First Parents Graduate From Boone County Family Treatment Court
Normally, Boone County Circuit Judge William Thompson holds his drug court graduation ceremonies inside the courthouse.
But on a slightly overcast August afternoon, he found himself and the first two graduating members of his family treatment court outdoors at Waterways Park in Boone County.
The water slides and pool were shut down to limit the spread of the coronavirus, but a picnic area by the walking trails was still open for those who wanted to gather and celebrate at a safe distance from one another.
Boxed lunches were stacked on a table off to the side, so attendees didn’t have to mingle to eat. Most people were wearing cloth face masks, and several brought their own lawn chairs.
“A lot of times my favorite part of graduation is the cake that comes with it,” Thompson told his audience Tuesday – a mix of state and local court officials, lawmakers, employees from child protective services and other members of his family treatment program. “Unfortunately, we can't do cake with the pandemic. So, you do have an individual cookie.”
Family treatment court works like adult and juvenile drug court, but instead of offering recovery as an alternative to jail time, family treatment court is designed to help parents dealing with addiction avoid permanently losing custody of their children.
The parents who join the program work with a team of experts who not only connect participants to recovery resources, but introduce them to employment opportunities and educational programs for parenting and continued recovery. Parents also get regular, supervised visits with their children until they’re ready for reunification.
“They love their child, and they want to do what they can to get their child back in their home and be a mom and dad,” Thompson said. "They want to be able to provide a home for that child."
That includes parents like Sabrina Ward and her partner Matt Blackshire, who graduated Tuesday. They entered family treatment court in October for their daughter Adalynn, who they had lost custody of earlier that month due to addictions to methampetamines.
The program wasn’t easy. There were a lot of requirements, like weekly meetings with the judge, visits from child protective services, several weekly drug screenings and parenting classes.
Ward relapsed in November – but today, she’s been substance free for more than nine months. Both her and Blackshire also found jobs through the program.
“I was tired of that life,” she said in remarks to the audience at her graduation. “Since I have been sober, I've been able to pay off all my debt. I’ve bought things I want, Matt bought a car, I buy things for my child when I want and I started working at my first job ever.”
Although Adalynn returned home to her parents in April with regular supervision from the court, many parents in the program only saw their kids over video conferencing for months, due to guidance from the Department of Health and Human Resources that Child Protective Services temporarily halt in person visits for the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Thompson, what helped his participants the most at that time was the bonds they made with other parents in the program.
“I was not counting on them building a community with each other,” Thompson said. “They were all supportive. They all wanted the same main goal, which was to get their families back, which is something you don't always see in adult drug court or even juvenile drug court.”
Going forward, as other participants graduate and the Boone County program grows, Thompson said he’d like to increase the communication and sense of community between parents.
Ward plans on creating an alumni group.
Family treatment court is active in four other counties – Nicholas, Roane, Ohio and Randolph – through grants from the West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy. During Tuesday’s graduation, state Supreme Court Justice Tim Armstead announced more ODCP funding will be used to open family treatment courts in Braxton, Logan and McDowell counties.
The Boone County family treatment court – the first of its kind of West Virginia – received a three-year grant in 2019 for nearly $600,000 from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.