Having your child taken away and placed into state custody can be the most gut-wrenching thing a parent has to go through. In so many of these cases, the children are removed from their homes because a parent is addicted to drugs and labeled 'unfit' to care for their child by law enforcement, the courts and Department of Child Safety state officials.
With the drug abuse epidemic increasing, this means more families are seeing their children going into the "system" but the state of Arizona has been trying to change that with a partnership with Terros Health.
The Families F.I.R.S.T. program is a specialized program offered to parents or caregivers who are struggling with addiction, with the goal being to reunite them with their children. The acronym stands for Arizona families in recovery succeeding together.
Through Terros Health, the program offers community-based treatment services to these parents or guardians. It is one of several steps they would have to complete to regain custody of their children. In addition to graduating from the program, the parent would also have to test clean for several months, get a job, a car and find permanent housing. In some cases, mental health or psychological counseling could also be required, depending on the individual situation for each family.
Nathan Lamberth with Terros Health called it a rewarding job. Over the years, he had seen thousands of families reunite with their children.
"One thing you have to do here is show up and participate in treatment. That's it. I'm not asking you to do anything else other than show up and participate and through that, change happens," said Lamberth.
He added that some of those parents went on to become therapists or counselors and help others.
Melissa, who asked us not to use her last name, was one of them. When she first enrolled in the Arizona Families F.I.R.S.T program, she was addicted to meth. Melissa described herself as a functioning drug addict who could still work and pay her bills. She used meth to escape from the daily stresses of life. She soon learned she would have to make a choice. Meth or being a mother?
Melissa's child was taken into state custody, and that changed her life.
"My heart sank into my stomach, I didn't know what to do," said Melissa.
"My daughter, she was my mini-me. She followed me everywhere. We went everywhere together," she added.
After a couple of years, Melissa was finally reunited with her daughter and is now celebrating nine years of sobriety.
She has gone on to win full custody of her child and is now working at Terros Health as a counselor and helping other families go through the same process.
One of the mothers who is still working to win back custody of her children is Brittany McLendon who is also a recovering addict who was once hooked on meth.
McLendon said entering the program changed her life. She credited the compassionate and persistent counselors for helping her stay the course.
"They just didn't give up on me," said McLendon.
The mother has now graduated from the program, obtained a job and a car and is now working on the final step toward reunification. She was on the hunt for permanent housing, which she added had been a challenge as there was a shortage of affordable housing in the Valley.
She received vouchers through the state but she was still unable to find a place to live.
McLendon however, has hope. She is now working to raise the money needed to get into a good home. She is able to visit her children once a week and is looking forward to the day when they can all live under the same roof again, as a family.
For more information on the Families F.I.R.S.T program, click here.