08/23/04 — New drug court planned to help families reunite

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New drug court planned to help families reunite

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on August 23, 2004 2:01 PM

Wayne County officials are planning a new court program to help negligent parents break out of addiction and reunite with their children.

Pending federal funding, Family Drug Treatment Court will begin in early 2005. County officials will work intensively with a small group of families for a year or longer.

The goal will be to give people the support they need to be drug-free and better parents.

"If you don't address the substance abuse problems, you can't help the family," said Social Services Director Judy Pelt. "This certainly should be a big assistance to us."

In 2003, Wayne County had 171 court cases that dealt with allegations of child abuse or neglect. Around 75 percent involved incidents of substance abuse, county officials said.

Judges have not had the time nor resources to deal with underlying problems, Chief District Court Judge Joe Setzer said. They could order parents to get jobs or to move to better neighborhoods, but they cannot be sure that people will follow up.

Also, cases frequently move between judges, allowing defendants to recycle their excuses, Setzer said.

In contrast, Wayne County's family drug treatment court will have one assigned judge, either Setzer or District Court Judge Rose Williams. It will be held on a specified day or afternoon, and representatives of the county's Work First program, Eastpointe and other agencies will attend.

The team approach will help families move quicker on the judge's orders, Setzer said. For example, a housing authority official could move a family into a new neighborhood.

"If you're able to get someone off of drugs, even if it's for a short time, but leave him in the same environment, he'll usually go back," Setzer said.

The court would work initially with around 10 families, all of whom will likely have volunteered to take part. Parents will have to agree to random and frequent drug testing. If test results return as positive, the court will call for more intensive treatment, not sanctions, Setzer said.

"We're not there to punish. We're there to encourage them," he said.

Mecklenburg and Durham counties already have family drug treatment courts, and four other N.C. counties are also in the planning stages.

Research has found that family drug treatment courts are more successful in reuniting parents with dependent children than are traditional courts. They also are less likely to be charged with new cases of child abuse or neglect.