“It’s not a big secret to anybody that we’ve had a lot of problems with DCYF and its programs and things that have been happening,” said Senator Sharon Carson (R-Londonderry), one of the main sponsors of SB 592, in an interview earlier this year. “And so, this was part of a more holistic effort to look at everything that we do and how we can do it better.
“How can we deliver services to youth and families when they are going through what most would characterize as a difficult time and for whatever reason, whether it’s family problems or drug problems, we need to look at the family as a unit? Because oftentimes separating children from their families may be in their best interest in the short run, but we want to look at the long run as well … we want to try to keep families intact.”
And if a family is struggling with a drug issue, Carson said, she believes the first thing that needs to be done is to get the father or mother into treatment.
The idea of introducing family drug courts into the state’s justice system has come up before, but as a growing number of child custody and child abuse cases involve the issue of substance misuse, it’s an innovation that is being revisited.
“The opioid crisis is making itself felt in the court system deeply and profoundly,” said Lucy Hodder, professor of law and director of health law and policy programs at UNH Law School. “… The courts are facing a broad spectrum of complex legal, social and health-based issues as a result of the opioid epidemic. They need help.”
As part of their process, the study committee, which is made up of members of the state House and Senate, considered how a family drug court could differ from the existing family court and adult drug court systems, among other issues. They researched the process in other states and asked NH Superior Court Chief Justice Tina L. Nadeau, who has spoken extensively on alternative courts, and Administrative Judge for the Circuit Court Edwin W. Kelly to address the committee.
According to the report, Kelly told the committee that family courts have traditionally dealt with severe child abuse, neglect and abandonment cases with no services usually available. He also noted that in conjunction with the state’s opioid crisis, he has seen a 60 percent increase in the termination of parental rights across the state.
In New Hampshire, nine out of 10 counties have an adult drug court. Typically, prosecutors and defense attorneys work with a judge and social service providers to help the defendant receive treatment for a substance abuse disorder, under a deferred judgement.
The programs typically last a year and instead of relying on consequences like losing freedom upon failing the program, the incentive for a participant is reunification with a child.
In an interview with Bar News over the summer, Nadeau explained that family drug courts are very different than adult drug courts. The cases in a family drug court are not criminal cases and jail time is never an option.
And while adult drug courts have been studied extensively since coming into use in the early 1980s, family drug courts are a newer concept that hasn’t been studied as much.
Still, Nadeau sees value in looking at adding a family drug court system in the state.
“Some of the benefits of the model have worked in the criminal setting and hopefully some of those benefits would carry over,” she said. “I think it’s absolutely worth considering.”
Another benefit to the model, which favors support and motivation over punitive measures, Nadeau said, is that it recognizes the need for the whole family to be treated at the same time.
“[These] kids are used to dealing with their parents who are suffering from addiction,” Nadeau says. “And then as they get better, the whole family needs to know how to deal with that, how to manage that.”
Judge Kelly told the committee he was very much in favor of implementing a Family Drug Court; however, a lot of infrastructure and resources would be needed in order to put it in place, according to the report.
Carson agreed in her earlier interview.
“[I]t’s great if you can come up with all of these programs, but not if you can’t pay for them,” Carson said.
Melanie Plenda is a freelance writer based in Keene and a frequent contributor to the New Hampshire Bar News.