New family treatment court a resource for reunification

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Last week, a long-awaited family treatment court officially opened its doors to Flathead County families impacted by dependency and neglect cases, offering support for program-elligible parents pursuing reunification with their children who have been placed into Child Family Services.

The court, known as Family Tree, aims to provide evidence-based treatment for families impacted by parental substance use, reduce child maltreatment and provide children with services they need to be raised in a healthy environment. Funding for the court was granted by the U.S. Department of Justice in October of 2018. The department gave $600,000 to support the program for its first three years.

“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,” Flathead County District Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht said at a recent Alliance for a Drug-free Flathead meeting.

Up until last Wednesday, Flathead County was the largest jurisdiction in Montana without a family drug treatment court.

According to Ulbricht, the county’s typical methods for supporting families and children involved in cases of abuse and neglect haven’t always been successful. She said the treatment court fills in some “black holes” for parents maneuvering the system in pursuit of reunification. For example, one requirement of the program is that parents agree to random drug screenings for the first 120 days, whereas traditionally they would be tested every few months - a timeline that potentially turns those early months without testing into periods of uncertainty for those evaluating the case.

“The treatment court adds a level of accountability and our team is working to shepherd families through the program at a more intensive level,” Ulbricht said.

The five-phase treatment program, which is voluntary, will last around 18 months with opportunities to “graduate” sooner. During those months, parents will participate in relapse prevention therapy, group counseling, family functioning assessments and other treatments and will be closely monitored after completing the program as well.

Ulbricht says the court will also foster an environment of encouragement. Should parents hit certain milestones in their treatment, they may be rewarded with gift cards to be used for supervised family outings, among other incentives.

The treatment court team is comprised of a public defender, employees from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, chemical dependency counselors and more.

There are various criteria parents must meet in order to be eligible for the program. For example, they must have an active substantiated case of child maltreatment and allegations of problem substance use, a child must have been removed or is at risk of removal, and they must actually be willing to participate.

Families can enter into the program in a number of ways, including by referral from another judge. According to Ulbricht, the team aims to take in about 12 families for the court’s first year of operation, which is estimated to equate to 12 adults and between 25 and 30 children. During the second year of operation, capacity will be closer to 20 families with the staff working towards an ultimate goal of 20 to 25 families on average, per year.

Because the first few phases of the program are more intense than the others, Ulbricht said the team will have to stagger when they take in families so as not to overwhelm the court staff.

The family treatment court took in its first family last week and is currently considering about ten other families.

Ulbricht has been a vanguard for the treatment court for years, often pointing to the valley’s struggles with drug addiction, which law enforcement officials say has increased over the years.

In a 2017 Inter Lake article, Ulbricht predicted about 80 percent of the offenses in her felony docket were related to drugs and alcohol. She continued, stating “we are also seeing an increase in dependent neglect, where children are being removed from the home because of chronic negligence from parents who have drug issues.” According to Flathead CASA, the agency had 294 active cases in 2017. Of those, approximately 73% were substance use disorder cases.

A document outlining the treatment court’s program and background says the valley is considered a “pipeline for drug distribution” and is designated as one of five federally designated ‘High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas’ in Montana. Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Child and Family Services, says methamphetamine is the number one drug in cases of child abuse and neglect in the state.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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