Flathead drug court a step in right direction

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Thanks to a $600,000 federal grant, Flathead County has now joined the ranks of other large Montana counties that offer a family treatment court — or drug court as it’s often called — aimed at offering support to families impacted by parental substance abuse and reducing child maltreatment.

The grant money will support the local drug court, known as Family Tree, for three years. This is a long overdue step in the right direction for Flathead County, which is one of five federally designated high intensity drug trafficking areas in Montana, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. State statistics show methamphetamine use is the lead drug for families reported for child abuse and neglect in this county.

We applaud Flathead District Judge Heidi Ulbricht’s efforts to establish a drug court here. She summed up the court’s goals during a recent Alliance for a Drug-free Flathead meeting, saying “we want to lower the relapse rate, we want the parents to be part of the community and we want to reduce the need for foster care in this valley.”

It’s hard to argue that vision. And those goals are achievable, according to the National Institute of Justice, which has tracked drug court processes, outcomes and costs since the first drug court began in 1993 in Florida. Its researchers have found that drug courts tend to lower recidivism, or re-arrest rates, and significantly lower costs.

While a drug court seems to be a no-brainer in giving families the help they need to stay together, get parents off drugs and keep kids out of foster homes, the nagging question among state legislators and local government officials has been how to pay for the drug court after the grant money runs out.

Certainly continued grant funding from the federal juggernaut is one option, but grant programs can be easy come, easy go.

Two years ago during a panel discussion about drug courts at a Glacier Country Pachyderm Club meeting, then state Rep. Randy Brodehl — now a Flathead County commissioner — said if the community embraces a drug court it needs to look at long-term funding sooner rather than later. Although Brodehl told the Republican group that evidence shows that drug courts work, he cautioned communities not to count on additional financial support beyond the three-year federal grant.

We expect the outcomes of the Family Tree treatment court will be well-documented over the next three years. That data will help guide our local leaders’ decision when the time comes to determine whether or not to financially support a drug court.

Funding is a valid concern, but we hope the benefits of Flathead County’s drug court will outweigh the costs in the long run.

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