Daniel and Adriana Aivles were addicted to heroin and living out of a car during some of Oak Harbor’s coldest months. They had given up their child to the state and another one was on the way.
Two years later, the couple sat in Island County Superior Court, lauded as a beacon of hope for those in the seemingly most hopeless situations.
Their life had once been consumed by opioids, which subsequently tore their family apart.
THE AIVLES family isn’t alone. The percentage of children in Island County who go into foster care because their parents have substance use disorder has skyrocketed in the last five years. In 2013, about 15 percent entered dependency with parental substance abuse as a factor; in 2018, it was 72 percent of Island County foster children, according to the superior court administrative office.
But last week, the couple sat with their young girls on their laps as a complete unit, while Court Commissioner Clarke Harvey officially declared that they had fulfilled their obligations and graduated from family treatment court.
The rigorous program provides support and structure for those who have children in state dependency and who are diagnosed with substance use disorder.
The Aivles’ journey to clean living and family unity was fraught with obstacles, failures and pain — both physical and emotional. Their friends and others who guided them through the process highlighted the almost unbelievable transformation the two underwent in the year and a half it took to complete the program.
Now in their early 30s, the two became involved with drugs at age 14, and both entered a cycle of using and quitting that dominated most of their adult lives.
THE FAMILYmoved to Oak Harbor to live with a close family member in an attempt to get sober in an area where Daniel and Adriana Aivles thought wouldn’t provide as many opportunities to use.
They found that not only were drugs prevalent on Whidbey, but the other people who used were generous with the products.
“There’s a lot of love in the opiate community,” Daniel Aivles said. “Everybody knows your name.”
In August 2017, the couple had fallen back into active addiction and reached a breaking point that led Adriana Aivles to give up their daughter Summer to the state. At the time, it angered her husband, and others questioned her motivation, she said.
“I just knew I couldn’t continue to let her see us unravel,” Adriana Aivles said.
THEIR SITUATION continued to spiral when they were kicked out of their housing and found themselves on the streets. From October through January that year, they stayed in the night-to-night shelter The Haven when they could and tried to keep themselves busy and warm the rest of the time — something that usually meant getting high.
The pain and regret associated with their daughter’s absence also contributed to their repeated return to heroin, they said.
“It hurt my heart when she was gone, and all I wanted to do was detach and not feel anything,” Adriana Aivles said. “… I would hear her giggle in my head, and it would break me. I would look at something like her blanket or her toy, and I would fall apart and sob.”
The two became known among local social workers, and county opioid outreach worker Carolyn Pence eventually came knocking on their door to let the couple know they had options for help. The couple did not call Pence back.
ADRIANA AIVLES tried to quit all together while she was pregnant that spring. But she discovered that stopping drug use cold-turkey is also dangerous for the developing baby. Severe withdrawal symptoms experienced by the mother can cause respiratory depression and inhibit oxygen flow to the fetus, according to the American Addiction Centers.
She learned about this when she nearly bled out during her pregnancy, and her doctor warned her of the danger of quitting opioids without medication-assisted treatment (known as MAT). The couple both started taking Saboxone, which is an FDA-approved medication that binds to opioid receptors in the brain to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms without the same euphoric effect as heroin or prescription opioids.
The medication is a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone and has a “ceiling effect,” limiting how much the brain’s opiate receptors can be activated, which is meant to prevent misuse, according to a Harvard Medical School publication. The success of MAT hinges on its use to complement other methods of treatment, such as therapy.
IN JANUARY 2018, the couple used for the last time— although the impetus for quitting wasn’t entirely by choice. On Jan. 5, Daniel Aivles went to jail for 60 days for violation of a no-contact order.
Around the same time, Adriana Aivles went into treatment at an in-patient facility.
Vanir Stevens, who met the couple at Celebrate Recovery, said she kept the husband and wife in touch during his incarceration, although this was technically against the rules.
“God got a hold of Daniel in that jail, big-time,” Stevens said. “He’s not the same man he was … I’ve watched his devotion to his wife, which is just humbling.”
THE NEXTmonth, it was the Aivles’ turn to knock on Pence’s door. The former opioid outreach social worker had by then taken a position managing Island County Family Treatment Court.
Pence admitted that, at first, she had doubts about the family’s potential for success in the program based on her past experiences and what she’d heard.
Her doubts were reciprocated; Adriana Aivles said she was overwhelmed and resisted being a “team player” while creating the plans and going through the first steps of the court program.
Daniel Aivles walked out of court the first day. Addiction still had hold of his thoughts, he said, and he didn’t think he could make something else a priority.
This impact on the brain is why treatment is the central focus of the first steps in family treatment court, Pence said. Participants are required to show at least 90 days of sobriety before moving onto the next stages in the program.
“It’s going to take a while for their brains to re-wire and to get them thinking clearly,” Pence said.
ACCORDING TO the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction affects the parts of the brain associated with complex decision-making and judgment, which can lead to a domino effect of bad choices.
As parents become more stable in their recovery, then parenting skills gradually become more of the focus of the program, Pence said. The process is separate from Child Protective Services’ case, but the two are interconnected. Court staff observes visitations and evaluates parenting abilities and interactions with the children, Pence said. Eventually, there’s less monitoring as the families demonstrate more competence.
The court can also provide referrals to treatment and support a search for housing and employment.
The Aivleses give much of the credit to Pence’s effort and attentiveness for their success in the program.
“She’s got your back,” Adriana Aivles said. “She goes the extra mile.”
WHILE PENCE and her team provide support to the parents going through dependency, the children are in the care of Court Appointed Special Advocates, known as CASAs.
It’s hard imagine that the Aivles’ loquacious almost-3-year-old daughter Summer endured such a long, emotional ordeal as she greets strangers with a big smile and wave Tuesday at the courthouse.
“I have to give it to my daughter,” Daniel Aivles said. “To go through what she went through from beginning to end, she is super strong. I’m pretty amazed.”
The foster experience takes its toll on most children involved. Young people in dependency tend to shutdown and/or act out, according to Brigette Juras, former CASA program coordinator. Their extreme behavior can sometimes lead to over diagnoses of disorders such as ADHD, she said.
The parents said Summer would get quiet and reserved on visits and had a hard time communicating verbally. Then when it was time to leave, the tantrums would erupt.
“It just crushes you,” Daniel Aivles said in an interview last year, at which point the couple was limited to two-hour visits twice a week.
“You realize you caused that,” Adriana Aivles added, her eyes welling up.
Summer turned 2 while in foster care last September.
THE COUPLE kept custody of their infant daughter Heaven, who was born May 2018 and was deemed too young to be removed.
The two took parenting classes and marriage counseling as part of their court obligations to regain or build new skills that are difficult to develop while in active addiction.
Last November, the couple had two classes left to finish their requirements but had encountered roadblocks.
Although in the interview they attempted to remain positive, the two were visibly frustrated.
“My daughter’s been gone for over a year now,” Daniel Aivles said. “It sucks.”
At that point, they both reported not feeling cravings anymore. They had also found strong community support and acceptance at their church, to which they also gave significant credit for their success.
IN THEmonths that followed, they eventually got into and completed the classes they needed, Daniel Aivles got a contractor job in Anacortes remodeling kitchens and they moved into a nearby apartment.
In March of this year, Summer returned home on a full-time basis. As delighted as they were to be re-unified, the transition wasn’t entirely smooth.
Summer continued to be reserved around her parents, and Heaven didn’t appreciate “the invasion,” they said.
But the parents learned to be patient and understanding while they worked to re-kindle the relationship with their daughter. She still gets anxious when she can’t see or hear her mother and father, they said, and all they can do is try to offer constant reassurance.
Soon, there will be another “invasion” as well. The family is expecting the arrival of twins next month.
Now that their family treatment court obligations are fulfilled, the couple is looking forward to having “normal priorities,” Adriana Aivles said.
BEFORE CUTTING into the celebratory graduation cake last Tuesday, the couple addressed the group of supporters gathered in a conference room in the Juvenile Court Services building.
Daniel Aivles started by admitting he didn’t necessarily agree with his wife’s decision to pursue family treatment court.
“He hated me,” his wife added with a laugh.
She also admitted to a lag in being able to fully commit herself to the process.
“It was a difficult and hard road to go down,” Daniel Aivles said.
“I’m glad she pushed us down this direction.”