MADISON — In her years working as a supervisor for the state’s child protective services, Kelly Gadd said substance abuse issues were involved in more than 90 percent of cases she’s seen where parents’ rights to their children were terminated.
Now, as the coordinator for the new family treatment court pilot program, Gadd hopes that number will decrease and that, ultimately, more families will have a better chance to stay together due to the additional services.
“We’re going to focus on treatment, on getting people clean, then implement the parent-child part of this. It’s all one step at a time, but hopefully it will lead to more families able and capable of sticking together healthily,” Gadd said. “We are all excited, and it’s a little scary. Everyone wants to see a change in their community, but we need to try new things — like this — to get there. There’s a lot of stigma with addiction, but we need to understand that it’s about the child, not just addiction.”
On Monday, dozens of people who work for or are connected to the West Virginia judicial system — including all five West Virginia Supreme Court justices — met at the Boone County Courthouse in Madison to celebrate the kickoff of West Virginia’s first family treatment court pilot program.
“For my whole 30 years working in the justice system, I’ve been passionate about children and families, and about programs to support them, especially where the opioid epidemic is concerned. I see that same passion in the other justices who sit with me on the bench,” said Justice Margaret Workman. “Most people want to be good parents, they don’t want their children to be taken away or for them to suffer. A program like this can help them achieve that. I hope to see it succeed and expand, to help more families in our state.”
A family treatment court pilot program was approved by the Legislature this session, through House Bill 3057. Through a federal grant, the program will run for three years in three West Virginia counties: Ohio, Randolph and Boone.
There, circuit court judges will be in charge of running the family treatment courts, which operate by focusing on recovery for parents who have been found guilty of abuse or neglect, while simultaneously walking them and their children through the process of coping, reconnecting and regaining full parental capabilities before such rights are permanently terminated.
Boone County Circuit Court Judge Will Thompson spent nearly a decade pushing for family treatment courts in West Virginia. In his position, he has signed hundreds of orders terminating parental rights, all for the safety of the children involved in the cases.
“It never gets easier, no matter how often you have to do it,” he said. “What we’re doing isn’t working — it’s the definition of insanity, doing the same things over and over and waiting for different results. Our process here isn’t helping these families or the children. This is a way to try something new, to see what works and what doesn’t.”
There are more than 400 family treatment courts operating nationwide, and West Virginia’s pilot program will reflect policies in place at some of these. Referrals for the program began being processed in September, and so far there is one participant actually in a family treatment court. The program is capped at 30 participants per a court. Right now, most of the work being done, Thompson said, is setting things up.
“I’ve been thinking about this for 10 years, waiting for it, and finally the day is here, but I’ve still got a lot to figure out,” Thompson said, laughing a bit.
Each of the family treatment courts has a local advisory committee, which is overseen by a state advisory committee headed by the chief justice of the state supreme court. Local advisory committees are comprised of the circuit court judge, the county prosecutor, a defense attorney familiar with abuse and neglect cases, a representative from the Bureau of Children and Families and a court-appointed special advocate.
Through cooperation on all these levels, Thompson hopes fewer people will fall through the cracks on their way to recovery. Now, if someone misses an appointment with their probation officer or a court hearing, there’s no just “moving on,” Thompson said.
“We’ll be at their door if they didn’t show up asking why. If they’re on the street, we’re tracking them down and asking them why they’re out there,” Thompson said. “We aren’t going to let them just slide off. We’re going to show them that we care, and we’re investing in their recovery, and that’s what they need to do too — for their own sake, but also for their children.”
With family treatment courts now operating, Thompson said he’s been thinking about cases he’s seen in past years, where someone who was on track to recovery and potentially regaining custody of their children, stopped showing up. Those are the people — the ones who maybe missed a call from CPS or were afraid of disappointing a judge — he thinks could benefit from this.
Through the program, participants have more contact with judges than they do in regular drug court programs. That makes it harder for them to stop showing up, Thompson said. With more consistent contact, people really start to feel that they’re more than a case or a number, so they start being more committed to the program and its mission.
Of course, more contact means more work for circuit judges like Thompson.
“It’s going to be busy, yes, but it’s worth it for our community, and for the people we’re going to help,” Thompson said.
Other judges didn’t seem to mind the extra work either. When Thompson went to the Legislature a few months ago to answer lawmakers’ questions on the then-proposed family treatment court, he said there were nearly a dozen judges who responded to an email gauging interest for such a program in their counties. This reaffirmed to Thompson that such a program is strongly needed in the state, and that the struggles in Boone and Lincoln counties don’t occur in a vacuum.
For Workman, at the Supreme Court, it was heartening to see so many judges line up for a program before it even begins, even though it would mean more work for them.
“It’s great to see so many say they want that extra work for the wellness of their communities, their neighbors,” Workman said. “I hope that we continue to have the [monetary] resources to expand [the family treatment court] program in the future, and to make sure it continues where it already is.”
Thompson said that while the program has been implemented and has already begun, it won’t feel real until the first person finishes the program. He — and Gadd — are confident that, because of the dedication of the people working behind it, the family treatment courts will be a success and will help dozens of children suffering from the consequences of the opioid epidemic.
“Say we fix eight families next year — I think it will be more than that — but just eight families. That could be eight kids, 10 kids, 30 kids even, who will have parents, a mom or a dad, in their home to love them, raise them. Thirty kids who will get a sense of family,” Thompson said. “I do, I think it’ll be more than that, but even if it’s just those eight families and their kids, it’s more than we have now. Who can argue that’s not better than repeating the same mistakes of our past, over and over again? I know those kids won’t.”