Santa Clara County Family Wellness Court

Vickie Scott Grove, Executive Director
Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, Milpitas, CA

Summary: The creation of a family wellness court has forged a unique, system-wide partnership to provide needed services to families and children impacted by substance abuse as well as to identify and assess as early as possible the needs of young children in the program.

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In March 2008, a ground-breaking project was launched in Santa Clara County to address the alarming increase in the number of babies (130+) born with a positive toxicology screen for methamphetamines. Under the leadership of Judge Katherine Lucero and Judge Erica Yew, the family wellness court (FWC) has four primary goals for children and parents as well as one goal for systemic change:

1.      Early identification of and intervention for pregnant women and parents

2.      Rapid engagement and successful retention in treatment and care

3.      Reduction in subsequent births to mothers who are abusing methamphetamines

4.      Early identification of and intervention for developmental delays, disabilities and concerns for children 0-3 whose parents come before the court

5.      Creation of a comprehensive system of care across all systems for children who are in or at risk of out-of-home placement as a result of parental methamphetamine and other substance abuse

Now in its second year, the project has forged a unique, system-wide partnership to provide needed services to families and children impacted by substance abuse as well as to identify and assess as early as possible the needs of young children in the program. The makeup of the team evolved to include as core members judicial officers, attorneys for the various parties as well as representatives of FIRST 5 (program dedicated to improving outcomes for young children, funded by tax on tobacco), the Department of Family and Children’s Services, the Department of Mental Health, Domestic Violence and Trauma services and Child Advocates of Silicon Valley (the CASA program serving Santa Clara County). FWC has also developed collaborative relationships with over 80 community partners who offer services and support to children and families in the dependency system.

Initial planning sessions, chaired by Judge Lucero and Judge Yew, brought together agency executives, managers and direct service providers, who together developed new policies and procedures for every aspect of the dependency process from detention to jurisdiction to ongoing hearings, case closings and after care. Once the court began to hear cases, weekly staffings prior to hearings became the basis for strength-based discussions of each case, including the message and tone appropriate for off-the-record conversations and on-the-record hearings. The focus on working with children and mothers soon was broadened to working with fathers. Monthly meetings continue on all levels to ensure that the court remains, in the words of the presiding judge, a “laboratory” for systems change. Committed to a collaborative approach, each agency has identified internal changes to facilitate greater sharing of information as well as more seamless referrals and coordination of services.

As a FWC partner, Child Advocates examined the opportunity for advocates serving very young children to engage with and encourage parents working on their case plans. Historically, the agency has worked with drug court families and has recognized the higher degree of involvement with parents that most of these cases required. With a 76% reunification rate versus 44% statewide, the success of the family drug court (FDC) started by Judge Leonard Edwards was a key platform upon which to build the next-generation FWC. In addition, the FWC focus on family reunification made it essential for all partners to look at how practices and procedures could best be modified to serve the program’s overarching goals.

While it may seem apparent that advocating for very young children provides advocates with a special opportunity to support parents as well, our agency engaged in a strategic planning process to assess lessons learned from our FDC experience and met with our partners to address possible concerns about building advocates’ ability to be a resource for parents. These meetings openly explored whether valuing the advocate-parent relationship could pose challenges for the advocates’ commitment to the best interests of the child. The overriding conclusion of all parties was that advocates working with FWC cases could act as a role model and provide support for parents while also keeping their focus on the child.

Additional trainings to help prepare advocates for FWC cases have brought a new richness and level of understanding to our work. They have engaged our staff and volunteers in understanding the profound impact of trauma on a woman and her family, current research on the neurobiological basis of addictive disease and the Touchpoints Guiding Principles for working with families. During the first year of the FWC, Child Advocates supported 33 advocates working with 43 children. We have celebrated some of the first cases to close with successful reunification and have had volunteers reengage by being assigned to another FWC child. Our full participation in the project has also greatly enhanced our understanding of and ability to support the work of our partners. And there is no greater reward than being part of a successful effort to take better care of our children.

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