Drug Courts Emphasize Problem-Solving Approach in Serving Families

Hilary KushinsHilary Kushins, Drug Court and Training Programs Manager, Dependency Advocacy Center in San Jose.

Summary: The author shares how she balances her ethical obligation to the client while pursuing a role of creativity, collaboration and teamwork within the FDTC framework.


Sally is my typical drug court client. She is a former foster child with a long history of substance abuse and trauma. Sally has a 3-year-old and an infant born with a positive toxicology for methamphetamine. She feels shame, guilt, and fear, and it takes everything in her to not use again when preparing to face a social worker who just removed her children and a judge who will make life altering decisions about her family.

At our first meeting, I explain the legal process and introduce the idea of drug court. She says she will do anything to get her children back. I tell her that the court is here to help and the legal goal is to reunify her with her children. Understandably, she is skeptical, as that has not been her prior experience with the child welfare system. I explain that dependency drug court (dependency wellness court, or DWC) is a voluntary program and that if the court takes jurisdiction, she can participate. At the next hearing, the court takes jurisdiction, orders family reunification services, and my client volunteers for DWC.

When Sally first enters DWC, she notices that it looks very different from her legal hearing next door with the other judge. It’s informal and there is no court reporter. Other parents are sitting in the back of the courtroom listening to the judge engage a young father about his recovery. The other individuals at the table include a representative from the Departments of Alcohol and Drug Services and Mental Health, a CASA volunteer, First 5, a domestic violence specialist, a social worker, and the attorneys representing the Department of Family and Children’s Services, the child, and the parent.

This is a problem-solving court. We do not address legal issues at this hearing; that is done with the other dependency judge, with all parties and attorneys present and on the record. DWC is a holistic approach to overcoming obstacles to reunification and supporting the client in their recovery. It provides a forum to hold the client accountable for her actions and it holds the system’s partners accountable for their actions. As Sally engages in DWC and appears before the team every few weeks, her walls start to come down. This is a new experience for her. A judge and other professionals are praising her for getting into treatment quickly and understanding the disease of addiction. At each hearing, she is proud to report to the team the number of days she has been clean and her success in DWC empowers her to stay focused on the task of reunification in her legal case.

I’m a believer in this approach because it works. In our county, clients in drug court are twice as likely to reunify with their children as those who don’t participate. Working in DWC forces me to behave in a different way than a typical “defense” parent’s attorney. It requires creativity, collaboration and teamwork. We don’t have time to waste in DWC. ASFA timelines are strict. Parents must engage in drug treatment and other related services quickly if they want to get their children back.

My ethical obligations of attorney-client privilege still apply, even though I am a member of the drug court team. If my client doesn’t give me permission to communicate a relapse, I cannot tell them. But my overwhelming experience is that once clients become engaged in the process, they see that the team is really there to help them. They admit relapse. They disclose past traumas. They speak of their struggles in parenting clean and sober and their desires to use again. All of these are the first steps in confronting their demons and will lead to healing, sobriety, and ultimately reunification.

I have had the privilege of representing clients in dependency drug court for 14 years. We have faced many challenges, experienced many growing pains, and answered many questions. Do we want an integrated or parallel model? What is the social worker’s role? What is the relationship between the drug court and the legal mandate of reasonable services? Will the attorneys buy into this collaborative model? How do you get the right players to the table and make this population a priority? Do we have the judicial leadership that it takes? How do we sustain critical services when grant funding ends?

Santa Clara County has a rich history of judicial leadership and has called on its court partners to implement this innovative approach to addressing the intergenerational drug addiction facing our families. Does it involve lots of meetings? Yes. Does it involve commitment from numerous agencies from the top down? Yes. Does it involve system change? Yes. Does it work? Absolutely. We ask parents, like Sally, to change and improve their lives every day. To help her, we, as a system, need to be willing to do the same.


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