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New court to reunite families

News

Cite as: July 2014 88 (07) LIJ, p.25

Australia's first Family Drug Treatment Court aims to rehabilitate parents and help children. 

Up to 30 families at a time will be helped by a new US-style Family Drug Treatment Court (FDTC) in Victoria. Launched in May, with four families immediately placed in the program, it is Australia’s first FDTC and aims to reunite families fractured by parental drug and alcohol abuse.

Substance abuse is a substantial problem in more than two-thirds of cases in the Victorian Children’s Court, with many children removed from parents, often permanently. Reunification, recognised to be in the best interests of the child, rarely happens.

Now, for eligible families, the FDTC will oversee a non-adversarial 12-month program whereby a multi-disciplinary court team rehabilitates parents from substance misuse, resolves their mental health, housing, financial, family violence and parenting issues and reunites them with their children who are also assisted with the journey to reunification.

Initially based at the Melbourne Children’s Court, the FDTC will sit one day a week. It will move to the new Broadmeadows Children’s Court when that opens in 2015.

As part of the intensive, therapeutic program, parents must attend court weekly, participate in drug testing up to three times a week, attend treatment appointments and work towards goals in their parenting recovery plan.

The idea came from California’s Santa Clara County in the US, where FDTCs are widespread. Evaluations show that for families involved parents have a significantly higher treatment completion rate, children spend significantly less time in out of home care and reunification rates are higher.

Magistrate Greg Levine heard of it 12 years ago, researched it as part of a Churchill Fellowship he was awarded in 2011, and on 16 May, saw it launched. “I was convinced that we should establish a similar court here. Our circumstances were no different; families split apart by substance misuse, and a child protection system and adversarial court process that were achieving little if any success in rehabilitating parents and achieving reunification with their children or reaching more timely permanent placement,” he said at the launch.

The Court, he said, met recommendations of the 2012 Vulnerable Children Inquiry, in that it moved away from an adversarial role, although was still subject to judicial oversight, and would operate on a docket system whereby one court officer would oversee each case from start to finish. Mr Levine said the FDTC would provide parents with the best opportunity to be reunited with their children but the community would also benefit.

“The success of this court will flow to the community financially, but most particularly in the obvious social benefits inherent in having intact families making positive contributions to that community.

“Critically, the FDTC will achieve a far more timely resolution of the goals of stability and certainty in the lives of the children the subject of Children’s Court proceedings.

“We want, if possible, to maintain intact families while ensuring the safety and emotional and psychological wellbeing of the children. We know that growing up in a stable family setting is much more likely to allow children to thrive and to achieve their potential. We want them to feel loved and nurtured.

“The FDTC is for those children. I dedicate it to them.”

President of the Children’s Court of Victoria Judge Peter Couzens said it was a “priceless opportunity” for affected parents and Attorney-General Robert Clark said the new court would improve the safety and wellbeing of children removed from parents as a result of alcohol and drug abuse.

“The ability of the Court to access coordinated services and comprehensively address issues such as substance dependence, mental illness, housing instability, family violence and parenting deficits are critical to rehabilitating parents and achieving reunification with their children,” Mr Clark said. “Alternatively, if parents do not succeed in their rehabilitation then there is earlier decision making about a child’s long-term placement which enhances stability and is in the best interests of the child.”

Minister for Mental Health Mary Wooldridge said the FDTC “will give individuals and their families a chance at a new beginning, and it will positively change lives for children. This will I think contribute to a reduction in intergenerational disadvantage as a result of substance abuse that we see so often”.

Elisa Buggy is program manager of the FDTC which is a three-year pilot program with state government funding of $1.1 million to go towards clinicians and additional drug treatment beds at Odyssey House.

Carolyn Ford

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