Family Wellness Court for Infants and Toddlers Keeps Families Together

Hon. Daniel T. Nishigaya, Santa Clara County Superior Court


Summary: The author shares the success of the Family Wellness Court for Infants and Toddlers in serving parents who are drug addicted and at risk of losing custody of young children.

The Santa Clara County Juvenile Dependency Court has been recognized for its innovations and is designated a model court, part of the Model Court Project of the Permanency Planning for Children Department of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. One of the court’s most successful programs is the Family Wellness Court for Infants and Toddlers (FWC), which began in 2008.

FWC is a collaborative approach to service delivery and dependency case monitoring. FWC is funded by a grant from the Children’s Bureau at the US Department of Health & Human Services designed to assess the implementation and impact of new regional models for serving parents who are addicted to drugs and at risk of losing custody of their young children. FWC is implemented through partnerships between the court and numerous organizations including social services, court-appointed attorneys representing parents and children, county mental health, county counsel, child advocates, domestic violence agencies, FIRST 5, victim-witness services and community-based organizations.

FWC serves the families of approximately 100 children per year. Mothers and fathers of dependent children under age three can participate if:

  • The parent gave birth to the dependent child and the child was exposed to methamphetamine or substance abuse during pregnancy
  • The child’s case arose from a substance-abuse-afflicted environment with documented abuse and/or neglect
  • The parent suffers from acute or chronic substance abuse
  • The parent does not demonstrate intractable mental health issues
  • The parent is not facing long-term incarceration

From the earliest stages of the case, FWC partners collaborate to offer and engage eligible parents in the most client-specific drug and alcohol assessments and treatment programs. FWC partners ensure the children receive in-depth developmental and behavioral assessments and services. Family team meetings provide case coordination. Once the best family-specific case plan services are identified and ordered, each participating parent begins attending regular reviews with a court team on a FWC calendar.

The court team consists of 10–12 professionals and volunteers from partner organizations who work with the judge to monitor each parent’s progress and to engage the parent while the case is pending and the parent is receiving services. The court team provides:

  • Legal representation
  • Ongoing drug and alcohol assessment and treatment referrals
  • Support from “mentor parents,” people in recovery who once had dependency cases and successfully reunified with their children
  • Pregnancy prevention education
  • Therapy assessments and referrals
  • Domestic violence services
  • Referrals and assistance with obtaining health insurance, medical and dental providers, public assistance benefits, jobs, parenting workshops and community activities
  • Developmental screenings and follow-up services to make sure each child gets the help he or she needs
  • CASA volunteers
  • Early care and education services, transportation and home visits

A participating parent meets with the team one-by-one and discusses his or her progress and struggles. The court team receives and shares information and expertise with each other and with the parent. The team and parent discuss a variety of issues including treatment status reports, chemical testing results, housing, employment, developing support groups, transition plans, parent-child bonding and visitation. Parents are given the opportunity to share their concerns and their successes. Gaps in services, barriers, referral needs and other important issues are identified in the courtroom and immediately addressed by the team members and through their respective networks. Depending on a parent’s progress and needs, reviews are scheduled anywhere from weekly to six weeks apart. The court team strives to continuously identify the best and most appropriate services for parent participants, to identify and remove barriers to participation and progress, and to provide positive, strength-based and trauma informed support, accountability, motivation and incentives to achieve and maintain sobriety, successful reunification, dismissal of dependency, and long-term self-sufficiency and family wellness.

A review of FWC cases after three years showed faster receipt of assessments and treatment; increased likelihood of completing residential treatment; decreased entry into foster care; and shorter stays in foster care. Seventy-five percent of participants received access to a substance abuse assessment within 30 days from program entry, 80% received access to treatment within one month of assessment, 72% completed residential treatment and 68% completed out-patient. As for FWC children, 91% received a developmental screening, 79% received access to health insurance coverage and 75% had custody rights returned to at least one parent.

Many participating parents were dependent children themselves, have complicated trauma histories, and have failed to reunify with other children. Repeatedly, FWC has seen success in cases that would have been deemed hopeless under previously existing models. FWC partners believe the model holds promise for helping families get stronger and stay together and hope to build the capacity to take the model to scale across the dependency system in Santa Clara County.

Author Biography:

Judge Daniel T. Nishigaya was appointed to the Santa Clara County Superior Court by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in December 2009. Before taking the bench, Judge Nishigaya was a Supervising Deputy District Attorney in the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, where he specialized in the prosecution of family violence crimes, including domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse, and parental child abduction. He became a prosecutor in 1996 after a one-year judicial clerkship with the Hon. James R. Browning of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Judge Nishigaya is a lecturer at Santa Clara Law School.

Editor's notes:

  • Outcome data for the Family Wellness Court for Infants and Toddlers is available in the Year 4 Annual Report (744 KB PDF) published September 2011.
  • For additional information about the FWC model, read an article about the Santa Clara County Family Wellness Court by Vickie Scott Grove, executive director of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, in the November 2009 issue of The Judges' Page newsletter. 


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