06/05/05 — Drug court to help families reunite

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Drug court to help families reunite

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on June 5, 2005 2:02 AM

Wayne County will soon launch a new court program that is intended to get parents off drugs and alcohol and reunite them with their children.

Funded by a federal grant, Wayne Family Treatment Court will begin in July. It will initially serve up to a dozen people, all of whom have lost custody of their children because of substance abuse problems.

Each participant will agree to make a 12- to 18-month commitment, including frequent drug testing, mandatory support group meetings, and intensive case management. They will receive substance abuse and mental health services and help with housing and employment problems.

But the big payoff will be a chance to get their children back.

District Court Judge Rose Williams sees the court as a chance to rebuild families. "It will be hands-on, more personal," she said recently. "We should have a much greater chance at success."

Wayne County is joining a national court movement that tries to address substance abuse problems as an alternative to prison. More than 850 drug courts have opened across the United States since 1995, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

But only a few N.C. courts have tried to use the approach to resolve Social Services cases. The Wayne County program drew inspiration from a Mecklenburg County court that has returned children to their homes and taught adults to be better parents.

"This is a tried and proven method," Judge Williams said.

Currently, Wayne County has more than 130 children in foster care because of allegations of neglect or abuse. About 75 percent of the cases involve parents with substance abuse problems, Social Services officials say.

The parents and guardians appear periodically in family court as the judge decides either to restore custody or end parental rights permanently.

"I often tell them they need to be clean and sober for more than six months, maintain stable housing and employment," Judge Williams said. "But I may only see people every 90 to 120 days, so I may have to speak sternly to them so that they understand the severity of what I'm saying."

Losing custody is just the start of many people's problems, said Social Services Director Judy Pelt. Without children in the home, they are no longer eligible for financial aid, Food Stamps or Medicaid. They can be evicted from public housing.

"We order people to do the impossible," said Eastpointe Director Jack St. Clair. "We tell them to get housing or jobs when they need to be focused on getting treatment for their addictions."

Family treatment court will be a different approach, Mrs. Pelt said. "Traditional court tends to be more about punishment; this is more of a treatment model."

Participation will be voluntary. To be eligible, they must be county residents, ages 16 and up, with no serious prior convictions or pending charges for violent crimes.

Once accepted into the court, a participant will be given a comprehensive mental health and substance abuse assessment. Then a plan is developed both to treat the individual and the family. This could include Alcohol Anonymous and/or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, regular and random drug testing, residential treatment programs, outpatient therapy, group counseling, and family psycho-education.

Once people have stabilized their substance abuse problems, they will focus on learning better parenting skills. A case manager will help people with job training and employment opportunities, housing, medical care, Social Services, transportation and child care.

Twice a month, Judge Williams will review participants' progress at family court sessions. "They'll tend to work harder if they know they'll see me again in two weeks," she said.

Others attending the court session will be the case manager, Social Services case worker and attorney, parents' attorney, and a Guardian Ad Litem representative to speak for the children. Treatment providers, such as Eastpointe, will also be included. Having these people in court will plans to be changed as needed.

People will have relapses as part of the recovery process, she said. A failed drug test or missed meeting could result in sanctions such as additional counseling, more frequent drug testing or community service hours, but it won't necessarily cause anyone to be kicked out.

But the court will also reward people who are succeeding. This will start with applause from the audience and praise from the bench, but as people move up, they may receive flowers or gift cards to local stores or restaurants. They may gain the right to cut back on meetings.

Ultimately, people will be working to regain their children. They must complete four phases of the program and graduate. This will take 12-18 months.

Completion of the program is not a guarantee that custody will be restored. But research shows that graduates of family drug treatment courts typically are more successful at getting their kids back than are those in the traditional court system. They also have a lower rate of new reports of neglect or abuse.

A group of court officials and others has been planning the Wayne County court for two years. Some of the other people involved have been Chief District Court Judge Joe Setzer, Judge Les Turner, County Attorney Borden Parker, Family Court Administrator Mona Williams, Public Health Representative Nina Silverthorne, Parent Attorney Delaina Boyd, GAL District Administrator Colleen Kosinski, Family Court Case Manager Allyson Smith, MIS Evaluator Jan hood, DSS Supervisor Darlene Grantham and Kate Peterson, director of Operations, Area Services and Programs.

The court is funded by a $50,000 federal grant, administered through the N.C. Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. N.C. Sen. John Kerr helped secure the funding.