Jackie Heinrich climbs a familiar set of stairs to a house in the tiny Leech Lake tribal community of Ball Club. Heinrich's been here dozens of times over the past few months. She visits a woman named Sheryl two or three times a week, to help Sheryl stay sober.
Sheryl is a single mother who didn't want to use her last name for this story. Her goal is to get her 15-year-old daughter, Miranda, back home. Sheryl has been in and out of drug treatment five times over the years. She's used meth, marijuana and alcohol. About a year ago, Sheryl got physically abusive with Miranda. Her family called the cops. Itasca County courts intervened and took Miranda away.
Sheryl says her number one priority now is to stay drug and alcohol free so Miranda can come home.
"It's hard, really hard to stay sober around here," Sheryl says, "I mean to keep your sobriety. There's people coming to my house still now today asking me if I want drugs. I just have to tell them no. Shut the door."
In the past, keeping that door shut was always a problem for Sheryl. She says her new relationship with Jackie Heinrich has helped turn things around.
"I do consider her my friend," Sheryl says. "A very close friend who's helped me through a lot of things."
Jackie Heinrich is what Itasca County court officials call a recovery specialist. It's a new position created last April when the county got a federal grant to find a better way to help parents who've lost their kids.
The pilot program is based on a California model that's been running for about five years. It's been successful in getting parents sober and reuniting them with their children much faster. It's saved Sacramento County millions of dollars in child out-of-home placement costs.
“They like the accountability. They like having us come into their home.”Jackie Heinrich
About a dozen Itasca County families are participating in the program. Heinrich, who has a law enforcement background, says the key is intense supervision. She talks daily with the parents in her caseload. She visits them at least twice a week and gets to know them. Heinrich says she even develops friendships. But she keeps them on track with frequent urinalysis tests to make sure they're staying drug free.
"They like the accountability. They like having us come into their home." Heinrich says. "We've had them make statements that they believe we are their higher power, which we also tell them that we're not their higher power. They'll learn that through the process of treatment."
Typically, social workers would do some of the things Heinrich does. But her role goes far beyond that. Linda Ross who supervises the program for Itasca County, says recovery specialists help addictive parents with transportation needs. They help them find employment. They help them complete drug and alcohol treatment programs. Ross says all of that makes parents more likely to succeed at keeping their kids at home.
"They are just so overwhelmed at the beginning," Ross explains. "It's fine for the court and the case workers to give them this laundry list of this is what you need to accomplish. But they don't have the skills to do that on their own at first."
There are variations of the pilot program in Stearns and Ramsey counties. The state Supreme Court is encouraging these new approaches to deal with a growing number of child protection cases. The growth is widely blamed on an explosion of meth cases, which have more than doubled the past five years. Many of those meth cases involve parents with children. In some counties, 80 percent of their child protection cases involve the drug.
John Kostouros, communications director for Minnesota's court system, says counties need more effective ways to deal with the problem.
"When you get someone who's got a drug and alcohol addiction, you usually see them in court over and over and over again," Kostourus says. "And there is a consensus that has developed that we simply need to use better strategies to get better results."
The results have not always been good for Sheryl, the single mother from Ball Club. But she says she's hoping her life in and out of courtrooms and treatment centers is about to change. At the end of our interview, her cell phone rang. It was a local employer inviting her for a job interview. If all goes as planned, Sheryl will have her daughter back home this spring.