Editorial: Family Court’s attack on opioid epidemic is encouraging

Monday, September 25, 2017

Again, Franklin County is pioneering new ways to help cope with the opioid epidemic — this time for families that find themselves in probate court over custody and child welfare issues related to addiction.

Franklin County Probate and Family Court will be getting $2.1 million over the next five years to expand a first-of-its-kind program in the state. The money will be used to expand by 300 percent the current family drug court program, which was an innovation started a year ago.

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

The probate court’s First Justice Beth Crawford has seen for some time now addiction causing or exacerbating problems in families. She sees a “devastating impact of substance use upon parents, their children, and other family members,” every day. “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,” she said of the grant.

The grant is another indication of the confidence that public health officials have in the Franklin County Regional Drug Task Force for innovating approaches to address addiction’s harm — not just to individual drug abusers but also to their families.

Addiction often becomes a complicating factor in custody battles with non-custodial parents and or with grandparents.

Crawford has said family drug court 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, about $420,000 annually, will pay for two prongs to this program: five employees housed in the court who will offer help directly to families, and money to pay for a study by University of Massachusetts Medical School to evaluate the program’s success. If it works, the state could replicate it in other courthouses.

The Family Drug Court will hire two case managers, two recovery coaches and a nurse.

John Merrigan, the county register of probate and a founder of the task force, pointed out the program wants to keep families together, to lessen time dealing with a court case and to 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, not lock them up.”

The biggest issue, though, is helping people who don’t necessarily have the means to get to social services. With the new support staff working in the courthouse, there is no waiting or referrals to other agencies.

It’s a tragedy that we as a society have to confront this opioid epidemic as its tendrils reach into so many facets of our community and family life. Luckily, we have a group of dedicated volunteers locally in the task force who work with the courts, law enforcement, medical professionals, schools and the recovery community generally, continually looking for ways to deal with addiction’s consequences and long-term ways to drive it back into Pandora’s box.