Life wasn’t easy for Marsha Valenzuela from Spokane County, Washington. Decades of substance abuse combined with failed and abusive relationships took their toll on her and her life. When the authorities took her two youngest sons from her and sent them to foster homes, she knew she needed to turn her life around.
When she was arrested in 2001 she weighed on 93 lbs. and a known meth addict in an abusive relationship. The spiral continued until her children were taken away to foster homes. She did everything in her power to get them back, but numerous failed drug tests later and continuing on the same path led to dead end after dead end. It was her lawyer who told her the truth and made sure reality sinks in. If she didn’t clean up her act and pass the drug tests, she would never get her kids back.
The county steps in
She had help. 10 years ago Spokane County changed its attitude towards parents with children in foster care. Adopting a collaborative model aiming to help struggling parents reunite with their children, the county overhauled the entire judicial system. A decade ago parents would get a new lawyer and a new judge before every court session. This meant that cases were increasingly miss-managed. There was no way for the system follow up on parents’ rehabilitation and progress except via reports from previous hearings and the judges couldn’t establish their own opinion. Additionally, most of the lawyers felt their duty was per hearing and not to deal with the case from start to finish. Many parents and children fell through the cracks. Michelle Ressa, a Spokane County court commissioner stated “The new model brings together lawyers, judges, appointed guardians and social workers to provide a consistency that’s often lacking in family legal proceedings.”
She entered rehab and started eating again. The road was long, but worthwhile. After cleaning up she was able to secure stable lodging and a job at a non-profit child advocacy center. Its mission is to prevent, interrupt and repair cycles of abuse and neglect within families, and provide a social safety net for abused and neglected children and provide holistic supportive family services. The model she learnt and began advocating puts the child victim first. Instead of letting a child be taken from agency to agency throughout the law enforcement and child protection system, the model brings the system to the child. The aim is to bring agency professionals together to achieve an effective, efficient and child-centered healing mechanism.
A happy ending
According to statistics, nearly one in five people, or 42.5 million American adults, has a diagnosable mental health condition, and 12% of children live with a parent with a substance use disorder. Valenzuela was almost one of them.
With the training she gained from her new job, self-confidence she found in rehab and the way her life was starting to turn around. She was able to get her children back within ten months. Her youngest son, aged 17 is now starting his studies at Eastern Washington University. Meaning, the vicious cycle that Valenzuela endured could end with her, and her children will enjoy a healthier life than she did.
On Friday afternoon (02.05.2017) an emotional event was held at the Spokane County Courthouse, where parents who have worked hard to reunite with their children celebrated “Reunification Day”. Many parents at the event had either recently closed their cases with Child Protective Services or regained custody of their children years ago and now serve as advocates. Many told stories of addiction, abuse and stigma that made it difficult to raise healthy families.
*due to the delicacy of the topic, we weren’t allowed to publish picture from the event itself.