KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — With more than three decades of work with the drug and alcohol addicted, Molly Merrigan calibrates her tone carefully when addressing those who appear in her courtroom.
She can be painfully sharp when she hears a drug addict spew out a false excuse.
"You're not going to get visits (with your children) unless you get into treatment," Merrigan told one woman last week.
But a few minutes later, knowing that another client was on the verge of losing any chance at regaining either her sobriety or the custody of her children, Merrigan leaned low over the bench.
The woman — slender and waifish — hadn't been to drug treatment in a month and just had been diagnosed with serious depression, another burden on top of addiction and poverty.
"I'm really worried about you," Merrigan assured. "You're really struggling with some depression. I want you to go to treatment and get a medication assessment. This can't feel good."
"It don't," the woman sniffed and then agreed to re-enter drug treatment the next morning.
As commissioner of Jackson County's Family Drug Court since December 1998, Merrigan has worked with a team of lawyers, social workers and child advocates to create one of the top programs of its kind in the nation.
Last month, Children and Family Futures, which advises courts under a contract with the Justice Department, announced that Jackson County's program was one of five model courts in the U.S.
Merrigan's court was one of the first to take the now-familiar drug court treatment model and adapt it to the wrenching context of child abuse and neglect. Substance abusing parents on the verge of losing their children because of complaints of abuse or neglect must complete a rigorous program of drug and alcohol treatment and frequent testing to assure Merrigan that she can safely reunite the parents with their kids.
The program is limited to 110 families at a time and is not available to parents accused of the worst kinds of violent physical or sexual abuse. Still, many of the mothers and fathers who appear before Merrigan appear overwhelmed by the prospect of organizing the chaos in their lives.
"I've done this kind of work for more than 30 years and no one would choose to be this way," said Merrigan, who previously worked as a prosecutor in Jackson County's more traditional drug court program. "They love their children, but they make some poor choices."
The parents of almost 3,000 children have participated in the program since its founding 14 years ago. Nearly 500 parents have graduated over the years.
Parents appear in court twice a month, rather than waiting for hearings that sometimes can be months down the road in more traditional family court settings.
Merrigan said the frequent appearances allow her to catch her clients "being good" more regularly. But it also allows her to make a swift assessment as to whether participants are making the real progress in cleaning up their lives necessary for reunification with their children.
As an encouragement, the court permits parents to visit their children, who usually are staying with other family members or foster parents. Progress in the program is rewarded with longer visits with progressively less supervision.
If parents lose interest in the program and their children, Merrigan said, she can quickly begin the process of terminating their parental rights, a taxing but sometimes necessary step.
Some families who are working through the program said they appreciate the strict accountability that the commissioner and others administer.
Tina Weaver of Kansas City and William Yardley of Oak Grove last week regained joint custody of their two young sons after making hard-won progress against their drug abuse.
Weaver said she's seen two sides of the commissioner, the nurturing encourager and the taskmaster.
"She knows everybody and treats them kindly," Weaver said. "But she chewed me out once and I had to go (to) inpatient (treatment).
"She doesn't want to take anybody's kids away. She's all about reunification."
Shannondoha Ross now can live with her 2-year-old daughter, Kaylyn, while she finishes the family drug court program. Ross — whose drug history includes cocaine, both powder and crack, methamphetamine and prescription pain medication abuse — already had lost custody of two daughters to divorce and gave up a third to adoption.
She said she couldn't bear the thought of losing a fourth child in a Family Court proceeding. That moment of clarity came when Ross realized that without some good decisions on her part, Merrigan was prepared to take Kaylyn away.
Ross said she never wants to forget that moment.
"Please, God, don't let me forget how bad this hurt," Ross said. "That tore my heart out. But that's the law."
Phil Breitenbucher, program director for the California-based Children and Family Futures, said more than 350 family drug courts have been established throughout the U.S. since the 1990s, and Jackson County's stands out among the "premier" programs in the country.
Part of its success stems from the Community Backed Anti-Drug Tax, which helps fund the court. But he also said that participants have almost immediate access to treatment because of good teamwork between public agencies and private service providers.
Merrigan's work also stands out, Breitenbucher said.
"Commissioner Merrigan knows these people very well," he said. "She knows the grandparents. You don't see that in 'business-as-usual' courts."
According to a federal study published in May, the number of children in foster care declined about 26 percent nationally between 2000 and 2010. Some of that, Breitenbucher said, is attributable to the work of family drug courts.
But Merrigan doesn't see her work, or that of the dozens of others who help her every day, getting any easier. She predicted that with deep cuts in social service programs and a lingering economic crisis, Missourians soon will see a surge in the kind of child abuse and neglect that feed cases into her courtroom.
"We are off the map for new cases," Merrigan said.
Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com