Ferris entered the yearlong rehabilitation program, where he was allowed to see his children for supervised visits.
Ferris first requested unsupervised time with his daughters immediately after leaving treatment but was shot down by a judge who wanted him to continue supervised visitations at his mother’s house. Those visits ended after the relationship between Ferris and his mother turned sour, and he now has to visit his children through a supervised parenting center.
Ferris said he has since filed several motions for parenting time that have been denied, the latest being in August after a construction project caused him to miss a previous court date in June.
“The judge cared nothing about me being two years clean or paying off child support,” he said. “Everyone just looked at me like a junkie.”
Such an attitude toward recovering addicts is common in the courtroom, said Lisa Frederiksen, family law consultant and substance abuse Minimum Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) provider for the State Bar of California.
“Addiction is a brain disorder, but a lot of people still view it as a choice,” she said. “It makes no sense to them why the addict can’t just learn to quit.”
That widely held stigma can create an unintentional bias in the courtroom against those in recovery as they try to regain custody of their children, said Nancy Young, executive director of Children and Family Futures, a social service organization that works nationally on issues that affect children of substance abusers.
“I think that there is a fairly large lack of knowledge about how to work with people who suffer from addiction, and I think the values and stigmas in our country at large play out in the courtrooms,” Young said.
Family drug courts are meant to help eliminate that discrimination by providing parents with the resources to get clean while still protecting children’s safety and welfare.
“The Child Welfare System typically has a system of safety and risk assessments to determine what is necessary to reunify the child and parent, and substance abuse court typically has its own safety and structure requirements,” Young said. “Family drug courts are trying to make sure those two things are working in concert and not conflicting with one another.”
The outcome has proved relatively successful. Family reunification rates were 20 to 40 percent higher for family drug court participants than their comparison groups in most studies, according to a report by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
But for those in recovery like Ferris who still feel trapped by a court system that seems to doubt their success, this doesn’t feel like enough. Ferris has spent sleepless nights haunted by the fear of not being reunited with his children. He would like the court will come up with a system that will allow him to prove himself fit to care for his two daughters again.
Frederiksen believes the answer lies in education and understanding in the court system surrounding the science of addiction and the brain. She believes a more scientific approach to measuring recovery progress, such as evaluations certified by American Society of Addiction Medicine professionals, would help.
“It’s really important for the court to understand that the child needs both parents and to make that a priority,” Frederiksen said. “The child is the real victim here because they don’t understand any of the information the court is using to make their decision, they just want mommy or daddy.”
That weighs heavily on Ferris as he recounts the pain that his addiction has inflicted on both himself and his daughters.
“I was everything to them, and I was so selfish,” he said. “It was absolutely horrible seeing how I broke their hearts.”
As for Ferris, the hardest part of his battle with addiction remains the lost time with his daughters.
“That is the ultimate consequence I’ve suffered,” he said. “I’ve lost years of hugs and laughter with them.”
Breaking the cycle
Ferris remains determined to regain parenting rights to his two daughters. But in the meantime, life carries on for the two little girls, who have started seeing a therapist.
That is crucial for children with traumatic childhood experiences, such as parental divorce or substance abuse, Frederiksen said. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that traumatic childhood is linked to a host of health problems and risky behaviors later in life.
“Luckily, all it takes for a child to have resiliency from that is a caring adult that understands and can help them make sense of it all,” Frederiksen said.
Ferris hopes to one day explain his battle with addiction to his daughters when they are old enough to understand it. He fears the cycle will someday repeat in his own children but said he planned to do everything in his power to keep that from happening.
“If they ever did experience addiction, I’d never leave their side,” Ferris said. “I’d make sure they knew they always had someone there that loves and supports them.”