By Ann Gail Meinster, Presiding Juvenile Judge of the Jefferson County, CO, Family Integrated Treatment Court
The Jefferson County Family Integrated Treatment (FIT) Court began operating in 2008 to serve parents and guardians who require treatment for a substance use disorder and who are involved with the child welfare system as a result of child abuse or neglect. The voluntary program offers families treatment to establish and maintain sobriety. It also helps participants develop the parenting and coping skills needed to serve as an effective parent on a day-to-day basis.
As a result of our work with OJJDP's training and technical assistance provider, the Center for Children and Family Futures, we use a family-centered approach, which calls for addressing the needs of the children as well as the parents. Families typically spend 15–18 months in the program, although reunification between parents and their children can occur at any point. The FIT Court is a collaborative effort that seeks to empower families to look beyond compliance and abstinence, encouraging them to make a commitment to a lifestyle of recovery.
The 3-year, $861,290 grant we received from OJJDP in fiscal year 2018 is supporting several of the FIT Court's key initiatives for targeting the multiple dimensions of recovery. The award allows us to maintain a public health nurse on staff, which is a critical component of our emphasis on connecting our clients to medical care, including mental health services. Our nurse helps coordinate care for the families with healthcare providers and ensures every child receives a developmental assessment.
The grant also made it possible for us to establish Celebrating Families!, an evidence-based parenting curriculum for families impacted by substance use. The program engages every member of the family, ages 3 through adult, to strengthen recovery from alcohol or drugs, break the cycle of addiction, and improve the prospects for family reunification.
In addition, grant funds covered the cost for our treatment providers to train parent-partner peer recovery specialists. These are parents who have demonstrated a sustained period of recovery that we hire to support newer clients. OJJDP funding also paid for our staff to attend training sessions offered at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals' annual conference.
The FIT Court employs evidence-based practices, and we continually strive to improve our program. One way we accomplish that goal is through the effective use of data. Several years ago, we stopped imposing jail time as a sanction for clients who fail to comply with program requirements. I made the change after an analysis of past clients’ records revealed that no one who had received jail time as a sanction had successfully completed the court program.
Similarly, about 10 years ago, I stopped allowing participants to unilaterally drop out of FIT Court after an analysis indicated that clients who left the program typically had negative outcomes. Now the court requires clients to file a motion and attend a hearing before they can drop out.
Colorado State University, in conjunction with Children and Family Futures, recently completed two evaluations of the FIT Court, which validated our approach. Researchers found that the children of parents who successfully complete the program are less likely to reenter the child welfare system. They also found that the children of families that complete the court program spend less time in out-of-home care and are more likely to reunify with their parents.
In May 2021, the FIT Court was selected to serve as a mentor court for the 2021-2022 Family Drug Court Training and Technical Assistance Peer Learning Court program. In that capacity, we hope to share our successes and other lessons learned though site visits and virtual exchanges with our peer courts.
I credit the court's success to an outstanding team of professionals, many of whom have been here since the court was created 13 years ago. Nothing is more gratifying than seeing that we have reached a parent and helped them turn their life around. It makes all of our work worth it.
Points of view or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.