Family treatment courts debut in drug-ravaged West Virginia

Boone County Circuit Judge William Thompson is shown in his chambers Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, in Madison, West Virginia. Thompson spoke during the opening of a family drug treatment court, which is aimed at protecting children while helping parents who are facing the loss of custody to overcome substance abuse disorders. (AP Photo/John Raby)

By JOHN RABY Associated Press
MADISON, W.Va. (AP) — Drug-ravaged West Virginia has opened its first family treatment court aimed at protecting abused and neglected children while helping parents facing the potential loss of custody to overcome substance use disorders.
The court’s debut at the Boone County Courthouse in Madison was celebrated Monday. Family treatment courts also will open in Ohio and Randolph counties.
Boone County Circuit Judge William Thompson is heavily involved in helping people addicted to drugs turn their lives around. He runs a court for both adult and juvenile drug offenders and envisioned the idea of a family treatment court a decade ago.
Thompson said the new court’s goal is keeping families together. He said similar programs in Ithaca in upstate New York and in Orange County, North Carolina, were studied to see how family treatment courts work in rural areas.
Thompson said the court will intervene after an abuse and neglect petition has been filed involving drug-addicted parents who have not yet lost permanent custody.
Drug cases have overwhelmed West Virginia’s court system. In a state of 1.8 million residents, more than 30,000 people are in drug treatment in West Virginia, which has by far the nation’s highest drug overdose death rate.
As the state grapples with the addiction epidemic, the number of children under state foster care has swelled to about 6,900, up more than 60% from 2015.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Beth Walker said nearly one-third of the appeals heard by the court involve child abuse and neglect.
“It’s a pervasive issue,” Walker said. “We know that there are more children in foster care. It’s a reality. It’s part of the addiction crisis. But everything that we can do to maybe change that outcome, to maybe find a way for those kids to return to their parents, that’s what the family treatment courts are all about.”
The Legislature approved the new court in March. Participation by families is voluntary.
“We’re going to mandate, encourage, twist their arm, whatever it might be, to get them to participate in recovery,” Thompson said. “Because most people don’t wake up each morning wanting to be a drug addict. Most people don’t want to wake up each morning giving up their kids. But we have to give them the tools.”
Those tools might include counseling in areas such as mental health, substance abuse recovery groups, parenting, finances and career-related support.
Not every instance will have a happy ending.
“I hope that every case that comes through here is going to work,” Thompson said. “I know that’s not going to be the case. I know there are going to be people who fail. There’s people who fail in adult drug court and there are people who fail in juvenile drug court. I learned from the failures. But we’re going to celebrate the successes.
“Right now our ratio of actually fixing families is very poor. (But) every time we fix a family, that’s another child that doesn’t lose their mom and dad. That’s another child that’s going to grow up in a home where somebody will actually be able to take care of them as opposed to being placed in the foster care system.”