A local family treatment court is exhibiting signs of progress in its first few months in existence.
The Fayette County Family Treatment Court accepted its first participant on Aug. 18, 2021 and, as of late October, had eight participants, all that were either in Milestone I or II and in various phases of recovery. At the time, Heather D. Lucas, Fayette County FTC case coordinator, said there were 10 additional referrals in the evaluation phase and/or pending adjudication. The FTC is capped by the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia at 25 participants.
"I would consider our FTC successful so far largely based on how quickly we are getting parents into treatment and the opportunities we've had to significantly increase parenting time," Lucas said.
The Fayette County FTC conducted an opening ceremony in late August at Smokey's On The Gorge restaurant in Lansing. The Fayette court was the ninth such court to open in West Virginia. Ahead of Fayette, the others were in Boone, Calhoun/Roane, Logan, McDowell, Nicholas, Ohio, Randolph and Wood counties.
According to an August press release from the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, family treatment courts are designed to return children to a safer home environment and achieve permanency faster and more effectively than traditional methods. Family treatment courts serve individuals with substance use disorders who are also involved in child abuse and neglect cases.
The vision of the Fayette County FTC is "to empower parents through a process of change and recovery while enhancing their ability to safely and meaningfully parent their children," explained Lucas. The court's mission is "to create a non-adversarial collaboration across systems to provide timely and therapeutic responses to caregivers suffering from drug addiction that promotes empowerment, recovery and an ability to provide for the care, welfare and security needs of their children."
According to Lucas, the Fayette court serves families who are involved with Child Protective Services, post-adjudication, and have had their children removed primarily due to substance abuse. The primary goal of the treatment court is to provide services and support to parents who wish to achieve lifelong recovery while being able to safely parent their children. One or both parents can be referred to FTC by CPS, the prosecuting attorney, defense counsel, guardians ad litem or a circuit court judge.
Once referred to the treatment court, the parent is assessed for eligibility. They must be high risk/high need, be granted a post-adjudicatory improvement period, and have a desire to participate in the treatment court. If they are determined to be eligible and staffed with the treatment team, they are referred to the appropriate level of care, which could include detox, intensive outpatient, short- or long-term residential, and begin the process of reaching Milestone I, which is stabilization.
"It is imperative that this first intervention take place swiftly and immediately following removal of the children, if possible," Lucas said. "This provides a critical window of opportunity to assist the parent in recognizing the need for change and finding the courage to take the first step.
"It has been proven much more difficult to begin the recovery process when too much time has lapsed between removal and intervention."
According to Lucas, the program consists of five progressive milestones which have a minimum number of days (30, 45, 45, 60, 90) and basic criteria that must be met. The milestones are also individualized by the treatment team and incorporate each parent's own long- and short-term goals, which are identified early in the program. Ideally, Lucas said, reunification takes place during Milestone IV, along with intense supervision to ensure child safety and continued engagement in program requirements. After graduation, participants will have follow-up care and support at three-month intervals, conducted by Lucas. The CPS case is closed by this time and is no longer on the docket.
Weekly court sessions are preceded by a treatment team meeting. The Fayette treatment team is composed of about 30 individuals, which includes Circuit Judge Thomas Ewing, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Chris Burdick, Chief Public Defender Nancy Fraley, guardians ad litem Jamie Conrad and Vickie Hylton, and the FTC CPS worker, Holly Sutphin.
"We also have representatives from the community, faith-based organizations, service providers, treatment providers, social workers, child advocate, health department, law enforcement, county commission, women's resource center, foster care, board of education and the recovery community," Lucas said. "FTC simply could not function without this treatment team."
The treatment court "takes great care to maintain our participants' right to confidentiality which is mandated by state and federal law," she said. All participants, team members and visitors observing an FTC court session are required to sign a pledge of confidentiality. Participants' treatment records are protected, and court sessions are closed to the general public. Limited reports can be provided to another circuit court judge (in the Fayette situation, Judge Paul M. Blake Jr.). However, participants agree to that as one of the terms and conditions when they are accepted into FTC.
"We strive for safe, not perfect," Lucas said.
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The Supreme Court provides oversight, technical assistance and training for the FTCs. A state family treatment court advisory committee and the Supreme Court Division of Probation Services set criteria for eligibility and participation.
The West Virginia court system continues to add treatment courts throughout the state and to support and celebrate graduates who complete such specialty court programs. The goal of treatment courts is to help participants overcome substance use disorder and mental illness, thus improving the quality of life for them and their families.
Judge Thomas H. Ewing, of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit, said Fayette County was in the second wave of family treatment courts as part of the pilot project through the Supreme Court of Appeals and approved by the state legislature. "Family treatment court is basically a way to deal with abuse and neglect cases and child abuse and neglect cases in a more collaborative, intensive way," said Ewing.
"To be eligible for FTC, they have to have been adjudicated for abuse and/or neglect based on substance abuse," Ewing added. "There can be overlying, some domestic violence or other kind of issue, but in the main focus of an abuse and neglect petition, the parents' problem has to be substance abuse."
Typical cases, Ewing said, will involve a petition, a preliminary hearing and trial adjudication. A parent with substance abuse issues, for example, would be placed in an improvement period, which provides services and a framework to help address the problems. "Family treatment court comes in during that improvement period time and provides a weekly hearing," Ewing explained. That leads to weekly interaction between the court, the family treatment court coordinator and a dedicated Child Protective Services worker. More weekly contact is logged, and it covers longer than a typical improvement period, which lasts six months with possibility of a three-month extension.
"So, family treatment court is looked at as a more intensive way to deal with substance abuse and abuse and neglect cases," the judge said. "The overwhelming majority of cases that are filed in Fayette County and around the state have at their core substance abuse.
"This is a way to better deal with the issues leading to their cases, and hopefully providing the parents with the coping skills necessary with their parenting, helping with housing and putting them on a path to never being part of the abuse and neglect process again. It's also geared to help those cases that may not be successful in a regular improvement period (which may amount to only one review hearing and not weekly interaction with the court)."
Ewing said the treatment team is a vital cog in the process. The team meets weekly to assess each case and looks at "responses or incentives to help motivate that parent to continue to progress or to deal with issues as they come up during the course of the week," Ewing said. "So, it's a behavior modification program in its essence. But I think it's really about providing that holistic approach to helping those families, because the goal is to reunify that family, deal with the substance abuse and related impacts in such a way that we can stop the generational cycle of abuse and neglect, the generational cycle of substance abuse.
"I think that's the ultimate goal."
He said "the initial success in the five courts that started out" ultimately led the legislature to begin to expand the program statewide.
As the process goes along, treatment team members meet, followed by a hearing with the parent or parents. Ewing, as well as others on the treatment team, interact with the parents. "That weekly accountability is important, and that's way more contact than a parent in a typical improvement period would have," he said.
"In a way, it's a shame that every abuse and neglect case can't get this kind of attention, but it only applies to those with substance abuse," the judge continued. "And what I've learned in the three years of doing this is those are the ones that are harder to deal with, they take more guidance for the parents, you may have starts and stops.
"If a parent relapses and there's not immediate intervention there, then sometimes you lose them."
If that occurs and the parent doesn't make improvements, there is often no option but to place a child elsewhere, he stressed.
FTC offers "a much better supervision and probably quality of services than you get in a regular improvement period," the judge said. "We're trying ... to work on the whole person."
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