Family reunification is focus of panel at Ohio Opiate Conference

COLUMBUS, Ohio (May 6, 2016) – When the opiate epidemic started to rear its head in Clermont County back in the late 2000s, Clermont County knew it had to deal with it in a collaborative manner, bringing all players to the table. That collaborative approach was shared on a panel about parent-child reunification during the 2016 Ohio Opiate Conference, held May 2-3 in Columbus.

The speakers included Juvenile Court Judge James Shriver, Karen Scherra, Executive Director of the Clermont County Mental Health and Recovery Board, and Tim Dick, Deputy Director of Children’s Protective Services. All three had to rethink how they approached an issue that is now at the forefront of a majority of CPS cases: Children who are being neglected or abused because of their parents’ use of opiates or heroin, and therefore removed from their homes.

“CPS is focused on the child. The treatment system is focused on the adult,” said Scherra. “How do we bring both perspectives together and focus on the family?”

“In 2008, we removed 132 children from their homes,” Dick said. “In 2013, we removed 275. Our efforts didn’t seem to be successful.” He and Scherra began to discuss how Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) for parents to help wean them from the addiction might, along with other services, help keep families together.

“One of our requirements in family reunification is that we make a reasonable effort to keep families together. If we provided this opportunity, to offer MAT to parents that is paid for, we might be able to keep more families together,” Dick said.

A new approach

Judge Shriver was involved in these talks as well, and in 2014, he established the Family Dependency Treatment Court, a special docket court that offers parents the opportunity to reunite with their children if they follow a highly structured program. “They must attend frequent status review hearings,” said Judge Shriver, “as well as go through frequent and random drug screenings. They have to attend sobriety meetings and receive counseling.”  The parents are provided with Medication-Assisted Treatment, usually Suboxone. Before their children are returned to them, they must have jobs and a home.  They are in the program for at least a year.

Fawn and Steve Kippenberg, recent graduates of the Treatment Court, spoke about their experiences. Married now for 20 years, they were both addicted to heroin and living at a Red Roof Inn when CPS removed their four children on Sept. 10, 2014. That was their turning point.

“Our last day of use was Sept. 11,” said Steve. “We went to a homeless shelter on Sept. 12. Two weeks later we signed up for the Treatment Court.”

It was not an easy process. But they were motivated. They wanted their children back. “You don’t turn your back on your kids,” said Fawn.

The Kippenbergs went through 300 drug screenings during their 16 months in the program. “We never failed a test,” said Steve. They began to treat their addiction like a disease, which it is. “MAT worked,” he said. They now attend several AA meetings weekly.

Structured treatment

The program added much needed structure to their lives, said Steve. Over time, they have cleared up outstanding court cases and paid fines. Steve got his driver’s license back. “We’ve had to get back to what normal people do,” he said. Reunited with their children after 5 months in the program, they now rent a three-bedroom home and own a car. Fawn has had a job for more than a year, while Steve is retired on disability.

“I am very thankful to CPS,” said Steve. “You took my kids, but I had to take the bad to get to the good.”

For families that do not have private insurance, or are not covered by Medicaid, funds to pay for Medication-Assisted Treatment and other services come jointly from the Mental Health and Recovery Board and Children’s Protective Services.

(Photo: Steve Kippenberg shares some lighter moments of his journey to recovery with his wife, Fawn. Tim Dick, left, is Deputy Director of Children’s Protective Services.)