CHARLESTON — A bill to implement a pilot program for family drug courts in West Virginia will be taken up by the House Judiciary Committee. The courts would be specialized to deal with cases of abuse and neglect involving substance abuse.

The bill proposes to implement family drug courts in five West Virginia counties — yet to be named — in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the program.

The bill originated in the House Committee on Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse on Thursday.

Before the bill was introduced, committee members heard a presentation from Boone County Circuit Judge William Thompson, who ran a campaign for the West Virginia Supreme Court in November, focusing heavily on supporting and expanding the state’s drug court programs.

“For years, I’ve been trying to get this established, and it seems like it’s as good a time as any,” Thompson said. “Fingers crossed it passes, and if it does, I think we’ll be better off. If we end up with family drug court in West Virginia, I consider my campaign a success.”

Adult drug courts and juvenile drug courts are already active throughout the state. In family drug courts, judges can help confront substance abuse issues in a family more holistically, Thompson said.

A majority of the positions and systems necessary to implement family drug courts in the state already exist at most circuit courts, Thompson said, meaning there are limited costs associated with a pilot program. The only added cost he expects would be for a “court coordinator,” who would function similarly to a probation officer in assisting to run the court and work with participants.

Stephanie Bond, director of probation services for the Supreme Court, said probation officers are paid between $50,000 and $75,000, and a salary for a court coordinator would be comparable. Ideally, each family drug court would have its own coordinator.

Additionally, circuit court judges would need to be willing to volunteer their time and attention to run the family drug courts, Bond said. After emailing all circuit judges in the state to gauge their interest in starting family drug courts in their circuits, Bond said she got at least 10 positive responses.

If implemented, family drug courts could be a way to help tackle what some in the state refer to as the foster care crisis, Thompson said.

“Our current abuse and neglect system is not equipped to handle substance abuse; it’s just not,” Thompson said. “The families that come in, we’re going to provide them with quicker, better access to drug treatment. We’re going to find out real quick which parents want to help their addiction and which don’t.”

Family drug courts would mean participants — who are all volunteers for the program — would have more frequent, productive court hearings, as they’d be meeting with their judges at least once every two weeks, Thompson said.

Through that, judges would be able to establish relationships with participants that would not exist in regular court proceedings.

“It’s like a parent-child relationship; I don’t know how else to describe it,” Thompson said. “They are excited when they do well and disappointed with themselves when they don’t. They buy into it more.”

That makes one of the most integral parts of a family drug court program — or any drug court — consistency among those involved, meaning caseworkers from the Department of Health and Human Resources would be expected to commit to the families they are helping.

This wouldn’t necessarily mean added work, though.

“I would say more so a re-evaluation of how they’re handling these cases now,” Thompson said.

The bill proposes creating a family drug treatment court advisory committee, to be chaired by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, as well as local advisory committees for each individual family drug court.

Each local advisory committee would be responsible for creating criteria for eligible participants in the program.

While the pilot program would encompass just five counties, Thompson said he hopes to see an expansion were the bill to become law.

“It’s a lot cheaper to treat people than to lock them up,” Thompson said. “We can’t fix everybody — this is not something that’s going to fix our foster care system or drug epidemic overnight; it won’t — but it’ll make a huge difference.”

Del. Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha, proposed two amendments to the bill that passed unanimously: naming the director of the Office of Drug Control Policy to the advisory committee and adding a section that would require an annual report on the progress of family drug courts to be filed with the Legislative Oversight Commission.

Caity Coyne is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach her at caity.coyne@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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