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Family drug courts expand the vision for drug court success

February 15, 2014
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Family drug courts, serving adults with children in state child welfare systems, started to come into prominence years after traditional adult drug courts had begun to flourish nationally. Yet now, the inroads that the younger courts have made are helping to inform the elders to an extent.

The effectiveness of family drug courts in establishing a more expansive vision of treatment and recovery success in drug court programs has convinced some other drug court operators to set their sights beyond the individual who appears before the court.

“Every treatment court is a family treatment court, even if that is not explicitly recognized,” says Gregory Robinson, PhD, senior research associate with the Center for Children and Family Futures, Inc.

Technical assistance from Robinson's organization to the state of Montana led to interest in pilot testing an instrument to evaluate a drug court participant's family strengths and deficits, identifying factors that might be critical to the offender's ultimate success in treatment. The Family Strengths and Needs Survey is now being tested in a dozen adult drug court programs overseen by Montana's statewide drug court coordinator, Jeffrey Kushner.

“The courts got the idea that to enable participants to focus fully on treatment, it is a good idea to allay any of the concerns they may have about family matters,” Robinson says.

Legislation spurs activity

The federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), passed by Congress in 1997 to require a faster progression to permanency for children in state child welfare systems, served as a major driver of the growth of family drug courts (which now number about 360 across the country).

Phil Breitenbucher, MSW, director of family drug court programs at the Center for Children and Family Futures, explains that the shorter timelines for a child to receive a permanent placement necessitated getting parents with substance use problems engaged in treatment much faster. Parental substance use problems are an underlying factor in about 60 to 80% of child welfare cases.

Breitenbucher says that family drug courts, also known as dependency courts, operate very differently from traditional drug courts in many ways. “A dependency court is a more therapeutic court—there isn't really a threat that the person will go to jail,” he says.

The goal is not one of avoiding incarceration by participating in treatment, but of reuniting substance-using parents with their children by successfully addressing a parental substance use issue. Because of ASFA's timelines, a family drug court must seek to get a parent into treatment quickly, and this sometimes collides with the perspective of some treatment professionals, says Breitenbucher, who directs the federally funded National Family Drug Court Training and Technical Assistance Center.

“They're telling us sometimes that these parents aren't ready, and we say, 'We don't necessarily have time for them to be ready,'” he says. “We don't wait until they hit bottom.”

Treatment modalities also tend to differ some between adult drug court and family/dependency courts. Because most clients in family drug courts are women, court programs often look for treatment facilities that have expertise in addressing trauma and that have space to accommodate children. Residential levels of care also tend to be more common in family drug courts, Breitenbucher says.

And while a graduation from treatment is highly valued and usually formally celebrated in adult drug court, the focus in family programs remains first on achieving a permanent safe home for the child, Breitenbucher says. So if that happens for a family before program graduation occurs, that is still considered a positive outcome, he says.

Research from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) indicates that family drug courts have achieved significant results in helping to bring about desired permanency outcomes for children of substance-using parents.

Screening tool

Robinson explains that the Family Strengths and Needs Survey that is being piloted in Montana adult drug courts serves as a screening tool but is not considered a formal assessment. The process collects demographic information about the drug offender and attempts to identify service needs, often leading to the need for further screening or referral.

Once the individual's needs are determined, the courts have to go about the process of identifying agencies that can deliver the services. “The courts don't have the resources to provide the services; they have to develop relationships with agencies that are funded to provide these services,” Robinson says.