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First graduates of family drug court have much to celebrate

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By Diana Hefley
Herald Writer
EVERETT -- Every Friday for a year, they've had to prove they were becoming better parents and deserved to keep their daughter.
Amy Cameron and Dustin Cantamessa lost their 3-year-old daughter in April 2008 because of allegations of neglect. Their drug addictions kept them from being good parents, the kind of parents they wanted to be. To get her back, the couple agreed to be closely monitored by a Snohomish County judge, lawyers and social workers. They agreed to undergo ­substance-abuse treatment, complete parenting classes and pass random drug tests.
Every week for a year, they stood before Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Cowsert to show him they were following the rules. They wanted their daughter.
Cameron, 28, and Cantamessa, 24, were in front of Cowsert again on Friday, this time as the first graduates of the county's new Family Drug Treatment Court. They have been clean and sober for more than a year. Their daughter, now 4, is back home. Both parents hold down jobs. They are expecting a second child soon.
"Without drug court we wouldn't be where we are," Cantamessa said.
The court, a pilot project started in February 2008, is for parents with substance-abuse problems who have lost their children because of allegations of neglect. The program doesn't accept parents accused of physical or sexual abuse. It also is different from the county's two other drug courts, which focus on people facing criminal prosecution. Instead, this court is intended for parents facing civil intervention because their addictions have gotten in the way of them providing adequate housing, food or supervision for their children, said Dawn Williams, the county's drug courts supervisor.
At least 85 percent of the parents whose children are removed have a drug or alcohol problem, said Lynn Davis, a child and family welfare services supervisor in Everett.
"We believe if we arrest the addiction, they will become a resource for their children," Williams said.
The program is voluntary and requires parents to give Cowsert the authority to preside over their dependency cases. They must meet all the requirements, such as attending classes and staying drug-free, or face sanctions, including jail time. The drug court team closely monitors their progress. The social workers assigned to the drug court have a reduced case load so they can keep better track of the families, Davis said.
The weekly monitoring and team's ability to quickly address any problems are paramount, Cowsert said. In regular dependency cases, a parent may go three to six months without seeing a judge. That leaves a lot of time for screw-ups.
"We simply can't rely on the individual to do the right thing when drugs are involved," Cowsert said.
Before Friday's graduation ceremony, drug court was in session. Cowsert called parents up one by one and asked them how they were doing. He congratulated mothers and fathers for completing parenting classes and encouraged them to continue to work hard. He called one participant at home. She wasn't feeling well but that didn't get her off the hook. Cowsert sternly reminded the woman she needed to bring a note from her doctor.
Next, he ordered a woman to spend a day on the county's work crew after he learned the woman's sister visited her home without authorization from the court team.
"This isn't just a misunderstanding," Cowsert chastised the woman. "You can't be doing this. You signed up for this program. We had an understanding."
The intense program often helps parents reunite with their children quickly. There are few relapses. In fact, less than half of one percent of the participants in the program have tested positive for drugs. That compares to about half the parents monitored in a traditional dependency court who tested positive for drugs.
"I think we're able to keep families together in a way that we're not always able to do in regular case," Davis said. "I wish we had this for every single case we have."
The program isn't taking on any new clients until funding is secured to pay for a full-time coordinator and support services. Funding should come from the recent sales tax increase, which the county must use to pay for a family drug court, Snoho­mish County Superior Court Judge Larry McKeeman said.
Cameron and Cantamessa shared cake with their daughter on Friday after graduation. The little girl spent about seven months in foster care before she came home.
"It was devastating, but it was a big eye-opener. If it hadn't happened, who knows where we would be now," Cameron said. Drug court "has given me my life back. It's given me a whole new outlook. If you take advantage of what they offer, if you're willing to do the work and willing to ask for help, it makes a difference."
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463,
Story tags » Crime, Law & JusticeAddiction

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