Parents shuffle into Judge Gregory R. Todd’s courtroom in the Yellowstone County courthouse. They are the participants of Yellowstone County Family Drug Treatment Court (FDTC), and they are in the midst of a long journey.

Each of these parents has a child or children who have been removed from their care by Child & Family Services because of the parent’s drug or alcohol use. The parents have voluntarily been inducted into FDTC, which is a team-based, non-adversarial approach to building participants’ success in parenting, reducing the length and number of substance use relapses a parent experiences, and building parents’ sobriety. The team in Yellowstone County includes the judge, county attorney, guardian ad litem, parent’s attorney, court coordinator, parole officer, psychiatrist, licensed addiction counselor, case manager, and a representative from a local agency that provides supervised parenting time.

Photo by Štěpán Kápl

Judge Todd calls a mom forward.  “How was group this week?” he asks. The mom has only been involved in FDTC for a couple of months and is required to appear in the courtroom every week. She is struggling to maintain her sobriety, and she is still getting used to the format of intensive outpatient treatment for substance use, which includes one-on-one and group therapy sessions at a local treatment center. Because she has made all of her appointments and drug urine tests for the week, which have been negative for all substances, the judge declares, “You get the fishbowl.” This means that after FDTC this afternoon, the mom will draw a slip of paper out of a fishbowl, which correlates to a level of gift card from a variety of local businesses that she can choose from. One of the pillars of drug courts nationwide is incentives to increase positive behavior.

One of the dads is up next. He has been in FDTC for almost a year so is typically only required to come to court every other week. He was going strong, but he relapsed last week the day after his last FDTC appearance. He immediately called his social worker, who instructed him to come to FDTC this week. The judge asks, “What happened this week?” The dad explains that this is a tough time of the year for him, the anniversary of his mom’s death. Because it’s important that the parents have immediate consequences for substance use, the judge assigns the dad eight hours of community service. But he also asks the dad how the team can help him get through this tough time without another relapse. After all, the goal of FDTC is to see each participant transition out of drug court and into the community with the skills and tools to safely and productively parent the children. After discussion with the dad and the team, an agreement is reached. The dad will attend four Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the next week and meet with the FDTC coordinator, as well as attend all his regularly scheduled treatment appointments, before coming to FDTC again the next week.  Several members of the team chime in and encourage him to call if he feels the urge to use.

The judge calls up another mom. She has been in FDTC for about nine months and is hitting a plateau. She is going through the motions of treatment but has missed a urine drug test from time to time. In discussing her case, the team feels she has lost the fire and motivation that are required for the marathon that is FDTC. Judge Todd asks point blank, “What can we do to help you be successful?” There are no easy answers to this question. The mom shares that she’s not sure but that she is thankful for the commitment the FDTC team has made to her and her sobriety. Judge Todd encourages her to think about what needs to happen for her to continue to succeed and reminds her to come back to FDTC in two weeks.

The final participant called forward is one of the dads. This is his last week at FDTC. He has been in FDTC for the last two years. The most recent months of his participation with FDTC have included looking ahead at parenting successfully without FDTC involvement. He has grown mentally and physically healthy, completed classes to improve his employment prospects, and been parenting his kids full-time for several months now. He will be transitioning out of FDTC today, which means there will still be CPS involvement for a little while, but he has maintained sobriety and improved his parenting such that FDTC is no longer required. He has already become involved in the FDTC alumni group, which provides sober social events to current and past participants of FDTC so they can engage in fun activities and build relationships that do not involve drugs or alcohol. His kids, girlfriend, and sponsor are attending his transition. The judge and several members of the team, along with some of his fellow FDTC participants, stand and speak about the journey he’s been on and how far he’s come since his first days in FDTC. This is the day that all FDTC participants hope for, and he has worked hard for it.

Photo by Studio 7042 from Pexels

These scenarios play out week after week in FDTC. Incentives, like the fishbowl, abound.  Sanctions, which are meant to decrease or stop unhealthy behavior, are also given. Sanctions include community service; occasional, short jail time; and papers, which the participant prepares about a variety of topics, including the importance of honesty in sobriety, the effects of the parent’s use on his or her life and the lives of the kids, and analysis of the series of events that led to a parent’s relapse. The participants write the papers but are often instructed to review the papers with a member of the team, encouraging a thoughtful consideration of the topic, before reading them aloud at FDTC.

Two of the FDTC team members are CASA liaisons, who are seasoned Court Appointed Special Advocates assigned to several FDTC cases. Much like any Advocate, they bring the community perspective of CASA to the team and connect with teachers, counselors, and therapists to paint the picture of the kids’ lives for the team’s consideration.  For CASA liaisons, as for all Advocates, the child is the focus.

Since parents do not enter FDTC immediately upon their children’s removal, there are times when a Court Appointed Special Advocate is assigned to a case before its transfer to FDTC. These Advocates have a unique opportunity to frequently speak directly to the judge about the kids on their case. The FDTC team welcomes all CASAs with cases that have transferred to FDTC to provide specific, child-focused updates or even just observe how the case is progressing.

Ashley Milsop is a Program Coordinator with CASA of Yellowstone County. For more information about Family Drug Treatment Court, please email ashley@yellowstonecasa.org.