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Strategies for Successful Rural Drug Courts

William DavisJudge William Davis, Superior Court of Siskiyou County, CA

Summary: The author shares his experiences and challenges operating a FDTC serving a rural population with limited resources.

If you are a judicial officer in a rural county, or a frontier county like ours [1], you will face daunting challenges in operating a drug court for parents in dependency proceedings (often called a family dependency treatment court, or FDTC).

Foremost among your difficulties will be the scarcity of services, and the difficulty the parents will have in accessing the services that are available given the great distances to the service sites (for those not living in the county seat) and the inadequate, infrequent public transportation. But these and other rural-county problems [2] are precisely why family drug courts are so critical in these regions. Dysfunctional parents facing such obstacles particularly need the sort of motivation drug courts provide. Furthermore, if handled properly, drug court itself can be a therapeutic service for the participants, thereby helping to fill the void in available services.

Here’s another problem you will encounter: like all rural judges, you have multiple assignments, and they will all too frequently require you to miss drug court sessions. (There’s nothing like a six-week jury trial to turn you into a stranger in your drug court.) You will need to find a way to bring substitute judges up to speed so every drug court session is helpful to the parents.

We have had an FDTC in our county for over a dozen years. We’ve certainly made our share of mistakes, but in the last few years we’ve seen a truly impressive rate of success among the drug court participants, success being defined as the parent reuniting with the children. The key was developing a format for providing comprehensive, up-to-date information for the judge to use, and acquiring a competent drug court coordinator (DCC) to gather the information and assist the judge in using it effectively during the drug court session.

We developed a one-page information sheet, kept current by the DCC, that puts a wealth of information at the judge’s fingertips. It looks like this:

Name of Participant: Next FDTC Date:
Started Phase 1: [i.e. date first started FDTC] Current Phase: [we have four]
Finished Week: [we have 12 weeks per phase] Starting Week: [week no. of the current phase]
Count Start Date: [i.e. the day after last relapse] Days of Sobriety:
Days in Compliance: [with all FDTC requirements]
Children: [names and birthdates] Children’s Status: [e.g. foster home]
Visit Schedule: [number of visits per week with the children]
Initial Hearing: [in dependency court] Next Hearing: [date and purpose]
Services Provided: [e.g. the name of your intensive outpatient program]
Sponsor: [yes or no, plus sponsor’s years sober] Working on Step: [1 through 12]
AA/NA meetings required: [since last FDTC session] AA/NA meetings: [number confirmed]
Drug(s) of Choice: Relapse History: [dates, substance]
Drug Testing Report: [we insert a small table here showing the dates they were required to call in since their last FDTC session, the time they called (if they did), whether they were required to test that day and, if so, what time they tested (if they did)].

This data is followed by a short progress report each from the participant’s social worker and the treatment program clinician. Under that are the social worker’s and clinician’s reports for the previous session. Then we include a recap of the judge’s interaction with the participant during the previous session.

We also attach an additional sheet containing a table that documents the participant’s drug testing history for the last two or three months, listing test results that specify substances detected, their levels, whether a test was dilute, etc.

This format provides ample information to enable any judge to truly engage the participants during the drug court session.

As far as acquiring a competent DCC goes, bear in mind that your program is probably too small to hire a full-time professional. Our strategy was to obtain a grant and negotiate with our county’s human services agency to hire one of their certified drug and alcohol counselors on a part-time basis. This counselor continues to work with many of our drug court parents in an intensive outpatient program, enabling her, as the DCC, to bring insights and accountability into the drug court sessions. She ensures that the judge is fully informed, and then helps make the drug court session both motivating and therapeutic for the parents.



[1] “Frontier” is the federal designation for the country’s most sparsely populated areas that are isolated from population centers and services. The vast majority of our county (Siskiyou County, California) is considered frontier. More than half the population lives in remote areas that are connected by long stretches of secondary roads, often poorly maintained. In terms of landmass, Siskiyou County is substantially larger than the state of Connecticut, which has eighty times our population.

[2] Rural areas also typically suffer from high rates of unemployment and poverty, inadequate low-income housing, a shortage of local foster homes, few mental health services, etc.



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