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Family Drug Treatment Courts: A Social Worker’s Perspective

Michele DoveMichele Dove, MSW, Santa Clara County Dependency Wellness Court, CA

Summary: The author explains that the families involved in dependency court have complex and compound issues and that the court provides a team of service providers and resources to meet those needs. She describes the role for service providers as labor intensive but with a payoff of success for the participants.

Treatment court, drug treatment court, wellness court—there are many more names for the innovative programs that have been implemented across the country in dependency courts, juvenile justice systems, adult criminal courts and family courts. In Santa Clara County, there is a large team that works together to provide services for families in the treatment program of dependency court: The judges, drug and alcohol assessors, a resource case manager, a mental health liaison, a CASA supervisor, a representative from First 5, attorneys for children, parents and the Department of Family and Children, an eligibility worker, social workers and a domestic violence specialist.

I had been working as a CPS social worker for a number of years and had relocated out of state in 2001. When I returned to Santa Clara County, I was offered a position in the dependency drug treatment court (DDTC) unit. I accepted the position, while planning to transfer to dependent intake as soon as possible, as I preferred doing investigations. That was more than nine and a half years ago. There have been many changes in that time. The name has changed to dependency wellness court (DWC), we now have two separate courtrooms and many more families to work with. DWC is not a static process. There have been funds provided through grants and funds lost through budget cuts, and this has resulted in modifying how we work so that we can provide the best services for the families in DWC.

What made me stay in the DDTC unit? It is because drug treatment courts work. The families that we work with have complex and compound issues that they are dealing with. It only makes sense that it would take a team of service providers with a variety of experiences and resources to aid families who need it, coordinating services to help support them.

Participation in a treatment court is labor intensive, not just for the social workers, who have additional reports to write and attending staffings, but also for the parents. What is the payoff? For parents, they get an opportunity to meet with the team on a regular basis (every two to four weeks) and receive more immediate feedback than they would at a review hearing every six months. Parents also have access to housing options, such as transitional housing units, that provide clean and sober homes for mothers and their children and fathers with their children. We have a case manager with the Department of Alcohol and Drug Services who provides support through referrals but also by helping parents fill out applications, write resumes, obtain clothing and find housing. Key players that support the parents are the mentors from the Mentor Parent Program. These employees of the parents’ attorney’s office are critical to guiding parents through a process that they themselves have gone through.

The plus for social workers is that spending more time with a parent and getting feedback from their service providers on a more frequent and regular basis paints a more accurate picture of how the parent is doing. Is the parent connected to a therapist? Are they participating in substance abuse treatment? Do they have a sponsor? Are they attending meetings? This information is always needed for the social workers’ ongoing assessment of the family and to see if they are addressing the issues that brought their family into the system.

It has been estimated that about 80% of child abuse and/or neglect cases have substance abuse issues involved. Anyone working with this population needs to be informed about substance abuse and addiction, treatment and services. There is so much to learn, and that has been another benefit of DWC for social workers and other team members—the amount of training and information gained by being part of the team has increased my knowledge of how to work with families with addiction issues. Some of the best teachers have been the parents themselves.

There are also intangible rewards in treatment courts. For parents who participate, having time to talk with a judge is so important. Parents really do listen to what the judge and team members say. Many parents have told me that getting positive feedback from their child’s attorney makes them feel like they have really come a long way.

The benefits of having a treatment court like DWC far exceed what I have written here. I believe that this is a necessary and crucial component to any jurisdiction that is dealing with families, I hope to see treatment courts continue to expand in our county, as well as for new courts to be developed in counties and states that do not already have treatment courts. This is the most effective way to help families struggling to overcome substance abuse and to increase the safety of their children.

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