It’s a frustratingly common cycle in Utah’s child welfare system, says the Salt Lake Tribune: Almost two-thirds of child abuse and neglect cases involve alcohol or drug abuse, much of it intergenerational. No longer seen as a moral failing, addiction is now viewed as a treatable, but chronic disease that takes time to manage. Research on Utah’s drug court participants shows meth addicts require an average of 410 days in treatment.
“It takes 18 months for their brains to heal and for people to start thinking clearly,” says Utah substance abuse director Brent Kelsey. Juvenile courts have little patience for drug users. Federal reforms passed in the ’90s stress child safety, giving judges eight to 12 months, depending on the age of the child, to decide whether to send a child back home or into foster care. Debate over extending the deadlines has centered on fears children might languish in foster care or continue to suffer abuse. Juvenile Court Judge Sharon McCully believes courts must put children first and take a different approach: placing parents on an even speedier track. “They just lost their kids. If they’re ever going to be motivated to change, this is the time,” she says. McCully pairs stricter deadlines with “therapeutic justice” – early screening aimed at getting parents into treatment and counseling sooner. She holds hearings more frequently than most judges, as often as every two weeks.