Ashley Sweigart had just finished taking a few Roxicodone pain pills and had sat back to watch TV in her bedroom when she heard a car pull up outside her trailer.
It was the day after Christmas 2018, and her son and stepdaughter were in the living room playing with their new toys. Ashley walked out through the back door and met an unmarked silver car outside. Two women stepped out and Ashley’s heart dropped when she saw the badges swinging from their necks: Bedford County Department of Social Services.
They came inside and told her she had been the subject of a child protective services report. The caller had said Ashley had been using drugs in front of her kids. The women asked her to take a drug test while they looked around the trailer, checking for running water and food in the fridge.
Ashley returned with her sample, but she already knew she was going to fail for weed, opiates, suboxone and benzodiazepines.
Ashley explained to the social workers that she had been partying during the holiday and they caught her at a bad time. They accepted her story and told her they would be back sometime the next week.
Every day, Ashley peered through her blinds, waiting for them to come. Every car she heard drive up the mountain was sure to be them with another urine test in hand. She was nervous and anxious, but she still couldn’t stop using.
The social workers did return, and Ashley failed the drug test again. And again. And again. And again. She lost custody of her son, Jordan, that February. He left court that day with his grandmother, and the social workers put into place a plan that allowed only supervised visits between Ashley and her son and required Ashley to get sober before Jordan could move back home.
“You guys are expecting me not to get high anymore, but you just took the only thing that matters to me,” she thought. “Why not get high? You’re taking the most important thing away.”
Ashley went back home, continued to use and fought her social workers every step of the way — cussed them, threatened them, said whatever reckless thing came to mind. It went on for close to three months before she realized that she wasn’t getting anywhere, and that it was becoming more and more likely she would never have custody of her son again.
So Ashley picked up a pen and signed herself up for Bedford County’s family drug treatment court program.
Bedford County started its family drug court in 2018. It’s one of two programs in Southwest Virginia and one of only four in the state, despite the success of similar programs nationwide and a longstanding body of research showing their benefit.
Family drug courts serve adults who have substance abuse issues and an active child protective services or foster care case. Their goal is to reunify parents with their children, or to help them maintain custody and avoid foster care in the first place.
The first family drug courts were launched in the mid-1990s to help substance-abusing parents, who were frequently unable to reunify with their children, according to research from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals in Alexandria. The association found that parents with substance abuse issues had difficulty achieving and maintaining sobriety, with more than 80% failing treatment.
Currently, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that as many as two-thirds of child maltreatment cases involve some degree of substance use.
The United States had 10 family drug courts in 1999, a number that has now grown to more than 300. Over the years, studies have shown that parents in family drug court programs are more likely to complete substance abuse treatment and regain custody of their children than those in typical reunification methods. Children of these parents also spend less time in foster care or other out-of-home placements.
Jane Pfeifer, program director at the national nonprofit Children and Family Futures, leads the organization's family drug court training and technical assistance program. She said the courts are so successful because they address the needs of the entire family and are able to quickly identify additional services and put them in place.
"These programs aren't just about substance use treatment," she said. "The courts provide intensive coordinated case planning and wraparound services. The family may need additional services or support and they really look at the broad base of the family's needs: mental health, trauma, poverty and other factors."
Despite the successes, family drug court programs are not widely used across Virginia, and the number of participants has varied from year to year, from 21 to 68 between 2009 and 2020. Virginia is not alone in these numbers. Some states have dozens of family drug courts while others have zero.
Chris Deutsch, communications director of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, said there can be barriers to starting a family drug court. Stigma is one.
“Even though we’ve come a long way in our understanding of addiction and treatment and our notion that people can and do recover, there is still a widespread stigma around these issues,” he said. “When these folks are involved in the justice system, there is a pervasive attitude that they should be punished first. It’s a departure from how justice has been implemented in this country.”
He said once people see how the program works and understand it’s not a “get out of jail free” card, the public can begin to accept it. But persuading stakeholders and resource-strapped social services departments to take on more work is another issue.
Bedford County social services director Andy Crawford said starting the program took sacrifices from his department, the court system and private providers. No additional funding was available to get the program off the ground, so each office was required to use resources it already had.
A juvenile and domestic relations court judge set aside time on the docket each week to work with the participants. The Department of Social Services assigned a staff member to manage the cases. Horizon Behavioral Health, the organization that provides some of the treatment, set aside time for its substance abuse counselors and case managers to take on the new clients. And the health department donated a part-time peer support worker to the program.
“We happened to have the right level of resources at the right time to plug it in and go,” Crawford said. “We have the support at all levels to make it work. Foster care is very expensive and it’s not good for kids. So if you have families that have children placed in foster care, that’s costing a lot of money. We’re seeing kids go home, and even better, we’re not seeing them come back.”
Crawford said it required collaboration and willingness from each partner to get the program off the ground. Now that it’s running efficiently, they will be able to expand.
In June, the county was awarded a $1.9 million grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The grant will be administered over five years and has allowed the county to hire more people solely dedicated to the program.
Bedford County started its family drug court with five participants. In the two years since, 26 people have been enrolled. Six have left the program, some moving out of the area and others unable to complete the requirements. Another six have graduated. The program currently has 18 enrolled and a waiting list of six.
With the new staff, the program will be able to accommodate 40 participants at a time. More participants means fewer children in the foster care system long term.
“Local agencies can do things differently if they collaborate with their partners and think outside the box and have some local money they can be flexible with,” Crawford said. “One thing about Bedford County is that they don’t want things to be bad, and they don’t settle for ‘That’s just the way it is.’”
One week after Ashley signed up for the family drug court program, her social worker drove her to LewisGale Medical Center in Salem to go through a medical detox, where doctors could monitor her symptoms as she came off alcohol and medications like Xanax.
Ashley said she was high at the time and doesn’t remember much of the intake process, but she does remember her social worker, Hope Brown, staying with her until she was settled.
At first, Ashley was irritated. She’d signed up for the program because it was the only way she could figure out how to get her son back.
“I didn't want to be there, I didn't feel that I needed to be there,” she said. “I was doing it to make CPS happy.”
Ashley attended nine meetings a day: Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, group therapy and individual therapy. She started hearing stories from fellow addicts that sounded a lot like her own.
Others didn’t. Ashley listened to a mother say she hadn’t seen her son in six years and others who had been in the hospital for detox multiple times.
Ashley didn’t want that to become her story.
One night, she stayed up all night talking with her roommate in the hospital. They talked about everything — childhood traumas, her roommate’s overdose and five-year coma, the choices they’d made and the choices they were going to have to make when they got out. Ashley calls it her “Saturday night epiphany.”
The next day, she cried in every meeting as she opened up to her group.
“I knew everything was going to change, the friends I had, the places I went, my relationship, my job,” she said. “My whole life was upside down. I was terrified. But then I got out of detox, and I knew what I needed to do.”
Bedford County social services staff saw drug use crop up in countless social services cases and become one of the main barriers to returning children to their parents. But for the past 10 years, social workers had seen an even bigger increase in methamphetamine use.
Crawford said parents who were using methamphetamine struggled far more to reunite with their children than parents using other addictive drugs. Treatment and punishments weren’t working and reunification was nearly impossible.
The chemicals in methamphetamine require a longer period of treatment for the brain to heal and can affect memory and impulse control. Families struggling with meth addiction were often not attending visitations or treatment appointments because they would simply forget, said Jennifer Smith-Ramey, substance use program manager at Horizon Behavioral Health.
“It takes a while for their cognitions to improve once they’re off of meth,” Smith-Ramey said. “Opioid, marijuana and alcohol users can return to a baseline much faster. And that was another aspect of the drug court program: The treatment period is much longer than others.”
Bedford County bases its program on a five-phase model. Participants move through each phase as they complete therapy and classes and achieve a certain level of sobriety.
The first phase requires participants to attend court, participate in about six treatment and community groups and submit three drug screens every week. The phase lasts at least 60 days and participants must be clean for 14 consecutive days before they can move onto the next stage.
By the fifth phase, participants must attend about two treatment and community groups per week, submit to two drug screens every week and attend court once a month.
Throughout these phases, participants take parenting classes, domestic violence classes and individual therapy. Although there are guidelines for how long each phase should take, participants move at their own pace, said family services specialist Bobby Jo Alston, who works with the county social services department.
“We do psychologicals to see what kinds of supports we need to put in place for people or childhood traumas they haven’t dealt with,” Alston said. “It’s not checking off boxes. We are looking for an overall behavioral change so they can have that long-term recovery.”
Both staff and participants say it’s a difficult program, filled with accountability. The number of appointments, programs and requirements can make it difficult for people to stick with it.
Nick Creasy and his wife are currently in the program in Bedford County. He and his wife share one child and raise others from her earlier relationships; they are working through the program to regain custody.
Creasy said he signed onto the program in June 2020 after an initial reluctance.
“In the beginning, I didn’t think I had a problem, I didn’t think I needed help,” Creasy said. “I just wanted everybody to leave me the hell alone. I felt like I was being pushed into doing something I really didn’t want to do.”
Creasy said he continually tried to run from Alston, who was assigned to his case. When she pulled into the driveway, he would run out the back door and drive away. But Alston kept coming back and told Creasy she saw something in him. Eventually, he came around.
“When Nick would stop running from me and we could actually have a conversation, he would be so honest with me about his use, and he was so transparent in where he was in his life and how he was really tired of it and tired of living that way,” Alston said. “I knew that if he could commit and we could get a little bit of sobriety behind him that he would get there.”
Creasy went to a few days of rehab but said he couldn’t stick it out. He eventually served eight hours in jail, where he sobered up. After that he started intensive outpatient therapy and has been successful in the program. In January, he moved to phase 3, meaning he had been clean for at least 45 consecutive days. His wife, Christina, recently moved to phase 4.
Alston said Creasy has been a great asset to the program as he helps other participants move through the phases. He’s attended his friends’ criminal hearings, given people rides to appointments and even helped them with home improvements.
“I ask all the time if there’s something else I can do for somebody else,” Creasy said. “I get a lot out of that. If I can get somebody else where they need to be, that’s what’s going to keep me where I need to be.”
Ashley left detox May 8, 2019, and started moving through the phases one by one. She said she never had a positive drug test after leaving the hospital and has been sober ever since.
She found a steady job with good pay and benefits and worked through behavioral therapy and intensive outpatient therapy. She didn’t own a car, so Brown, her social worker, drove 8 miles up and down a mountain to take her to every appointment.
“She was instrumental in helping me,” Ashley said. “I wouldn’t be anywhere without her. I know I wasn’t easy to be with. I know I was aggravating and frustrating and disrespectful, but she stayed with me.”
Brown said she saw past Ashley's rough exterior and knew it was hard for her to trust a social worker. In a program like this, she said, participants need to know someone is there for them.
"Participants are pretty unstable coming into the program, and we have to work with them to get them where they need to be," Brown said. "I do sacrifice a lot of time for the program and the individuals that need help, whether that's at 6 in the morning or 8 at night. We are truly there to help support people in their time of need."
Before Ashley could regain custody of her son, she had to find a new place to live. Her trailer was run-down. The ceiling leaked, the bathroom was falling apart and there was mold hiding in the crevices. It was cluttered and dirty and there wasn’t nearly enough space for her and Jordan.
She appeared before the judge in Bedford County that fall. The court was ready to offer her full custody again, but Ashley told the judge her life still wasn’t in order.
“I want him back,” she said. “I just want him home, but I can’t sit here and honestly ask you to do that when I don’t know where I’m going to be.”
The judge gave her another 30 days to find a new home. She found a place nine days before her next court appearance and was granted full custody of Jordan on Oct. 28, 2019.
The two of them moved in with two air mattresses, two televisions and the clothes they owned. Now, Ashley has furnished the entire place on her own.
“All of a sudden, I wasn't angry all the time,” Ashley said. “I wasn't negative about everything. I was happy. And I don't really know when that happened, but it just kind of happened on its own and then it became the norm.”
More than a year ago, the social services department in Giles County was consistently seeing substance use intertwined with child welfare cases, much like in Bedford County.
David St. John, the family drug court coordinator with New River Valley Community Services, said the county saw an increase in methamphetamine and heroin use as prescription drugs were further restricted. If addiction wasn’t the main culprit in child welfare cases, it played a part in progressing the situation to the point that social services had to intervene.
St. John said Judge Stephanie Shortt, chief judge of the juvenile and domestic relations court, did much of the legwork to get the program started. She approached the county administration and the social services department to get the court into its pilot phase, which began in July 2019.
Shortt said she became a proponent of the drug court model while working as a public defender in Roanoke. She saw the benefits and the recovery that was possible and wanted to bring that model to the juvenile and domestic relations court when she became a judge.
Shortt convened stakeholder meetings with the social services department, the commonwealth’s attorney, guardians ad litem, court-appointed special advocates and attorneys. Then she applied on behalf of the locality to the Virginia Supreme Court, which has final approval over the program.
The family drug court has served six people so far, with one graduate and another set to finish in April. At this point, the program can have up to three participants at a time, St. John said. Currently, it has one.
Four people have dropped out of the program. St. John said the treatment is strenuous and asks a lot of participants. Even with every tool and resource available, they won’t always be successful.
“In a lot of ways, it mirrors what we see in substance use and mental health treatment generally,” he said. “Success isn’t always black and white. People who don’t complete the program aren’t failures or destined for bleak times. Some people just aren’t ready.”
Giles County is looking to expand its program with a family drug court grant from the national Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which awarded 24 grants totaling $22.9 million last year. Charlottesville received one of those grants, $827,973, to support its family drug court program.
“I’ve been impressed with everybody using the resources we have because we’re stretched thin as it is,” St. John said. “It takes a lot of collaboration to do this between courts, county administration, social services and even just folks in the community. We’re all working to build better communities at the end of the day.”
Social services closed Ashley’s case in December, but Ashley was hesitant about being left on her own. The program provided constant support and accountability, and Ashley was worried she would regress without it.
But Alston told her there was nothing the department could do for her that she wasn’t already doing for herself. Ashley has since become a sponsor for other women in recovery and a peer recovery coach at an outpatient facility, and she works with the Central Virginia Addiction and Recovery Resources Coalition. These are the communities that hold her accountable now.
Alston said one of the goals of the program is to provide participants with community support, so when social services closes its case, they can continue to be successful.
Jordan, who is now 11, loves to play Monopoly with his mom as he tests out different strategies to win. Ashley said she’s been open with him about why he had to live with his grandmother, and he has accompanied her to court and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
“I definitely wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t go through this program,” Ashley said. “I have zero doubts that I would be dead or in jail. And I have a career now with benefits. I have a retirement plan and life insurance. That’s stuff I never thought I'd have.”
Alison Graham is The Secular Society Investigative Fellow at The Roanoke Times.