Family Recovery Court readies to launch in Bartholomew County

A new problem-solving court with the goal of eventually reuniting recovering drug addicts with their children could be up and running by the end of this month.

Under development for more than a year, the new Family Recovery Court will be convened under the supervision of Bartholomew County Juvenile Magistrate Heather Mollo.

The final go-ahead from the Indiana Office of Court Services to begin proceedings could be given within a few weeks, Mollo said.

This new court will provide opportunities to parents who suffer from substance abuse, and whose children are involved in Child In Need of Services (CHINS) cases, to engage in an intensive, structured treatment program.

Since more than 80 percent of all CHINS cases in Bartholomew County involve a parent dealing with a drug addiction, most community leaders recognize the potential value of establishing this alternative in Bartholomew County, Mollo said.

Through a collaborative and non-adversarial process, parents with addictions are first provided with a support network of holistic, strength-based services that focus on abilities and potential, the magistrate said. While it’s hoped these services will create a pathway to reunite families, Mollo said the court will hold participating parents accountable through frequent monitoring, evaluations and reviews.

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What studies show

Multiple studies support the conclusion that parents who volunteer for Family Recovery Court take their situations more seriously than other defendants, and stay in treatment longer, Mollo said.

There’s even wider consensus that children raised by a sober and responsible parent are emotionally healthier than those who remain a ward of the state for a lengthy period, said John Nickoll, program director for Advocates For Children.

Quite often, narcotics users who are able to put their addiction behind them discover behaviors and coping skills that allow them to parent in new and better ways, Nickoll said.

As a result, a parents can become positive role models by admitting their addictions and addressing them, Nickoll said.

No parent can be forced to participate in the all-volunteer court, and only CHINS cases that meet a specific criteria are eligible for consideration.

That was recently made clear during a brief outline to the Bartholomew County Council by Circuit Court office manager Tammy Johannesen.

But keeping the initial number of participating parents down is something that has been specifically recommended by a consultant, Mollo said.

Getting started

Since everybody involved will be learning their roles, the initial focus needs to be kept on cultivating quality services, as well as ensuring the ongoing involvement of already assigned case workers and CASA volunteers, Mollo said.

The magistrate said she would like to start out with a maximum of 10 cases, but state officials have told her not to be surprised if only a few families agree to have their cases come before the new court.

“I’m told some parents will be leery of this, and not want to be our guinea pigs,” Mollo said.

But as the program is promoted and encouraged, Mollo anticipates the number of cases will double or triple in a relatively short period of time, she said.

Current statistics show most Indiana counties with an established Family Recovery Court have about 33 cases on their docket.

Policies and procedures for the new evidence-based court have been developed by consultant Pam Clark, a former executive director of Foundation for Youth and the Bartholomew County Youth Services Center.

Several stakeholders have been working with Clark and Mollo over the past year that include law enforcement, treatment providers, school attorneys, public defenders, the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress, and Court-Appointed Child Advocate personnel, Clark said.

In addition, the new court has recruited Cathy Vawter, intake officer with the Youth Services Center, to serve as the part-time coordinator.

The last major step in the court’s creation was taken Jan. 24, when representatives from the Indiana Office of Court Services came to Columbus to discuss and evaluate policies and procedures, Johannesen told the county council.

Although the representatives gave their overall approval, minor procedural tweaks were suggested and are still being ironed out, Mollo said.

Program funding

Funding will be provided through the Indiana Office of Court Services’ Court Improvement Program, which has awarded $27,558 to Bartholomew County in the second year of a three-year funding cycle, Johannesen said.

These grants are intended to improve safety, well-being and permanency outcomes of children and families involved in CHINS cases, as well as Termination of Parental Rights court proceedings, according to a state website.

In addition, the county still has $5,552 left over from the first-year grant that was utilized by the stakeholders primarily for research and development, Johannesen said.

With the exception of about $500 spent last fall for National Adoption Day activities, Mollo said all grant money will be invested into establishing and staffing the Family Recovery Court.

A strong effort will be made in 2018 to establish and maintain statistical records that allow the measuring of results with CHINS cases handled in traditional court proceedings, Johannesen said.

By the end of this summer, Mollo will apply one last time for funding through the Court Improvement Program.

Although the granted amount is expected to be reduced, expenses in 2019 will also be lower, Mollo said.

If the new court can earn state certification, as well as maintain records that provide evidence of effectiveness, other sources within Indiana government can provide longer-term funding, Clark said.

In addiction, efforts are underway to designate the Bartholomew County Family Recovery Court as a 501(c)3 nonprofit charitable organization, which will allow various forms of fundraising opportunities, Clark said.

Problem-solving courts

Both the new Family Recovery Court and the two-year-old Veterans Court in Bartholomew County are classified as “problem-solving courts”.

Designed to place judges at the center of rehabilitation, problem-solving courts attempt to address the underlying problems that contribute to criminal behavior. Judicial authority is used to bring services to a defendant designed to not only address those problems, but also reduce recidivism.

In most problem-solving courts, a defendant’s participation is voluntary – which allows the judge to often impose stricter requirements over a longer period of time than they could in conventional courts.

However, the rendered services and other considerations, including the possibility of reducing a felony conviction to a misdemeanor, have been shown to greatly improved the outcomes of most cases.

Besides Veterans and Family Recovery, other problem-solving courts established in the U.S. include those dealing with teens, drunk driving, inmate reentry, domestic violence, sex offenses and mental health.

Source: The Center for Court Innovation.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at or 812-379-5636.