Family Drug Court Improves Outcomes and Saves Public Money

L. Michael Clark, Superior Court Judge, Santa Clara County, CA

Summary: The following report by Judge Michael Clark was made to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors both to give them an idea of how important the family wellness court was in the community and to ask for continued support for the wellness court from the board.

Report re: Dependency Wellness Court (DWC)
Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors
Children, Seniors and Families Committee (CSF)
L. Michael Clark, Superior Court Judge, Santa Clara County

June 20, 2013

Good morning, Supervisors Simitian and Cortese. . . .

The children and families who appear in our juvenile dependency courts each day come to us with profound trauma experiences and complex cross-system needs. Some of this you know, and some of this you might not know.

With regard to the parents, approximately 80% of the parents have serious alcohol and drug abuse histories; when I say serious, I mean parents have been abusing drugs for one or two decades, many of whom started using drugs when they were children or teens. This means their drug treatment needs are complex and long-term. Approximately two-thirds of the parents have domestic violence histories, and present with serious mental and emotional trauma that will require long term therapeutic intervention. Many parents involved in juvenile dependency court have pending criminal cases or are on probation or parole, many have diagnosed mental health conditions, many suffer from chronic illnesses, many if not a majority have lost their driver’s licenses, most are unemployed, and many are homeless. A high percentage of today’s dependency court parents were exposed to serious abuse and neglect during their own childhoods.

With regard to the children, who come before the court as victims of abuse and neglect, many of the children in dependency court were born with in utero exposure to drugs or alcohol, which places them at a lifetime risk of physical, mental, emotional and developmental challenges. In addition to in utero exposure to drugs, most of our children since their birth have been exposed to the ongoing detrimental effects of parental substance abuse. Many of the children present with serious medical and dental problems. Further, perhaps a majority of the children have been exposed to domestic violence, which places them at higher risk for school failure, drug addiction, delinquent misconduct, homelessness, unemployment and adult incarceration. Finally, many children have serious academic problems related to post traumatic stress and chronic tardiness or school absences, which places them at higher risk for academic failure.

I say this to underscore the fact that families with such diverse challenges and complex needs as those in juvenile dependency court cannot be served by the court alone, or by the Social Services Agency alone, or by any government agency alone. These families, who constitute a relatively small percentage of our community, but who consume the majority of our available public resources, require cross-agency and cross-department collaboration, if we are to be successful and cost-effective in breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect. This is where drug court enters the picture.

Our dependency wellness court, which incorporates the best of its predecessors, both juvenile dependency drug treatment court and juvenile dependency family wellness court, represents the emerging best practice for helping families break the cycle of child abuse and neglect by way of a coordinated interagency intervention.

You have reason to be very proud of the work that your various county departments are doing with these profoundly broken families in wellness court. For two days a week, juvenile dependency court is transformed from an adversarial court process into a collaborative healing environment.

It is remarkable thing to watch a frightened, drug-affected parent walk into a DWC courtroom, and instead of finding themselves at the center of criticism and judgment, they find themselves at the center of support and encouragement by a team which can include a child welfare social worker, a mentor parent, an eligibility worker, a drug counselor, a mental health counselor, a domestic violence specialist, a specialist from First Five, a CASA supervisor, a housing coordinator, and attorneys for the parties. This is where the healing process begins, and where real life needs begin to be met.

As an aside, I would encourage you to come watch one of these juvenile drug court sessions. While juvenile court proceedings are closed to the public, each judge has discretion to permit interested persons to attend, and as county supervisors, you and your staff have good reason to know about what is happening in DWC.

Dependency Wellness Court, as you may know, is part of a larger national movement called drug court. Drug court has continued to gain momentum and support across the country. Twenty years of economic research indicates that communities can save up to $27 for every $1 invested in drug court, considering cost offsets such as savings from reduced incarceration, reduced victimization and reduced healthcare service utilization. The number is higher for juvenile dependency cases when you consider the savings which result from reduced time spent in foster care.

Evidence-based research on the national level also shows that parents in family drug court are twice as likely to go to treatment and complete it; that children of family drug court participants spend significantly less time in out-of-home placements such as foster care; and family reunification rates are 50% higher for family drug court participants. (NADCP Research Update on Family Drug Courts, May 2012.)

Therefore, drug court represents the most successful and cost-effective rehabilitative service the government can provide to high risk drug-affected families.

Recognizing the critical importance of dependency drug court, the Santa Clara County Superior Court, despite acute financial challenges, now pays for a full-time juvenile dependency drug court coordinator (Sneha Burnside), and we have carved out two full days of drug court per week, in addition to the regular dependency calendars.

Further, for over a decade, the superior court also has funded a separate coordinator for a family court drug treatment court in divorce and custody cases, with financial support from First Five and the Judicial Council. In research we conducted two years ago, we discovered that two-thirds of the parents participating in family court drug program had current or previous involvement with Child Protective Services. This suggests that the family court treatment program serves a valuable function in helping keep children out of the child welfare system. As an aside, we are only one of two courts we are aware of in the entire nation that sponsors a family court drug court.

I say this to underscore our court’s abiding commitment to offering drug services to parents in both family court and juvenile court whose children are at risk of abuse and neglect.

Therefore, on behalf of the superior court, I thank the Board of Supervisors for their support of DWC, and I urge the Board of Supervisors to continue that support by equipping the participating agencies as needed. Thank you.  


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