Franklin County family drug court gets $2.1M

  • Christopher Donelan, sheriff of Franklin County and a founding member of the Opioid Task Force. Greenfield Recorder

For the Gazette
Published: 9/19/2017 12:53:26 AM

GREENFIELD — In a highly anticipated grant to locally address the opioid crisis, the family drug court in Franklin County will be awarded $2.1 million over the next five years in a program first of its kind in the state.

The grant, announced by the Massachusetts Trial Court, will allot the federal funds for the purpose of addressing the “impact of opioid, other substance use, and co-occurring disorders on families in rural western Massachusetts,” a release from the state said.

It will expand the family drug court program by 300 percent, according to the release.

“On a daily basis in my courtroom, I see the devastating impact of substance use upon parents, their children, and other family members,” said Franklin County Probate and Family Court First Justice Beth A. Crawford in the press release. “This infusion of resources will allow us to develop a responsive trauma-informed system of care that will offer hope and help as families pursue their recovery.”

It will be a program for a county that the state described in its release as “hard hit by the opiate crisis and has struggled to meet the substance use and mental health needs of its residents.”

“It’s a huge grant. This is really significant,” said Christopher Donelan, sheriff of Franklin County and a founding member of the Opioid Task Force, which had a large role in securing the grant. “This is just another indication of the confidence that the leadership in Boston has in Franklin County for innovative approaches, and that’s why they’re making this investment.”

How it works

The family drug court has been touted as “another piece in the puzzle” of fighting the opioid abuse epidemic, intended to fill a hole in the region’s support structure for parents who become addicted and end up in family court.

Addiction affects families and children, at times becoming factors in custody battles with non-custodial parents and or with grandparents who feel their child’s living arrangements threaten their safety.

The new court has been described as another groundbreaking move pioneered by the local Opioid Task Force to cope with the national addiction crisis.

Crawford has said it will give families who find themselves involved in such cases — which have increased steadily over recent years — the opportunity to voluntarily enter a court-overseen treatment program while the underlying custody case is put on hold.

If participants elect to enter the Family Drug Court, they are required to participate in local self-help groups multiple times per week, submit to random drug screenings, appear regularly before the court to report on their progress, and work with a recovery coach to address their problem.

The money, which breaks down to about $420,000 annually, if distributed evenly, will pay for two prongs of this program: five employees housed in the court and money to pay for the study that will be conducted by University of Massachusetts Medical School to evaluate the grant’s success.

The Family Drug Court will hire five workers: two case managers, two recovery coaches and quarter-time nurse.

The social work between the five will help assist the court to expedite and ensure services needed for families in the court who have been affected by the opioid crisis.

“This grant gives us the supports we need to treat addiction as a family disease,” Northwest District Attorney David Sullivan said. “Children of parents in family court will be the true beneficiaries.”

The program in its nuts and bolts can be complicated to sift through, between its future work in both the Family Drug Court and the Juvenile Court, but one thing that John Merrigan, register of probate and a founder of the task force, pointed to is that it will look to help keep families together, lessen time dealing with a court case and try to prevent future issues from arising.

“Ten years ago the courts would have said that’s not our problem,” Merrigan said. “‘We’re here for crime and punishment.’ That’s what’s different about this. Probation officers and support staff look to help them with their recovery and to not lock them up.”

Currently the Family Drug Court, which began a little over a year ago as the first in the state, works to help families find ways to recovery and mending social and mental health issues. The biggest issue, though, is getting social services to people who don’t necessarily have the means to obtain them.

With this program, the five workers will be housed in the court, where the task force is also based.

“It’s right under our roof,” Merrigan said. “These staff people will be right in our building. People don’t have to call a number. There’s no wait, literally.”

The program is partly scripted off of other, similar court programs — though the court officials state their program will be unique — potentially unlike any other in the country — and off of an evidence-based model out of the UMass Medical School called “MISSION.”

Maintaining Independence and Sobriety through Systems Integration, Outreach and Networking-Criminal Justice is a program developed out of the medical school that has worked in other courts in the state, like treatment for veterans in Boston.

“The MISSION treatment model targets reduced recidivism and homelessness, improved mental health support, substance use recovery and increased steady employment for those participating in the Trial Court’s current MISSION-based programs,” the state release said.

The task force, working with the medical school program, will work to test the effectiveness of this grant.

“We get to figure this out based on our needs, which is part of what’s so exciting about this,” Crawford said. “We get to really create based upon what we see as the needs in Franklin County.”

Grabbing the grant

The task force put in plenty of time and effort into the grant application.

“We were all on the phone on this snow day in February trying to write this,” Crawford said.

“The hard part was applying for the grant and making sure that we had the hundreds of pages of documentation to highlight the need for our region,” Merrigan said. “I’m convinced if she wasn’t involved with it, the success of being awarded the grant would’ve been a lot of lower.”

While it’s not immediately clear if the federal grant will be renewable, Crawford said, it’s possible it won’t need to be renewed. Merrigan hopes that if the program empirically proves its success, the state will look to fund it — and potentially implement it elsewhere in Massachusetts.

“It’s unique and something we’re hoping it has an impact that will be felt for the future years of the criminal justice system and that it’s a model for the rest of the state,” Merrigan said. “If we can invest in funds internally then we can stop the revolving door.”


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