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SD congresswoman's family-based substance abuse treatment bill passes House

U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D.

WASHINGTON — A bill sponsored by South Dakota's lone congresswoman could keep drug-affected families together, but it may not have any immediate effects in her home state.

On Tuesday, the U.S. House unanimously passed the Supporting Families in Substance Abuse Treatment Act, sponsored by Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., which would allow federal foster care money to support children living with their parents in a residential, family-based treatment facility.

"Drug treatment programs that keep families together and children out of foster care have proven to produce better outcomes for both the parent and child," Noem said in a written statement.

However, Noem said a family-focused approach is difficult due to government-induced barriers. She believes the Supporting Families in Substance Abuse Treatment Act, also known as House Resolution 2857, will help "strengthen families and change lives."

According to Noem's office, the program is voluntary, and states and tribes may claim partial reimbursement for kids living with their parents in treatment centers.

Noem's office shared a report from the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, which featured results of a study conducted by the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment in 2003.

The researchers studied 24 residential family-based treatment programs, and six months after post-treatment, 50 percent of mothers remained sober, criminal arrests declined by 43 percent, 44 percent of children were returned from foster care and employment or educational enrollment jumped significantly.

According to Noem's office, no South Dakota facilities offer services that would qualify for the new funding opportunity, but nearby states offer the arrangement, and the office is hopeful the new bill will "encourage them to work this offering into their existing programs."

But including a family based option may be an uphill battle at some area treatment centers. Anna Wahcahunka is the program director at Canku Teca in Lake Andes. She said allowing children to stay at the facility is unlikely.

"I would think, even any other treatment facilities, that would require more space," Wahcahunka said, adding Canku Teca might need to hire more staff, as well.

Canku Teca houses an average of 10 residents, Wahcahunka said, and while some mothers of young children have expressed an interest in keeping their families together, she said that's not always the best option.

Wahcahunka recalled her time as a child protective services worker, when she saw parents lie to and hurt their children while they were abusing alcohol or drugs.

"I think it would be very hard for the children — or for all of them, probably — to work with each other when that trust has been broken," Wahcahunka said. "In that capacity, I was an advocate for the children, and it was very hard, especially when the child can't trust their own parent or has been hurt so many times because of alcohol and drug abuse or whatever else it may be."

According to the bill, the payments could only be sent to families staying in a licensed treatment facility that provides parenting skills training, parent education and individual and family counseling, which must be provided in an organized structure that involves an understanding of all forms of trauma.

A child would be eligible to receive the foster care payments for no more than 12 months, which Noem's office said would give states an incentives to re-examine the situation to decide if the child should remain with the parent, placed with another family member or possibly adopted.

While the bill must still be approved by the U.S. Senate before becoming law, Noem's office hopes the resolution will allow more addicts to be successful in rehabilitation and cut back on South Dakota's climbing drug-related arrests and fatal overdoses.

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