Advocates say family drug courts could save Kentucky children, but state support is still limited
Chaly Downs was addicted to heroin and fentanyl when child protective services took custody of her children — an intervention she says should have happened sooner.
“My children weren’t being taken care of,” Downs said. “I can see now that they were really suffering more than I could realize in the state that I was in.”
At the peak of her addiction in 2019, the 37-year-old mother of four found herself praying for help.
Chaly Downs, 37, graduated from Jefferson County’s Family Recovery Court in 2021.
“I just called out to God and I was like ‘I don’t know how you’re going to do it or what you’re going to do, but God,’” she said, “‘please do something.’”
Just two days later, a CPS worker knocked on her door.
Downs was then offered an opportunity that she said saved her and her children’s lives — a spot in Jefferson County’s Family Recovery Court, one of only two programs in the state designed to reunite families and help parents overcome substance misuse. The state’s only other family recovery court is in Clay County in Southeastern Kentucky.
Advocates say family recovery courts — also known as family drug courts — are crucial in protecting children from abuse and neglect, which often go hand in hand with addiction. In fact, nearly half of the Kentucky children who died or were severely injured from maltreatment in 2020 also experienced substance misuse in their homes.
Despite their undisputed effectiveness in protecting children, and even though Kentucky has some of the highest rates of child maltreatment and opioid abuse in the nation, family recovery courts are still not widely available throughout the state.
The state previously funded several family drug courts, but they were eliminated in 2010 due to budget cuts. Now, over a decade later, the state legislature has decided to restore some of this funding — but only in Jefferson County.
And while this revival of state funding, although limited, is a step in the right direction, advocates say funding for these courts should have been available in more counties across the state, especially in a budget year that left $1 billion unspent.
For six years in a row in its annual report, the state Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel has urged the state to expand family recovery courts throughout Kentucky — a recommendation that they say has been largely ignored.
“We need more action,” said Dr. Melissa Currie, a forensic pediatrician and member of the panel since it was created by the Kentucky legislature in 2012. “Long term, family drug court outcomes have shown positive results for parental employment and certainly for reducing child abuse and neglect.”
Experts say benefits outweigh cost
The Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel is charged with reviewing the details of hundreds of severe cases every year that result in the death or life-threatening injury of a child and providing recommendations to the state for preventing such cases.
“The vast majority of our overall cases are considered preventable,” Currie said.
Substance misuse within families continues to be a major risk factor in the child maltreatment cases that the panel reviews. And its annual report shows that families who struggle with substances are also more likely to be dealing with mental health concerns, poverty and domestic violence.
“It needs to be made a priority in order for the funding to show up,” Currie said. “There needs to be a better understanding of the potential benefits of family drug court, in avoiding incarceration of parents and improving the chance that they will get help and will stay clean and sober.”
But with only advisory power, Currie said, there is only so much the panel can do to persuade the state to act. She’s concerned that many of the agencies who are mentioned in these recommendations may not even be reviewing them at all.
“There’s been no requirement or really nothing to compel agencies to look at the report to see what it says,” she said.
To address this issue, the Kentucky legislature passed a bill this week that will require state agencies to respond to recommendations and either communicate plans to implement them or give reasons for why they are reluctant to do so.
The child fatality panel specifically recommends that the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts be responsible for developing a budget proposal for the expansion of family recovery courts. This is the same agency that had to cut them from the budget 12 years ago.
Prior to that, family drug courts were available in several regions throughout the state, including Louisville and Lexington. But in 2010, Kentucky’s judicial branch faced a $7 million budget deficit, resulting in the elimination of many programs that were considered non-essential.
According to former chief judge for the Jefferson County Family Court Patricia Walker FitzGerald, the return of family drug courts are long overdue.
“The legislature has to make a commitment to fund drug courts,” she said. “The traditional ways in which the courts have addressed family issues are not effective. We do too little too late.”
Cindy Kamer, a court liaison for Seven Counties Services who helps oversee the program in Jefferson County, said the cost of implementing family recovery courts throughout the state would be more than worth it long term.
A cost analysis of Jefferson County’s program shows that while it takes around $250,000 to operate, the program is creating significant savings when it comes to the costs of substance-exposed births, out-of-home care for children, jail and probation, emergency room visits and Medicaid.
The result is an overall savings of over $800,000 — and that’s just in Jefferson County.
A trauma-informed approach to recovery
Family recovery courts focus on welfare of abused and neglected children while also providing the support that parents need to address their addiction. The court currently has two judges and partners with state agencies and community organizations to provide resources such as substance use treatment, parenting classes, therapy and assistance with housing, transportation and employment if needed.
Kentucky was without family recovery courts entirely for nearly a decade. Jefferson County’s family recovery court was relaunched in 2019 after the National Council of Jewish Women raised nearly $600,000 to help fund the program.
After several years of advocacy, the court finally secured a spot in the state budget through the Department for Community Based Services. The court will receive $375,000 each year for the next two years, under the budget approved by the General Assembly.
A second court was started in Clay County last year after it received a federal, three-year grant with the help of Volunteers of America. State funding is not currently available for this program.
“Whereas other drug courts are really punitive in nature, we are really focused on a positive reinforcement model, while still holding participants accountable,” said Cindy Kamer, a court liaison for Seven Counties Services who helps oversee the program.
Kamer said the program is also centered around addressing trauma, for both parents and children.
“We recognize that substance use doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and that a parent doesn’t just wake up one day and decide that this is how they want to spend their lives,” she said.
Participants learn how their past experiences have led to their current behaviors, as well as how their current behaviors have created hardships for their children.
“They learn how to help rectify that to ensure that we are not creating this multi generational system of trauma,” Kamer said.
When Chaly Downs was brought into the program in 2019, she had a lot of her own trauma to work through. And she also lived in a household with drug abuse while growing up.
“I’ve been through a lot. And it got to the point where using [drugs] was like you and I breathing air right now,” Downs said. “ You have to have oxygen to stay alive.”
Downs has been sober for over two years now, has a job at Voices of the Commonwealth and has since been granted custody or partial custody of her kids. And they are thriving.
“I cannot go back. My kids are the reasons why I get up and go so hard everyday,” she said. “My main goal is to make sure they have a solid foundation so they can succeed and be better than me.”
The family recovery court model is also different from typical drug courts or CPS cases, because in addition to the 18-month program, they also stay in contact with participants to ensure they are safely transitioning back into parenthood.
“Some of them are parenting sober for the first time in their lives,” Kamer said. “And they don’t always have support in place, because a lot of them have had to cut those off. So we stay involved even after the children are returned.”
According to national data from the Center for Children and Family Futures, parents who participate in family recovery court are twice as likely to complete treatment for addiction and be reunited with their children.
Since 2019, Jefferson County’s program has served over 140 children and has seen 46 of them reunited with their families.
“We know what impact this has in our communities, in particular, when you look at the rates of child abuse and neglect in Kentucky,” Kamer said. “So to be able to cut that even by a small percentage is hugely impactful for us.”
Contact Jasmine Demers at Jdemers@kycir.org.