The third floor hallway is where Children's Court takes place at Bexar County Courthouse.
The hallway outside Children's Court at the Bexar County Courthouse. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Bexar County’s family drug treatment court has been awarded a more than $2 million grant for a program that works to reunite infants and toddlers with parents who have undergone treatment for drug abuse and addiction.

The five-year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, doubles the program’s previous annual budget and will be used to increase staff and programming at agencies that partner with the county’s courts handling child abuse and neglect.

“Once families go through these courts, we do not see them back in the child welfare system,” said Associate Judge Peter Sakai, creator of the Early Intervention Program of the Children’s Court. “We have lowered the number of [children being removed from their parents] for the past fiscal year, and the number of children entering foster care. We are the only region in the state of Texas to achieve that – everybody else has skyrocketed up,” according to most recent reports.

The Bexar County Early Intervention Program – often called Baby Court – requires participants whose children have been removed by Child Protective Services to submit to regular drug testing, outpatient drug treatment, and counseling, with regular check-ins with the judge to ensure compliance. Participants are often young mothers “who are posed with a lot of challenges, including trauma, drug and alcohol [use], mental health issues, and domestic and family violence, which are the root cause of child abuse and neglect,” Sakai said at a press conference Wednesday.

“We recognized that we are very good at removing babies from their moms, but not very good at returning them. We are doing more to respect the bonding that happens between a mother and newborn child and focusing on what might help families reunite,” including mental health counseling or parenting skills courses.

Community partners providing services to families participating in the Early Intervention Program include the Children’s Shelter, Family Violence Prevention Services, and drug rehabilitation programs at Alpha Home and Lifetime Recovery. The groups work with parents until they graduate from the program, which can take up to a year.

Associate Judge Peter Sakai discusses a $2 million grant for groups working with the Bexar County Children’s Court. Credit: Roseanna Garza / San Antonio Report

“The program that Sakai set up stabilizes families by addressing whatever issue comes up for them,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff told the Rivard Report. “If they work the program and get through it successfully, their children are returned to them.”

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services confirmed 5,588 confirmed cases of child abuse in San Antonio in 2017, with 30 percent of the cases on the West Side of San Antonio. The purpose of the Early Intervention Program is to decrease those numbers by “stabilizing the parents and getting them into shape so they can keep their children,” Wolff said.

“We are trying to help these parents rather than just jerk [their] kid around.  If they go into foster care, they might live with 30 different families. You’re much better off if you can stabilize the parents so they reunite with their child ready to be a family again.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.