The Substance Abuse Program Los Angeles Hopes Can Help Overhaul its Dependency Drug Courts

A motion introduced by Supervisors Hilda Solis (pictured) and Sheila Kuehl would push the county’s child welfare system to come up with a better way to serve families in the child welfare system battling substance abuse issues. Photo courtesy of the office of Hilda Solis.

Sacramento County could hold the key to better addressing widespread substance abuse issues in Los Angeles County’s child welfare system.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to create a plan to improve substance abuse services to parents facing the removal of their children in dependency court by creating a family treatment court modeled on a program used in Sacramento. A motion introduced by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl would direct county agencies and stakeholders to come up with a better way to serve more parents with enhanced services that could prevent entries to the county’s foster care system and spur faster reunification for the families already in the system.

“It’s a critical first step in what we’re trying to do, which is establish a compassionate, clear-eyed approach to this problem, which is, how do we heal and reunite families that are torn apart by addiction while always prioritizing the safety and well-being of the child?” said Supervisor Janice Hahn. “I think this family treatment model is the answer.”

That model outlined in the motion is based on a family treatment court in Sacramento that has been running for 18 years parallel to other dependency court proceedings. One of only a few family drug courts nationwide that has achieved notable success at a broader scale, the Sacramento County Dependency Drug Court (DDC) serves about 600 parents a year and has seen a higher rate of court-ordered children reunify with their families than similar families and has generated substantial cost savings for the county.

In 2018, about 59 percent of all open cases overseen by Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) involved substance abuse issues, according to the agency. The county currently has three drug courts at the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court, but less than 100 parents are currently enrolled, and in recent months, that number has dropped as low as 30, according to attorneys with the Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers (LADL), the nonprofit legal firm that serves about 20,000 parents in the county’s child welfare system.

Marlene Furth, a director with LADL, said that most of the parents represented by her firm are at risk of losing their children because of a substance abuse issue, but very few are served by a “dysfunctional” system.

“The majority of parents who have drug problems are not going through any of these treatment courts,” Furth said in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. “Most of the parents are given referrals by [DCFS] and they have to go out and get into their own drug program, do their own testing and visit their kids — they’re running around trying to comply with their case plan. It’s very difficult. They don’t get a lot of support and that’s where they’re going to fall through the cracks.”

According to the Victor Greenberg, presiding judge at L.A. County’s Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court, the county’s current drug courts are ill-suited to deal with the needs of parents battling addiction.

“The members of our team have come to the unfortunate conclusion that the program we have is no longer as robust as it should be and participation has begun to languish,” Greenberg said at Tuesday’s board meeting. “The very nature of our program is mired in outdated treatment modalities which no longer represent the best data-driven approaches to substance abuse disorder.”

According to a 2014-15 evaluation of Sacramento DDC program, about 54 percent of the children of DDC clients were reunified within 12 months, compared with just 19 percent of children in a comparison group. The evaluation also noted that children of parents involved with the drug court had shorter stays in the county’s foster care system and saved the county about $11,400 per child.

Sacramento’s family drug court is built around the Specialized Treatment and Recovery Services (STARS) program, which is run by the nonprofit organization Bridges to manage the cases of parents referred to the new court.

The STARS program is designed to offer parents immediate access to substance abuse treatment options. Parents dealing with substance abuse are helped by a peer recovery specialist, who assists parents in entering and completing substance abuse treatment as well as provides monitoring and accountability through the difficult process of recovery.

A parent is usually required to meet with a peer recovery specialist at least two times a week to start, and if progress is made, that can be lowered to once a week or once every two weeks. Parents in the STARS program typically can complete the program in nine to 12 months, a timeline that matches child welfare timelines for maintaining custody of children.

However, in Los Angeles County, a lack of quality programs and wait times for services remains challenging for many parents who are trying to enroll in programs and make progress before permanently losing their children to the foster care system.

“We have heard directly from parents about their confusion and frustration when trying to navigate complex systems to access substance abuse treatment and a resolution to court cases,” said Diego Rodrigues, chief operating officer of Alma Family Services, an East Los Angeles provider that works with many families involved with the child welfare system. “These issues disproportionately impact poor families and families of color.”

The board charged several county departments with coming up with a more detailed plan in 120 days about how the new family treatment court model would work, how it would be financed, and how the county could expand the number of providers who could offer services and case management.

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 319 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.