” she said.

The state stepped in again for the third time, taking the remaining children in December 2005. Within a few months, social workers told Cantamessa “my visits were making my daughters regress. The court forced me to give up my visits, and I tried to accept that maybe I wasn’t what was best for my kids.”

When the phone rang less than two years later, she never expected the state would ask if she wanted her daughters to come home. Social workers told her the girls were being abused in foster care. By November 2007, she and her daughters were a family again; her oldest son also lives with her. The other two boys are with relatives.

Today she is a motivational force. Her triumph over personal adversity and family failure is a beacon to others she shares through the Parents-for-Parents class.

But the program is struggling to stay afloat. Empire Health Foundation gave it a reprieve with a $12,000 grant. The funding is almost out, said Janelle Grubb, Spokane County’s Unified Family Court facilitator. “I’m always chasing these pots of money to pay for this program that’s so positive,” she said.

Cantamessa has been in recovery for 10 years, and both her daughters are thriving in elementary school.

“It’s is a miracle, really,” she said, adding, “I still take parenting classes.”