"I'm so proud of you," says Judge Mary Timko to Carrie, a parent participating in a new local Family Drug Court program. "We're all in this together."
Carrie tells Timko how she's been telling her children how much she appreciates how they are finally getting along with each other. Carrie is happy to be able to spend time with her children. She says she also likes to be able to have some time for herself.
Parents like Carrie who voluntarily choose to be in drug court are currently in the DHS system and are at risk or have lost children due to substance abuse. Family drug courts focus on the rehabilitation of not only the parent but the family as well. Drug Courts were put in place in Buena Vista and Cherokee earlier this year.
A group of people, Timko refers to as the "treatment team," made up of service providers, the Assistant County Attorney and Timko look at the strengths and struggles of the family on an individual basis - not to prosecute them, but to better assist them in recovery.
After the parent speaks, each member of the treatment team share as well, whether it be to offer positive or negative feedback, and reports of substance abuse treatment and service provider reports are reviewed by the Court.
The last time Carrie had any drugs or alcohol was in March. Sometimes she says she feels lonely at work so she tends to keep to herself. There was a time when Carrie took a few steps back in her progress to living a clean life but now the drug court is helping her keep her problems behind her.
There are moments to share in a laugh but occasionally there are tears shed for the parents as they struggle to get over addiction.
"You are strong," says Timko. Learn to trust others, Carrie is told, the drug court is here for you, but they won't be there forever.
Each person in the drug court is at a different stage in their recovery.
Aaron has been sober since October. He's attending couples counseling. Are you being honest and open about everything? he's asked. His DHS worker reports she feels he is making progress. The "treatment team" applaud enthusiastically.
Aaron says he's working almost full time and successfully passed his last urinalysis test and breathalyser test. What kinds of plans do you have for Thanksgiving? "Everyone knows this needs to be alcohol free?" Timko asks. Aaron nods.
Karen continues to seek employment. She has experience, but it seems poential employers look only at the past couple years. She has been struggling, but what they don't see is this year as she's making steps to get her life back on track and live clean and sober. She says she just wants a chance, an interview. She is told to continue to tap into her sponsor as a resource. She is recommended as a possible parent partner in the future. Parent partners are former drug addicts who serve as mentors to parents in drug court.
Her DHS worker says Karen appears open and honest and is willing to talks about problems that may arise - she has a lot of offer.
New parents occasionally join the court. Sticking to it is the challenge.
Make something that reminds you that you are in drug court, says Timko. A bracelet, a necklace. List activities you enjoy doing. Timko says they offer incentives to those in drug court for accomplishments and responsibility. However, she says, there are consequences as well. Timko says each parent is given assignments that aren't part of the treatments - creating activities they can do with their children or sharing five good things that happened during the day.
When they falter, however, there may be consequences - up to jail time or community service, Timko says.
"Take this disposable camera to take photos of good things in your life - your children, activities you've been doing," Timko instructs the new parent. Find a person or daycare to care for your child so that you can focus on the goals you have established for staying clean. Ask for assistance from those in drug court. Other parents in the back of the room all nod - they've been there.
When progress is made Timko says parents are often offered incentives. Through the incentives she says it helps encourage them to see they are making progress and to continue to want to make progress. Ideas for incentives are often taken off the list of activities the parent enjoys doing or activities parents can do with do with their children to encourage family time.
Meeting just before Thanksgiving Timko reminds parents to focus on the blessings in their lives. She says she's thankful they've stuck it out so long.
BV COUNTY DRUG COURT
Modeled after the Cherokee Drug Court which began in March 2008, which Timko also presides over, the BV County Family Drug Court began in August 2008. Both courts meet bimonthly. Timko says earlier this year she handed out a questionnaire to parents in Cherokee to see how well they felt it was working or if there were things that could be changed.
Timko says she has noted families wish they could meet at least once a week and Timko says she wishes this as well but unfortunately does not have time in her docket. However,
Timko says the benefit of a drug court like this one is that they are able to meet with the families regularly, unlike regular court proceedings. There is more opportunity for contact with each parent and their families. She says she also hopes in the future the county will be able to start up a Youth Drug Court.
Both Timko and Jenny Ahlers, BV County Victims Advocate who works with the Drug Court, say the court program has been a positive addition. "It is early yet but I do feel it feel it has made a difference in the families involved," says Ahlers.
"We're really happy BV County has started a drug court," agrees Frank Petska, Substance Abuse Counselor at Compass Pointe in Storm Lake. "I think it's going to be an asset."
Timko says the drug court also differs from a normal courtroom environment in that it can offer encouragment rather than focusing on bad aspects.
Timko says one reason she was so interested in starting up the Drug Court in BV County was some of the positive statistics seen. She says they Its parents are more likely to enter treatment, were more likely to complete treatment, and FDC cases tended to be shorter than traditional child welfare cases. However, some barriers to drug courts not being as successful include aspects like lack of political and community support and lack of funding.
SEEKING COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT
Timko says another important aspect of treatment and moving on to a clean and sober life is being able to be welcomed back into a safe and sober environment. Both Ahlers and Timko said they'd like to see more community involvement with the drug court.
"(I would hope the public) would be more aware of drugs and the effects it has on families and that it is an addiction," says Ahlers. She says it's also important for community members to realize that recovery isn't always a quick process for some. It is often a very significant and difficult process because it includes a lifestyle change.
She says members of the community can also make donations whether it be financially or providing transportation to drug court or the grocery store or just donating time to serve as a mentor.Ahlers said community members can also volunteer to help with drug court by providing child care during the hearings which are held the first and third Wednesday of the month at the BV County Courthouse. Ahlers said another way community members can get involved and show their support is to educate themselves more on drug court and what the purpose is. Ahlers can be reached at 732-8120 or contact Timko at 749 -2564.
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a decade of research has indicated that drug courts reduces crime by lowering re-arrests and conviction rates, improves treatment outcomes and often helps families reunite. Judge Timko says it has shown to also produce measurable cost savings.
The first drug court was developed in Florida and now less than 20 years later there are more than 2,140 drug courts in operation with more being planned or developed.