When her name is called, the young woman walks to the front of the crowded courtroom. She studies the floor, nervously tucking her pink T-shirt into faded jeans as she waits for Judge Stanley Carmical to begin.
The judge studies her paperwork. “Life has thrown you some curves,” he says. “But you’re making good use of all the opportunities coming your way for you and your daughter. We think that’s excellent progress.”
Carmical begins applauding, and everyone in the courtroom joins in. The woman swipes a tissue over her tears.
This family drug court in Lumberton, N.C., has been working since 2008 to help parents complete treatment for substance abuse and mend their fractured lives. Through a two-year initiative, it was one of four courts across the country chosen to offer expanded services for the entire family. With new programs aimed at strengthening parenting skills and helping children thrive, the goal was to improve well-being among at-risk families and prevent the recurrence of child abuse and neglect.
A grant from The Duke Endowment supported the Prevention and Family Recovery initiative in Lumberton. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York funded the effort in Tucson, San Francisco and Ithaca, N.Y. A nonprofit in California, Children and Family Futures, provided consultation and technical assistance.
“This project has given us an opportunity to widen our focus from the parent in treatment, to the needs of the whole family,” says Carmical, who has served as judge of the Robeson County Family Drug Treatment Court since its inception. “We’re improving what we’re already doing for parents and becoming better equipped to help their children.”
Building on Strengths
On a recent Friday, 30 names fill the docket. Before the morning session begins, teams of social workers, substance abuse treatment providers and court staff discuss each case.
One woman failed her drug screen. Another is tethered to an abusive boyfriend. “Deborah,” on the other hand, attends parenting classes and loves her new job.
Lumberton’s family treatment court targets parents who are addicted to illicit drugs or alcohol and are in danger of losing custody of their child due to neglect or abuse. Most participants are women with children under 7.
“With the disarray in their parents’ lives, these kids have been exposed to harsh consequences,” says Valerie Vann-Comrie, family treatment court program director. “Home lives can be chaotic. Maybe they aren’t being taken to school. Strangers might be coming into the house. The risk level for intergenerational challenges is through the roof.”
The road to reunification isn’t easy. Parents must engage in treatment, submit to random drug testing, attend two support meetings a week, and come to court twice a month. After 120 days of “clean time,” they’re required to find a job or enroll in school. Before they can graduate from the program, they need to have found stable housing.
Most remain in the program for more than 12 months.
By partnering with the county Department of Social Services, the Guardian Ad Litem program, and the Robeson Healthcare Corp., the Robeson County Family Treatment Court was already providing strong recovery support. The Prevention and Family Recovery initiative was designed to help families further.
‘Generations to Come’
The four sites were selected in March 2014. Kick-off training followed in May, along with in-person meetings in 2015 and 2016. Teams from Children and Family Futures helped the courts identify and incorporate promising programs, and build staff capacity. “Change leaders” at each site provided ongoing support; a national advisory council guided the overall work. As the two-year initiative winds down this spring, they’ll share lessons learned.
“In the end, we envision that the grantees will become flagship collaborative courts that provide leadership and support for comprehensive, integrated family-centered care and advance breakthrough strategies to improve family functioning and well-being,” says Children and Family Futures Director Nancy Young.
The goals were to:
- increase family reunification and positive relationships
- address recovery for substance-involved parents
- help families overcome trauma-related difficulties
- create an environment that will permit children to thrive.
In Lumberton, with Robeson Healthcare as the lead agency, the court now works with its partners to provide evidence-based parenting services through Celebrating Families! and Parents as Teachers. Expanded children’s services include trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy and play therapy. The court has formed an alumni group with participants as peer mentors.
“The focus used to be primarily on the adult participant,” says LaTasha Murray, substance abuse prevention project director. “Looking at the family as a whole was something we as a team had the desire to do, but we just weren’t sure how to get there.”
In Robeson County, the Prevention and Family Recovery Initiative has served 81 adults and 170 children. Seventy-three percent of the adults and 82 percent of the children were American Indian. Nearly 40 percent of families successfully reunified. Of those children, none returned to foster care.
Carmical sees long-term gains from the initiative.
“By incorporating more comprehensive care into our services, some of the most vulnerable parents and children in our county are being given the resources for better outcomes,” he says. “A family-centered focus gives us a chance to have an impact on generations to come.
Find more information about the Prevention and Family Recovery Initiative.
Phillip H. Redmond Jr.
Director of Child Care