ITHACA, N.Y. – Before 2001, a parent in Ithaca struggling with substance abuse or to provide care for children was sent to a family court but not given a comprehensive plan to directly address hardships.
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That year, County Judge John Rowley helped spearhead a first for Tompkins County. He began presiding over newly developed family treatment courts that put people in touch with local services, such as drug treatment, parenting classes, and housing opportunities, among others.
“It is a legal obligation, but it’s also, in some sense, a moral obligation to do the best we can to value families,” he said. “If you don’t really flesh that out into anything that’s effective then it’s just lip service.”
What is Family Treatment Court?
The process by which an individual ends up in family treatment court starts with a report of child abuse or a negligence incident. Rowley said most of the reports come from hospitals or tip lines.
Then, he said, an investigation is launched to determine if the family just needs help finding services — such as housing, food and medical care — or if there is a more severe problem such as substance abuse.
If the latter is the case, a parent has two options: 1) enroll in the family treatment court for a year to 15 months or 2) take the case to trial.
During a person’s time in drug treatment court, he or she undergoes random drug testing, parenting classes, drug treatment assistance that can include inpatient services and regimented check-ins with the court.
He said the court works with the Tompkins County Department of Social Services to help provide those resources.
Rowley said the parents also have the chance to visit with their children, who may have been put in foster care while the parent completes the program.
“Our philosophy is that as long as a parent is not behaving erratically or in a dangerous fashion, then it benefits the parents and the children to have parenting time,” he said, adding that the visitations may be supervised.
How successful is the court?
Rowley said less than 20 percent of people opt out of the court program, making the Tompkins County Family Court one of the busiest in the state.
The program is currently serving about 75 people, making it the third busiest in the state behind Brooklyn and Suffolk County, Rowley said. Three attorneys are exclusively assigned to assist people going through the system.
Rowley said the success of the program can be divvied up into three categories:
– About 1/3 of people are significantly changed by the program
– About 1/3 show substantial improvement and experience at least some period of sobriety
– About 1/3 do not show measurable improvements
Rowley said there are highs and lows about working with people who are overcoming obstacles to become healthy, productive people.
For instance, a person doing well in the program could last several months before “disappearing” and relapsing back into a drug or alcohol fueled lifestyle.
“That’s the heartbreak of Family Treatment Court,” Rowley said.
But there are other stories that are more encouraging.
He said there was once a 19-year-old single mother who was the first person he ever saw who tested positive for five drugs and had alcohol in her system before she went to court. During some of her first court dates, the mother asked for her parental rights to be terminated.
“She just wanted out,” Rowley said. “I told her we would not give up on her.”
He assigned the woman to an inpatient substance abuse treatment facility and told her she’d be arrested if she did not attend. About 15 months later, the woman became sober, completed the court’s requirements and was reunited with her child.
He said the woman is an inspiration to the Family Treatment Court community.
Rowley said that’s the kind of legacy he wants to leave behind — a court system where a parent has access to resources they need to help turn not only their life around, but the lives of their children.