Preserving Families

Stephen S. Siegel Stephen S. Siegel, Judge, Superior Court, County of Santa Cruz, California [1]

Summary: The author shares the court's development over time and a program called "Leaps & Bounds" which offers parents and children an opportunity to engage in activities to strengthen relationships.


Many people are familiar with drug treatment courts (aka “drug courts”). These are specialized problem-solving court dockets that focus on promoting treatment and recovery (rather than punishment and incarceration) for non-violent criminal offenders who are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol.

Santa Cruz County CA is one of a large number of jurisdictions that has adapted the drug court model to create a collaborative therapeutic court program that focuses on providing recovery and support services for addicted parents involved in the dependency court system. The program operates under the leadership of the county’s Health Services Agency’s Alcohol and Drug Program, in partnership with the Human Services Department’s Family and Children’s Services, attorneys representing both parents and minors in dependency court, and a network of community-based groups that provide substance abuse treatment, parenting education and other services.

The program, originally called dependency drug court, was begun in 2005 with a grant from California’s State Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. The grant money was used to help provide recovery services for up to 25 participants and was intended to increase the likelihood of family reunification for those involved in dependency court. In 2007, we received federal grant money that enabled us to expand services to up to 65 individuals per year. We also changed the name to family preservation court (FPC).

In 2010, Family and Children’s Services received another federal grant that enabled FPC participants to receive additional family-centered assessment and treatment services. Entitled “Leaps & Bounds,” this program offers opportunities for parents and children to engage in activities that strengthen their relationships, including the evidence-based treatment model known as parent-child interaction therapy. The Leaps & Bounds staff is now a part of the FPC operational team. They help parents gain more understanding about the needs of their children by providing hands-on parent coaching and education through home visits, therapy and recreational activities for the entire family.

Parents with either reunification cases or maintenance cases in dependency court are eligible to participate in FPC, which constitutes compliance with “substance abuse treatment and counseling” requirements of their dependency case plan. The program is entirely voluntary and is designed to last a minimum of one year.

Applicants are assessed by alcohol and drug program case managers, and their cases are then presented to the FPC operational team, made up of alcohol and drug treatment specialists, child welfare social workers, a parent mentor, and a superior court judicial officer.

If accepted, the parent is immediately referred to one of several drug treatment providers. Initially, a new participant comes back to court every week or every other week for a review. Prior to every court session, the entire FPC team meets to discuss each participant’s progress, problems, successes and challenges, and develops a plan for how to address those issues in the court hearing.

All participants are required to engage in substance abuse treatment, attend 12-step or similar self-help meetings, have a sponsor, submit to drug/alcohol testing, and attend court hearings. The level of treatment and the frequency of court appearances is dependent upon the degree of the participants’ engagement in their treatment plan, with participants moving from phase 1 through phase 3 and then to graduation. We use a system of simple rewards and modest sanctions to respond to positive and negative behaviors. Rewards may include sobriety chips, certificates of achievement and praise from the team members, the judge and other FPC participants. Sanctions may include more frequent court appearances, reduction to a lower phase, essays, etc.

In Santa Cruz, we elected to use a “parallel” court approach, meaning that the judge who presides over FPC is not the same person as the judge who presides over the dependency court. We believe that this allows the participants to be more open and candid in court than they would be if the judge hearing about their recovery efforts were also the judge making decisions about their dependency case.

The FPC model depends upon solid commitment by all the relevant agencies and entities, as well as the staff, treatment team and the participants themselves. It also requires the hands-on contribution and interest of a judicial officer who is knowledgeable about substance abuse issues.

As is common with such enterprises, one of the biggest challenges we have is finding financial resources to sustain the program. The Santa Cruz Superior Court has made a commitment to provide a hearing room, court staff and a judicial officer for the weekly case conferences and court hearings, without additional funding. The Human Services Department’s Family & Children’s Services has assigned specially trained and motivated social workers and supervisors to make sure FPC remains viable and successful. The County Health Services Agency’s Alcohol and Drug Program also remains dedicated to supporting FPC with staff to provide case management services. The most difficult task is and will be to find ongoing ways to provide funding for the treatment providers that are the foundation of the system. Fortunately, our partners have been creative and successful in obtaining grant funds from a variety of sources, so far. Unfortunately, dependence on grant funding is simply not a good way to ensure sustainability.


Note:

[1] Written with the indispensable assistance of Lynn Harrison, Behavioral Health Program Manager for the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency’s Alcohol and Drug Program

 

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