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Sarah Pressley lives with her daughter Reece Bertrand in an OnTrack housing unit designed to help families overcome drug addictions. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore

Someone to watch over me

Sarah Pressley celebrated being one year clean and sober Monday in a program that allows her to raise her 19-month-old daughter as she undergoes treatment for drug addiction.

The 21-year-old mother, who was a foster kid herself for five years and has used methamphetamine and heroin previously, doesn't mind the constant supervision and strict rules that keep her united with her active daughter, Reece Bertrand.

"When I was a kid, there were no programs like this," Pressley said. "That's how it was when I was a kid. They took you away."

The pioneering program that she is a part of has cut foster care placements by 50 percent in Jackson County since 2005 and could go statewide in Oregon under Senate Bill 196 designed to save the state millions and help kids stay with their families.

In 2007, OnTrack, an addictions recovery agency, developed the program that has saved the state $1.5 million to $2 million in foster care payments in each of the past three years in Jackson County.

The Jackson County program is the result of a collaboration between the courts, the Oregon Department of Families and Children, OnTrack and other community agencies.

The program operates under two federal grants of $800,000 each that are set to expire in 2012.

The state is studying what the net financial benefit would be if it instituted Jackson County's program statewide.

In 2005, 450 children were placed with foster families in Jackson County. In 2010, the number dropped to 225.

Based on the program's track record, Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, wrote the Senate bill, which would create a similar program statewide.

Bates said, "Obviously, it saves a lot of money, but we don't know yet."

His bill would force counties throughout the state to adopt a similar program and is part of an effort to cut government costs and improve health care programs.

However, the long-term effects of the bill could be even more meaningful for the state if the program can break the cycle of drug dependency, Bates said.

He said it eventually could cut down on the prison population and reduce reliance on government programs.

Even though the program has proven more successful than the current system, Bates said it isn't appropriate in all cases.

"There are still some families that are so dysfunctional that you just have to take the kids out," he said.

Rita Sullivan, executive director of OnTrack, said children are happier to stay with their families in most cases rather than be shuffled off to a foster care family.

"They don't have the trauma of separation," she said.

Children who are rescued from abusive situations are not part of the program, which is designed primarily for parents who have substance abuse problems that have caused them to neglect their children.

The state also has an initiative in place to reduce the number of children in foster care by 26 percent in 2011. Sullivan said the Senate bill could help achieve that goal.

Parents of these children are closely monitored, she said.

"They've got to focus on their children," Sullivan said. "In essence, they are in treatment and rehabilitating."

Pressley said she supports the Senate bill and is a big supporter of OnTrack's program.

The program gives her a list of things she has to accomplish each week, including homework assignments. She attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings twice a week as well as individual mental health therapy, daily group sessions and parenting training. She has home visits from a nurse, makes appearances in Community Family Court every other week, and Reece goes to a Family Nurturing Center.

Some of the rules include a 5 p.m. curfew, unless she's going to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. And she's not allowed to date.

"I'm no good picking good men anyway," she said.

She said she still has cravings for drugs, but part of the treatment she goes through helps her deal with her deep-seated problems.

"It's a life-long thing that you've got to take care of one day at a time," she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.

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