An alternative solution to West Virginia’s substance use epidemic and foster care crisis already is “off the ground and running,” according to the Boone County Circuit Court Judge William Thompson.
Thompson’s court was the first to pilot a family treatment court program in September, after the West Virginia Legislature passed a bill earlier in 2019, allowing this.
Family treatment courts connect families who are dealing with addiction and are involved in the child welfare system to treatment and other resources. The goal is to reunite separated children and create a safe home environment.
According to a presentation on Thursday from West Virginia’s Division of Probation Services, the program is a collaboration between Child Protective Services, local substance use treatment providers and the county circuit courts. It’s meant to last nine months with a 90-day aftercare program.
There are two other types of “problem-solving” courts active in West Virginia, those being adult and juvenile drug courts. Unlike drug court, adults who enter family treatment court are not involved in the criminal justice system. They’re facing civil child abuse and neglect petitions.
Family treatment courts also involve more constant interaction between participants and the judge than normal drug courts. The program involves weekly meetings, treatment, frequent drug testing, individual and group counseling, and supervised visits with children until reunification.
Thompson said Thursday there are 16 adults in his family treatment court now, with 28 children involved. Since getting a head start in September, Thompson says only one participant has left so far.
“Of those 16 adults and 28 children, I’m pretty confident 12 to15 of those participants would already have disappeared, not participated, not done what they need to in order to reunify the family,” Thompson said.
Thompson was advocate for family treatment courts during the last session, when the Legislature considered House Bill 3057. That summer, Boone County’s court system received $597,192 from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention for its family treatment court. According to a press release, that money is supposed to last three years and fund a few full-time positions.
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals also received $339,599 from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources’ Office of Drug Control Policy to set up family treatment court in a few other counties. Right now, the Supreme Court has approved programs in Ohio, Nicholas, Randolph and Roane counties, the latter of which Supreme Court Justices checked out last month.
West Virginia Director of Probation Services Stephanie Bond says 25 adults are actively participating in the program in all of the active courts.
As the program expands in Boone County, Thompson said he’s concerned that they won’t have the resources to take on everyone with a need.
“What are we going to do when we get to 25 or 30 [people]?” he asked. “We can only do so much. And we don’t want to dilute. We don’t want to add 60 people to the Boone County Family Treatment Court program if we can’t provide the services.”
As the program grows all over the state, Thompson told lawmakers they should aspire to have one available in each county, but he warned it might be a lot for circuit judges to take on, considering their other dockets. Already, Thompson told the delegates he handles about 30 to 50 child abuse and neglect cases a week.
Following the presentation, lawmakers questioned whether the level of inpatient and outpatient facilities available have the capacity to handle treating more individuals.
Thompson said he’s able to use some of the connections he has formed with inpatient and outpatient treatment centers through other drug courts to support treatment needs in family treatment court. Other counties might not have those relationships.
He called on legislators to consider supporting the local community-based Southwestern Regional Day Report Center, one of several centers around the state that provide sentencing alternatives for adults that have committed a crime but qualify to avoid incarceration.
In Boone County and the surrounding area, the regional Day Report Center also serves as a licensed behavioral health center. This center and others depend partially on local money, allocated by county commissions.
“I’m sure I’m not the first person that’s told the Legislature that coal’s not going great like it used to, and the tax revenues for the counties are not going great,” Thompson said. “Any help the Legislature can give on that, those counties would surely appreciate it.”
Adult, Juvenile Drug Court Updates
According to information from the Division of Probation Services on Thursday, there were 182 adult drug court graduates in 2019. West Virginia courts received 642 referrals, 413 of which were admitted and 216 of which were denied. The division reported there were 909 people involved, total.
The same information states there were 265 juvenile drug court referrals in 2019. The program admitted 214 participants and denied 18. There reportedly were 94 graduates.
In her presentation to the Prevention and Treatment Committee, Bond said these numbers might be somewhat lower than accurate.
Demographic information from Bond related to West Virginia’s adult drug court program in 2019 shows 94.6% of participants were white.
“I realize that’s probably proportionate to what the state is,” Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, asked Bond. “But it’s not proportionate to what our jails and prisons are. So, is there any — have you looked into that?”
“We’ve tried to look into that for the last couple of years,” Bond said. “We haven’t really figured that out."
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.