The Jefferson County Family Recovery Court was created to help keep families with addiction issues together. | Photo by Lisa Hornung

A new court aimed at helping families with substance abuse issues recover and stay together has opened in Jefferson County.

The Jefferson Family Recovery Court works within the family court system, but it’s funded by the Louisville chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), which is still raising funds for a three-year pilot of the new court.

The testing of the Jefferson Family Recovery Court is a result of a 2014 visit to Jefferson County Family Court by 34 volunteers from the Louisville council who sat in on the court’s proceedings to determine what was needed in the Louisville family court system, said Jane Emke, a member of the local NCJW. The visit focused on cases related to dependency, abuse and neglect.

Following the visit, the group released a report, “A Call to Action: NCJW Court Watch Project on Child Abuse and Neglect,” which explained the need for a new court that would address growing concerns related to the effects of substance abuse on families.

Judge Denis Brown presides over the new Family Recovery Court. | Photo by Lisa Hornung

According to the report, which cites studies by Child Protective Services and Kentucky Youth Advocates, there were 16,533 children abused or neglected in Kentucky in 2012, and household substance abuse was a factor for 64.4 percent of those children.

Between 2010 and 2012 in Jefferson County, 7,500 cases of child abuse or neglect were documented, and 2,946 children were placed in out-of-home care because of abuse and neglect. More than 70 percent of abuse and neglect cases that came into court during the time involved substance abuse.

Having a new court that focuses directly on families struggling with dependency would create more opportunities for parents to recover and be reunited with their children. The local NCJW chapter went to work on fundraising and has since raised more than $426,000, which will fund the court for two years, and it is still trying to raise $158,000 to fund a third year.

“Because of the number of people in Jefferson County dying of overdoses, we decided not to wait for all three years’ funding to go ahead and open it,” Emke said. As of Dec. 18, there were five families signed up for the program.

The Jefferson County Family Recovery Court hopes to receive state funding in the 2020 budget. Until then, however, the funds raised by the local council will keep it going.

Private donations are an unusual way to fund a court, but budget cuts have created a need for funding alternatives, said Jefferson County Circuit Court Clerk David Nicholson.

“As government entities across the nation continue to face fiscal constraints, we are seeing all types of public-private partnerships and initiatives spring up to address the need for enhanced public services as well as for major infrastructure projects,” Nicholson said in an email. “Especially in our current economic environment, it is imperative that we continue to explore new and creative ways to serve the underserved and connect people to the help they need.”

Circuit Court Clerk David L. Nicholson |Photo from Courts.ky.gov

The new court aims to help 30 families each year, or about 150 children, according to a news release. It will replace and build upon the county’s former family drug court, which ended in 2009 after cutbacks in state funding.

Jefferson County does have a drug court, but it’s not focused on families. Its goal is to help individuals get the recovery help they need and can be punitive if the participant doesn’t comply. The Jefferson Family Recovery Court involves the entire family in the process.

How it works

The Jefferson Family Recovery Court is nonpunitive and completely voluntary, said local Family Court Judge Denise Brown, who is the first judge to participate in the new program.

The court is an evidence based-program using a model from the group Children and Family Futures and the National Drug Court Institute.

Parents who have been adjudicated in the Dependency, Neglect and Abuse docket and who have little or no contact with their children may be identified as candidates for the program. When they are in the program, the court will provide “wrap-around” services to make sure the parent gets everything he or she needs to get sober and stay there, including finding stable housing, transportation, counseling and more.

The program typically takes one year, Brown said, and participants must have six months of sobriety, as well as pass four phases along the way. When they graduate, they can go back to their original judge with a recommendation from the Jefferson Family Recovery Court judge to restore custody or visitation rights.

If a parent drops out of the program midway, they go back to the court without that recommendation.

A caseworker will work with the families and set them up with mentors — people who have been through recovery themselves. The mentors will check in regularly and be available to talk to the parents, answer questions and just lend a helping hand.

During the first three months, participants meet with a judge and the support team weekly, Brown said.

The group will discuss “What have been some of the triggers? What they’re struggling with, what they may need help with,” Brown said. “At that point, we turn the whole ship at one time, say, ‘OK, this is what Susie needs. She needs some help with childcare. She’s unable to get to her random drug screenings because of transportation. Do we have TARC tickets to help her with that, or do we have transportation through the Family Mentor Program to get them there?’

“The kids are not getting to school or whatever the need is, we’re trying to address it right away versus allowing that person to try to figure it out while they’re trying to figure out their addiction,” Brown continued. “It can just be so overwhelming. We believe the more support the person has, then they have more likelihood of being successful.”

Family Court Judge Denise Brown | Photo from ballotpedia.com

Some clients will go to residential treatment, then receive services from the court when they are released, Brown said.

But clients have to want to participate. A court cannot legally order a parent to join the program, which wouldn’t likely work anyway because a person getting sober has to be motivated to do so, Brown said.

If a child is in custody of the state or another family member for more than a year, that custodial parent or grandparent can move for permanent custody or even to permanently remove a parent’s rights.

Going through the program can help a parent get more time with his or her children, Brown said. “Say, for instance, the child is with Aunt Jane. What we want to do is get the participant to the place where, you know, Aunt Jane is the supervisor right now, maybe we can get to unsupervised (visitation). Or maybe get an occasional overnight as they increase their sobriety.”

Centerstone will be the case management provider for Family Recovery Court and has a dedicated case manager in place, Michele Isham. Isham has worked for years in case management for children for various organizations and said she’s looking forward to this new position and thinks the wrap-around services will help.

“We’ll go weekly in front of the judge, and in the studies that I’ve read, that approach is way more successful than just every couple of months you go in front of a judge” and have less contact with your provider, she said.

Cindy Kamer, clinical supervisor and court liaison for Centerstone, agreed.

“One of the things that we have really pushed is this trauma-informed approach,” Kamer said. “So we really offer some incentives for people, and we understand the dynamics of recovery and how that relates to childhood- and adult-experienced trauma. I think that component of it also lends itself to this program being more successful.”

A trauma-informed method is when care is approached with the focus on and understanding of the trauma that may have led to substance abuse, she said.

“Instead of viewing the substance use as occurring in a vacuum — ‘People do drugs because it’s what they do’ — we recognize that oftentimes substance use is the result of some type of trauma that has occurred, or it’s an effective coping mechanism,” Kamer said. “So this approach really is making sure that the court personnel, the judges, the attorneys, all understand the impact of trauma on our clients when they were kids, on their own children, that which they’ve experienced in adulthood, and we take that into consideration when we work with our families.”

More ways to help

The National Council of Jewish Women and the court are also gathering other incentives for parents, such as tickets or gift cards to allow parents to take their children out for fun activities.

If a parent attends a certain number of Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, they may be rewarded.

“Some people have never been at a point in their life where they’ve been stable enough to do something for their child,” Brown said. “The community partners are helping us raise that money or giving us donations of things that can be used to help the family feel like, ‘OK, you’re not in this alone.’ ”

While the court pilot program is beginning in Jefferson County, the NCJW plans to branch out to other parts of Kentucky in places where it’s needed most.

Nicholson said the court is grateful for the efforts of NCJW’s Louisville chapter.

“Our Louisville Metro community is blessed to have many wonderful nonprofit charities, generous individuals and families, and engaged caring citizen groups such as the National Council of Jewish Women — Louisville Section, who step up time and again to provide crucial support to assist their fellow citizens,” he said. “I believe that it is very important that a compassionate community like ours offer this kind of innovative and economical approach to help the families of individuals who have abuse problems.”

While Brown is the only judge on the program now, other family court judges will eventually be brought into the docket, she said, noting that addressing this immediate need was the reason she wanted to be involved.

“I was interested in it because I just noticed that we had a lot of people on the docket that had substance abuse issues,” Brown said. “I had a couple of families where one parent or both parents died while the cases were in court. And I just felt like we’ve got to do what we can to help this because it’s really a death epidemic.”

SNL fundraiser

NCJW is selling $100 raffle tickets for a trip to New York, airfare and a stay in a Midtown Manhattan hotel included, and tickets to a taping of “Saturday Night Live.” Emke’s son, Devin Emke, is a sound engineer on the show and has offered his seats for the auction, Emke said.

Only 1,000 tickets will be sold, with the goal of raising $100,000. Contact the NCJW office at 502-458-5566, or visit the Nearly New Shop at Mid-City Mall to purchase a ticket.

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Lisa Hornung a native of Louisville and has worked in local media for more than 15 years as a writer and editor. Before that she worked as a writer, editor and photographer for community newspapers in Kansas, Ohio and Kentucky. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia, and after a 20-year career in journalism, she obtained a master’s degree in history from Eastern Kentucky University in 2016.