As opioid addiction reaches epidemic proportions in Maine, it’s forcing hundreds of children a year into state care. But what if there were a way to keep kids with their mothers and fathers in a safe environment while the adults stay clean and get an around-the-clock role model on good parenting? There is – it’s called “shared family care.”

Traditional foster care takes children away from their mothers and fathers. Shared family care places at-risk parents and children in the home of a mentor family who provide hands-on support – as Bette Hoxie did earlier this year when she opened her Old Town home to Rob and Bonnie Seeley.

The Seeleys had been using heroin and other drugs for several years by the time Bonnie became pregnant in early 2016. But although the pregnancy motivated the couple to stop using, they told Maine Public Radio’s Patty Wight, Rob spent the first few months of his son’s life in jail for making meth.

Rob had a place to live when he got out – with Hoxie, his own former foster mother – but he was allowed to see baby Landyn just a few hours a week. So Hoxie, whose decades of foster parenting experience have made her well aware of the pain family disruptions cause, offered to take in the whole family.

Rob, Bonnie and Landyn moved in last April. Early on, they were supervised 24/7 by either Hoxie or her adult daughter, who lives with her. By staying clean and undergoing state-required trauma and substance use counseling (they also took optional parenting classes), the couple gradually earned longer and longer stretches of unsupervised time with Landyn – culminating in the recent news that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services had lifted the supervision requirement.

Although Rob and Bonnie Seeley still have challenges ahead, it’s clear that they’re on a better path. That’s because shared family care is what one expert calls a “parenting immersion” course: Instead of learning necessary skills via dry classroom lessons, parents can learn them from daily experience and get immediate feedback from their mentor – and from their child.

And while it takes the average Maine family a little over a year to reunify and leave the foster care system, Wight reported, the Seeleys were able to do it in less than half that time. In fact, a study conducted at mentor homes in Colorado and California found that parents like the Seeleys – who are motivated to change, mentally stable and committed to substance abuse treatment and recovery – are the most likely to benefit from shared family care.

A separate evaluation concluded that families placed in a shared family care program in Contra Costa County, California, earned more money than other families, had more stable, independent housing and were less likely to end up back in the child welfare system.

Shared family care is an option only in a handful of states, and the DHHS told Wight there are no plans to try this arrangement with other families in Maine. They should rethink that stance. While shared family care isn’t for everyone, it’s already kept one Maine family from being torn apart by drugs – and it could help others, too.

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