Westmoreland program reunites ex-addicts, children

| Monday, Dec. 12, 2011

Marilyn Osiecki had few options left.

She was a drug addict and had her three children, a 14-year-old daughter, a 9-year-old son and an infant daughter, removed from her New Kensington home and placed into foster care.

During a custody hearing before Westmoreland County Family Court Judge Christopher Feliciani more than 16 months ago, she pleaded for help.

"That was the breaking point. I had a major breakdown," Osiecki said.

So Osiecki, 30, became a guinea pig of sorts, the first enrollee in a new drug court program designed by Feliciani to reunite formerly drug-addicted parents with their children.

Feliciani has named his drug court the Westmoreland County Accelerated Permanency Treatment Program. Its focus is to rehabilitate drug users and turn them into acceptable parents.

The program includes intensive, weekly supervision of parents with the ultimate goal of having their children returned to them permanently instead of their cases languishing for years in the court system and ultimately end with their parental rights being relinquished.

"Ninety-nine percent of dependency cases involve drugs and alcohol. Almost all of those cases involve termination of parental rights," Feliciani said. "The system which we provide services to parents and help them regain custody of their children isn't working. That's a failure."

Family court judges are required to conduct custody review hearings every six months after a child is taken from their parents and placed into foster care. Parents are routinely ordered to undergo counseling and attend classes. But without any intensive intervention most of those kids are never returned to their parents, Feliciani said.

So Feliciani created a new system, in which a committee of 12 volunteers, including the judge, meets with a participant parent every week. Random drug tests are administered, and participants receive rewards for success and sanctions for failures.

A $2,000 donation from the Westmoreland County Bar Association Foundation is paying for rewards that include gift certificates and other merchandise.

Feliciani identified Osiecki, who admitted being addicted to marijuana and opiates, as the first person who should go through the program, even though he was skeptical she was ready for the intensive supervision.

"For the first week, we were all surprised she was here," Feliciani said.

But Osiecki continued to make her weekly treks to the courthouse in Greensburg. Other than one setback, she continually tested drug free and after about 8 12 months, she completed the program and had her children returned to her.

Osiecki said the program has turned her life around.

"I'm happy to be living life and with my children again. It's something I'll never forget, what I went through," Osiecki said. "Without the program I would be a junkie and I would be selling my body into prostitution. I would never have been able to get my kids back. Or I would be dead."

Feliciani said he plans to expand the program heading into next year. He said as many as 10 more people could be selected to participate.

"I'd love it to be successful. If we can keep just one family together, it's worth the effort," Feliciani said.

The program's success would mean a financial savings for taxpayers.

Roy Kindelberger, a supervisor with the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau and the agency's drug court coordinator, said the county pays about $18,000 every six months to pay for foster care of a child.

"Our hopes are (that) we will see families unify much sooner with the court intervention," Kindelberger said. "I anticipate that if a caregiver gives the program a chance ... I think they'll see the benefits of it. Time will tell."

Since 1998, Allegheny County has had a special court in place that provides oversight of criminal drug cases and provides intensive supervision of defendants rather than sentencing them to jail.

Its family court division has had a joint program with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services in place since 2009 that focuses on assessment and provides treatment to offenders who have children, according to John McKain, spokesman for the human services department.

"It helps the judge and court personnel decide who to refer for assessments and treatment," McKain said.

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