court gavel

For many neglected children placed in foster care, a parent’s drug or alcohol addiction is a key factor leading to their being taken from their homes.

Those families will now have another way to work toward bringing their children home as Kenosha County launches a Family Drug Treatment Court. The new court will follow the example of existing treatment courts in the county for people in the criminal justice system, adding new substance abuse treatment programming for parents who have had their children taken into foster care.

The new court will accept families who have had new child protective services cases filed April 1 or later.

“The underlying goal is to find a more successful way to handle parents with addiction problems,” said Ron Rogers, director of Kenosha County Children and Family Services.

Judge Jason Rossell, one of the judges handling CHIPS cases — which stands for Child in Need of Protection or Services — said that annual data reviews of the system have shown that parents’ substance abuse is a critical factor in the cases.

Rossell said that data reviews over the last few years showed that the number of children who have been returned to their families from foster care and then taken back into custody after further neglect has been increasing. “One of the first things we saw with our re-removals, that we had a significant percentage of cases where that was happening, and in almost all of those cases it was due to substance abuse,” Rossell said.

The county’s opioid and heroin epidemic is a major factor, he said.

For the 2015-16 period, Rossell said, there were 154 families with CHIPS cases involving 291 children. A total of 59 percent of those cases involved substance abuse. Parents’ addiction to drugs or alcohol triggered investigations of 70 families — about 45.5 percent — while it emerged later in the investigations for another 21 families.

The new family court will be modeled on the existing drug treatment courts Kenosha County operates in the criminal justice system, along with existing family treatment court models in Milwaukee County and in Iowa.

Rogers said a team of people have been working for about a year on creating the court.

He said families who qualify will continue to get the oversight and programming they would usually receive from his agency. But in addition, parents would go before a judge every other week to discuss their progress, and would get more intense substance abuse treatment through a Medicaid-funded outpatient treatment and counseling program.

“When these parents are in front of a judge frequently — the judge meets with them, encourages, rewards and stays on top of the progress they are making, or holds them accountable or shows some displeasure when they are not making progress — that motivates parents to put in more effort,” Rogers said.

Rossell likens the relationship between the judge and the parent to one of a coach and an athlete. “It’s that same coach mentality,” he said. “The participant doesn’t want to disappoint the judge in the same way the athlete doesn’t want to disappoint the coach.”

The county is launching the new court without devoting any additional county funds to the program. Treatment will be funded through Medicaid. The county and courthouse personnel working on the project agreed to take on their new roles in addition to their existing duties, Rogers said.

Participation in the court is voluntary, Rogers said.

Judge Jodi Meier, who will begin overseeing juvenile court cases in August when all of the county’s circuit court judges rotate into new roles, agreed to oversee the new court as well as the existing treatment court.

The program is being launched as a pilot. Rossell said they will be watching data closely to see whether families in the program have better outcomes than those who did not have the court available. “We want to track what we are doing right, or find out whether we are wasting our time here,” Rossell said.

If the program is successful, he said, more funding might be sought in the future to expand capacity.