In many parts of the country, child welfare agencies are contending with rising caseloads due in part to the opioid epidemic.

One state is ahead of the curve in responding to this problem. In Kentucky, the state has an evidence-based collaboration between child protective services, behavioral health specialists and the court system.

Studies of the program, which is called the Sobriety Treatment and Recovery Team (START), suggest that it increases parents’ rates of sobriety, increases the likelihood of parents keeping or regaining custody of their children, and decreases the chance of further child abuse or neglect.

Family mentors are a critical piece of the program, says Tina Willauer, who helps run START. Parents struggling with addiction are given mentors -- all of whom are parents who previously struggled with addiction but have been sober for at least three years. Typically, these family mentors have also had experience with the child welfare system. Family mentors are employed full-time by the state and team up with social service workers to help parents get clean and ultimately reunite with their children.

“The whole idea is getting out there the fact that recovery is possible,” Willauer says. “Addiction has such a stigma. We never get to see the folks who are doing great things in recovery, so to hear any of our mentors talk about what they do today, it provides hope for people.”

To learn more about START family mentors, Governing interviewed Sarah Avery, a family mentor in Daviess County, Ky. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell me about how you became a family mentor. 

I was stuck in the grips of addiction for about 17 years. I went through a substance abuse program in jail, and when I got out, I was driven to help others. Somebody informed me about this position opening up in Daviess County. At the time, I had three years of sobriety. Today, I have a little over seven years.

I didn’t have any open child welfare cases, but I did have a couple different times when [CPS was] knocking on my door during my addiction. I was lucky that I had family that always stepped in when I stepped out. My children weren’t put into foster care; however, they should have been.

How many children do you have? 

I have three children. They are now 20, 17 and 16. My oldest just joined the army, and the other two are still in high school.

You said others stepped in; were those your parents? 

Yes, my mother. She was always the one who put her life on hold to pick up the pieces that I just let fall.

Do you mind sharing what you were using? 

It was opioids. Basically, I was addicted to anything I could get my hands on. I began using with the gateway drugs. It started with pot and just progressed. By the time I was 18 or 19 years old, I was an IV drug user. I did whatever opiate I could get ahold of because I became physically dependent on it.

Then I did some MAT [medication-assisted treatment] but I was not there for the right reasons. I was there because it was a legal way for me to stay high. If a person is going to go into treatment and they ask you a list of drugs you have done, there’s not many on the list that I did not do, unfortunately. But that benefits me in my role today because I can spot it when my clients are doing it.

Could you tell me what you do with parents as a family mentor? 

We take them to treatment. We will go to support meetings with them. We will talk about stressors, different disease thinking that they may be having, sponsorship and what that looks like. Some people don’t feel comfortable in AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] or NA [Narcotics Anonymous], so the main goal is for them to have the outside support so that when we leave, they are still able to maintain their sobriety. Our goal is for the family to stay together and for us not to have to get back involved. Oftentimes our families have no positive support. I had my mother. A lot of these families have absolutely no one.

Their initial reaction when we get involved is to put up a wall to not allow us in because they’re ultimately afraid that we’re going to remove their children. I’m very open with them about where I’ve been and what I’ve been through. I’m not there to judge but to help them get to the other side of their addiction. As a parent, we feel so much guilt for the substance abuse without social services telling us that we’re doing something wrong.

I can step in and say, “I was in your shoes and here’s how I made it out. Let us help you get out.” It kind of bridges the gap between social services and them. It helps lower their wall.

Was it difficult for you to take a job dealing with people who are struggling with the same things you struggled with? 

Most days it’s not. One of my clients I wasn’t sure was going to make it out of addiction. I was afraid he was going to die and that was, in its own way, traumatic for me.

Sometimes it triggers feelings if they’re not getting it and it doesn’t matter what we do or say. Having to remove children from families is not an easy job, and sometimes that has to happen. We lean on each other here inside the building if that does happen. It’s okay if we fall apart after they leave, and I have fallen apart.

Are there ways in which taking this position has been constructive for your recovery? 

It’s given me extra accountability as far as my own recovery. I have to stay on top of my own recovery in order to give back to others. If I’m not healthy enough to help them, what’s the point? You can’t fill up somebody else’s cup if your cup is empty.

Is there something you’ve found that you can say that resonates with your clients? 

I talk about myself and I say, 'I was a bad parent because I made bad choices, and because I made those choices, I put my children at risk of harm.' If I turn it around on myself, they don’t feel quite as attacked. If I point out all of their flaws, they shut down and don't hear anything I’m saying.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this misspelled Daviess County, Ky., as Davis County.