The Journal Gazette
Sunday, March 17, 2019 1:00 am

New court for families affected by addiction

Allen County initiative looks to preserve families

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

Felicia Patrick's life was quickly slipping away.

The Noble County woman was using drugs – “pretty much anything,” but mostly meth. It was 2009, she'd just had a daughter, and another baby, a boy, was on the way.

The Indiana Department of Child Services took custody of her son before she could leave the hospital with him.

“That's how bad it was,” Patrick, 30, said last week. “I knew then, I'm either going to die, I'm going to go to jail or I'm going to lose everything.”

Patrick is among thousands in Indiana who have transitioned from unhealthy and dangerous situations with the help of specialized courts designed to steer families from bad behavior and toward stability. She credits her faith and Noble Superior Court's Family Preservation Court with providing her with therapy and the life skills necessary to stay sober and regain custody of her son.

Court leaders in Allen County hope they will soon have similar success stories to share.

Allen Superior Court launched its family-centered court – Family Recovery Court – on Feb. 14. Administrators say the program in which participants could spend more than a year is aimed at untangling a morass of problems parents face that can lead to breaking families apart.

Patrick later divorced, remarried and had another son. She has been sober since 2012.

“Once I realized that the people who were involved (with the court) were supportive and believed in me, it gave me confidence in myself,” she said. “I was so broken, so lost. I did not know how to lead a normal life.

“They gave me this treatment plan to teach me how. I would definitely say they gave me my life back.” 

Family Recovery Court can help ensure families are kept intact through treatment, therapy, guidance, individual attention and encouragement, officials said.

“Drug abuse and addiction have an enormous impact on so many aspects of our community,” Judge Charles Pratt said in a statement announcing the creation of the court.

Pratt is administrative judge of Allen Superior Court's Family Relations Division, where the new court is housed.

“The vast majority of these cases involve parents or guardians with substance abuse issues,” he added “Breaking the cycle and helping families recover demands a new way of doing business.”

Magistrate Sherry Hartzler, former chief legal counsel of the Allen County Department of Child Services office, said she began planning in 2017 for a family court.

Hartzler said she was seeing an increase in cases involving parents or guardians with substance abuse problems. She wanted to help the people who showed up in her courtroom keep their families intact, but there was little she could do.

Allen County had special courts, but no mechanism to help families fighting drugs or alcohol.

“I had this mother in front of me,” Hartzler said. “The mother was struggling with heroin or some opioid. I thought, 'My God, if only she were involved in drug court.'”

Family Recovery Court is Allen County's fifth problem-solving court, joining Drug Court, Mental Health Court, Re-entry Court and Veterans Court. It is the eighth established in Indiana, and officials in Delaware, Howard, Knox and Vigo counties are studying similar programs.

Family recovery courts handle civil cases for individuals who have not been charged with a crime. 

Families are accepted into the local family court program after they have been found to have children in need of services – CHINS. The designation is used by the state for cases involving allegations of abuse or neglect.

Nearly 750 CHINS cases were filed in Allen County last year, and 818 cases were filed in 2017.

Administrators see themselves as part advocate, part helper and part cheerleader. Working with participants to kick addiction and keep families together can be a longer process than simply shuttling them through the court system, they say, but it's beneficial in the long run.

Parents remain with their children and it reduces long-term costs to courts because participants are less likely to come back to court with similar cases.

The Justice Department report found that nearly 60 percent of problem-solving court participants did not quit and left programs successfully.

Indiana Supreme Court Justice Christopher Goff established an adult drug court and a family adult court – one of the first in the state in 2006 – in Wabash County when he was a judge there. He and others who have overseen problem-solving courts say just getting parties involved together more frequently is effective in changing behaviors.

More time away from the court can lead to more chances to engage in bad behavior such as relapse, experts say.

“What we found is that it's a good way to use the convening power of the court to get everyone together,” Goff said. “It's very efficient in that way.

“If you have everybody that you need (together), you can oftentimes come up with solutions that stop short of removing the child and keep them in their home. In my experience, there was no downside.”

A family court was put in place in Clark County in 2011, and program Director Iris Rubadue estimates participation has ranged from just a handful to more than 30 families. Nearly all of the cases involve drugs or alcohol, she said.

The program there includes providing access to therapy and incentives for participants – gift cards and extended time with children who have been removed – to complete the program. About 75 percent of participants who enter the program stay, Rubadue said.

“It's totally non-adversarial,” she said. “It's not punitive. I think problem-solving courts work. We can't just put (participants) through the system. They'll come back.”

Judge Steven Hagan agrees.

He oversees the family court in Noble County, where Patrick began her journey to sobriety and stability.

“It is more likely to work, rather than just cycling them through,” he said.

The Allen County family court is based on one in Grant County, where Judge Dana Kenworthy said participants are offered assistance but also required to be accountable for their actions.

“We planned for about three years before we started (in 2015),” she said.

Kenworthy said the program has grown to include “an alumni group” of former participants that helps encourage current participants.

Hartzler, the Allen County magistrate, said she met several times with Kenworthy to ensure everything was in place to begin the local family court, which so far has about five participants. The program will be limited to 35 through its first six months.

“Which is a drop in the bucket but to ensure the success in getting this started, it made sense to start small so we don't fail by taking on too much all at once,” Hartzler said.

She credits officials and agencies including mental health counselors and guardians ad litem – someone appointed by the court to look out for the best interests of children.

Patrick, who got her children back for good in 2013, is now a board member for Noble House Ministries – where she lived when she was a Family Preservation Court participant.

“They all worked very closely to keep me on track,” she said.

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