Focus on the Family

The McAdams want their children back, but can former heroin addicts succeed as parents?

Relieved and humiliated, Tiffany and David slip silently from the courthouse, with ten weeks to prove they are worthy of their children.

For the past five years, the Denver Department of Human Services has been revamping its process to fit a national model that strives to better serve families and provide better outcomes for children. The Family to Family reform initiative, created by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, emphasizes strengthening families and communities through carefully targeted services provided as early as possible to parents in need; the goal is to keep children in their homes or reunify them with their parents in a timely manner. When that is not possible, the model tries to keep children within their extended families or same neighborhood.

Caseworker Kathy McGirt helped the McAdams put 
their lives - and family - back together.
Mark Manger
Caseworker Kathy McGirt helped the McAdams put their lives - and family - back together.

Starting with a foundation grant in 2000, DDHS implemented the Family to Family program. The department created two community collaborations of families, service providers, religious institutions, schools and community activists. Each of the two groups was funded with a $45,000 annual grant from the Casey Foundation. Today there are seven collaborations serving seven neighborhoods and receiving a total of $150,000 a year. In January, that allotment will grow to $250,000 annually. The services provided -- parenting classes, drug treatment, job training, counseling -- have always been available, but not always close by, not with flexible hours and not always in the family's primary language. "[The collaborations] don't just serve the kids and families that we send to them," says Human Services manager Roxane White. "They serve the entire community. A family can get any of these services without having a case, by going directly to the collaborative."

Family to Family has also changed the way the department approaches referrals. In 2002, DDHS began using a process called Team Decision Making, or TDM, which gives families a say in treatment and child placement. It also allows grandparents and aunts and uncles an opportunity to step up and provide a home for their kin. As a result, the department has substantially reduced the number of kids who are removed from their homes and put in group-home situations, from 80 percent in 2000 to 20 percent this year.

"With the old model, these children would have been removed from their home and neighborhood and placed with strangers in foster care," notes Allen Pollack, director of family and children's services for DDHS.

Administrators describe Family to Family as a process so positive that parents are thankful for the interference of social services in their lives. Caseworkers approach every new filing by getting to know the parents, finding out how they were raised and what their issues are. "We have very few people who maliciously think of ways to hurt their children, and tons of cases where parents have lost it, have had an impulse moment and they've made a terrible choice," says DDHS child-protection administrator Jude Liguori. "And does one terrible choice define that parent? We say no."

David and Tiffany McAdam wish they'd been able to experience the same level of support. In her experience, Tiffany says, "they don't even spend any time with you to find out who you are or what you're about."

Tiffany grew up the daughter of an Air Force pilot, so she didn't stay in one school or one country for too long. As an adolescent, she spent three years in Italy before starting her sophomore year of high school in Virginia. By junior year, it was South Carolina. The conservative South didn't agree with Tiffany; she missed skiing with her dad, as she'd done in Italy, and planned to go to college in Colorado. She was sixteen in 1982 when her dad took off on a routine training mission in a small plane. Tragically, both of the engines went out, and the plane crashed -- along with Tiffany's future.

After that, all she wanted to do was escape, but her mother convinced her to stay close to home. She studied political science at the College of Charleston until she got too restless, dropping out in her junior year to travel around Europe with money her father had left her. Five months later, back in the States, she moved to Winter Park. For seven years she lived the life of a ski bum, hitting the slopes in the winter and spending the summer months following the Grateful Dead. When Tiffany left for Fort Collins in 1994 to finish school at Colorado State University, she was engaged to a longtime friend from Winter Park and was finally ready to look toward her future. Then early one morning, she got the call that he'd hit a dangerous stretch of Highway 287 on his way back from a camping trip. He'd driven off the road and died.

Tiffany found her escape in heroin. "I'd done it. Never very often -- just here and there," she says. "But that's when I decided to have a problem."

She never expected that problem to last -- or to fall in love with a fellow heroin addict.

David grew up in and around Denver, the son of a firefighter. "It's a tough thing to live up to when your dad's considered a superhero, getting plaques and awards for rushing children out of fires," he says. When he was in the third grade, his parents had him tested for intelligence at the University of Denver. He had an intelligence quotient of 128, was reading at a college level and could do math at a sixth-grade level, but he was also having behavioral and emotional problems, so his parents sent him to a psychiatrist. "I was intelligent enough to be like, 'What the fuck? There must be something seriously wrong with me if no one else is seeing shrinks,'" he says.

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