The Florida Bar

Florida Bar News

Drug courts help keep families together

Assistant Editor Regular News

Drug courts help keep families together

Amy K. Brown
Assistant Editor

“I’m very proud of you” is not something you usually hear a judge say to a defendant in court. . . but this isn’t your usual court.

On a typical Friday in Circuit Judge John Parnham’s Pensacola Family-Focused Parent Drug Court, women approach a podium in front of the judge to talk about staying off drugs in order to keep custody of their children.

“I feel myself falling,” one woman says tearfully, with her head down. She is dressed sloppily today, disheveled and dirty. She fears she may relapse into using drugs. And when she uses drugs, she knows she’ll abuse drugs and stay high rather than care for her children. She doesn’t want the court to take her kids away again.

“I don’t want to see you fall back into that rut. We’re here to help you.” Judge Parnham offers words of encouragement to guide her through this tough period. Despite her tears, the woman smiles.

“I’m tired — really tired. Is this what raising kids is really like?” another woman asks the judge. “It used to be, in times like this, that I would start using again. Now, I call my counselor.”

Before her involvement with Dependency Drug Court, after several failed attempts at staying off drugs, after decades of abusing drugs and alcohol, the woman was called an “unfit mother” and had her four children taken away from her. She was locked in jail, away from her children, helplessly stuck in the revolving door of despair.

But now, she has a lifeline to grab onto in Dependency Drug Court, where court professionals and social workers hope to keep her clean from drugs so she can reclaim her children and learn how to be a good mother.

Rather than adding different types of specialty courts to combat the problem of families broken up by drug abuse, two circuits in Florida have expanded already-existing courts and combined two previously unrelated courts.

Dependency Drug court (DDC), which has burgeoned in Miami-Dade and Pensacola, is a combination of dependency court and drug court. Run by a drug court judge, but still a part of civil court, DDC helps drug-addicted parents conquer their addiction and be reunited with their children.

This is not only a new system for the clients, who often have spent years cycling in and out of the regular dependency court, failing several treatment programs, and risking permanent termination of their parental rights. This is also new for the judges.

“For the judge, [DDC] is an emotional roller coaster,” said Judge Parnham. “In the drug court, you’re afforded the opportunity to invest yourself personally in these clients. A very unique relationship develops between the judge and the client. You kind of ride the roller coaster with the client. When the client’s doing great, you just feel great. And when they relapse, you just relapse with them emotionally.”

Judge Parnham, the founding and current presiding judge at Pensacola’s DDC, formed the state’s first DDC in 1996 by taking the drug court model and applying it to dependency issues. He describes the basis of his program as “therapeutic jurisprudence,” a concentration on the law’s impact on emotional life and psychological well-being, which regards the law itself as a social force that often produces therapeutic and anti-therapeutic consequences.

“Our whole focus is supporting the client and helping them change their lives,” Parnham said.

Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen, the presiding judge at Miami-Dade’s DDC, agrees.

“You do form relationships you wouldn’t otherwise form with the parents in front of you,” she said. “The parent becomes very co-dependent on the court to stay clean and get their kids back. You want the parent to please the court, but at some point, you have to break that co-dependent relationship and make the parent move into a self-reliant phase.”

Despite the emotional strain involved, both judges agree the success of the program is well worth the risk. The parental relationship formed between judge and client is just part of the recovery process, they said.

“I’m convinced that for these women to have a chance, with their histories of being victimized and all the problems they have, there has to be some type of interior change for them to have a chance for sobriety,” Parnham said.

“Part of that is that they start to understand their sense of worth, of dignity as a human being. The traditional system doesn’t give them an opportunity. My role is to try to instill in them that sense of dignity and self-worth. It’s a very non-traditional judicial approach.”

“Our whole push is holistic.. . . The concentration is on parenting, family therapy, treatment, and mental health,” Cohen said.

DDCs are similar to many other specialty courts in that they seek to correct the root of a problem, which in this case is drug abuse. Judges have conservatively estimated that 70 to 75 percent of the neglect cases that come before them are related to a parent’s addiction to alcohol or controlled substances.

The legal tools available to most courts — reunification of families, placement of children in foster care, termination of parental rights, adoption — often fall short in resolving the underlying issues that initially brought the family to court. That’s where DDCs step in with their holistic approach. They help prevent children from languishing in foster care for years. They help bring families back together through parent education and drug treatment. They help motivate drug-addicted parents to stop the cycle of abstinence and abuse for good.

The 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act has given these courts a difficult task by setting firm deadlines. As a result of Florida’s version of the legislation, Chapter 39 of the Florida Statutes, parents within the dependency system have about a year to show they’re capable of reuniting with their children before all parental rights are terminated. And when dealing with a cyclical problem like substance abuse, time limits can make the judge’s job even harder, Parnham said.

Both Cohen and Parnham sit on the state Supreme Court’s Treatment-based Drug Court Steering Committee, which has proposed additions to Chapter 39 outlining a judge’s right to request substance abuse assessments during dependency proceedings for people requesting custody of a child, allowing a judge to require and oversee treatment for people requesting custody of a child, and defining precisely what steps the judicial system must take to make DDCs a viable system throughout the state. The propositions will be addressed in the next legislative session.


For years, Pensacola relied on a voluntary treatment regimen for drug-addicted mothers in dependency court.

“You’d have mothers who would have multiple children and who were addicted. The way we dealt with it, historically, is we’d take the children away and line up some treatment services for the parent. Most of them, initially, would probably do pretty well in treatment, and they’d complete the treatment and get ready to be reunified with the child. Then they’d relapse, and we’d take the children away,” Parnham said. “That cycle repeated itself oftentimes. When we would get to the point where we had to decide whether to terminate the parental rights permanently, the mother was inevitably doing well in treatment.”

To combat this never-ending cycle, Parnham created the first DDC in 1996.

“What this drug court did was come in and change the cycle. We developed a treatment protocol that was for a year. We use intensive treatment, intensive accountability, random urinalysis, weekly court appearances, and incentives and sanctions in order to motivate the clients to permanently change their lifestyle.”

Parnham said he is confronted with DDC’s success on a daily basis.

At a recent hearing, a mother of eight children came before Parnham. Seven of her children had been permanently removed from her care because of her drug addiction, and her parental rights to the children had been terminated. At the time of the hearing, she still had custody of her eighth child, an 18-month-old baby with Down’s syndrome. The woman had been through four or five different treatment programs without any long-term success. But after a year-long stint with DDC, the Department of Children and Families terminated protective services on the eighth child.

“I thought to myself, ‘What a wonderful comparison between when you have drug court and when you don’t,’” Parnham said.

These are the people Pensacola’s DDC targets — addicted women who have been in the system for an extended period of time.

Miami-Dade’s DDC targets a different group of women — those at the “front end” who are just entering the system.

“When I first started, I did take mothers in at the ‘back end.’ I still have a few mothers who have lost other children and are still holding on to one child,” said Cohen. “I found that with cases that have been in the system for a long time, some of the mothers are successful, but not a lot of them are.

“What we’ve decided is if there’s substance abuse alleged in the [dependency] petition, we’ll refer them on day one to drug court. We can get their services in place and monitor them,” she said.

Though their target groups may be different, the 11th Circuit and Pensacola have the same goals in mind.

“People who have been using drugs for a long time function a certain way,” Cohen said. “We’re not just making sure their urine is clean; we’re changing the whole way they live their lives. We’re trying to break the cycle of addiction and violence.”

It’s very easy to tell which women have been in the program the longest, according to Parnham. As the women move through the DDC process, and as they gain necessary self-esteem, they begin to take care of themselves and their appearance — a very visible change that shows how well the program works.

Everyone involved agrees the success of DDCs relies heavily on teamwork.

“If you have a judge who cares, the judge has taken the entire system — prosecutor, defense attorney, and treatment providers — and you have a team pulling for success. If the client begins to stray, the system has the ability to say, ‘Oops, not so fast.’ That’s an attention-getter,” said Jim McDonough, director of the Florida Office of Drug Control Policy. “You have the whole system enthusiastic about the success of a client. It’s an excellent mix. The data shows we have something like a 75 or 80 percent success rate. The best treatment besides that may get you 60 percent, but, in actuality, it’s closer to 50 percent.”

Parnham is careful to warn incoming clients that drug court will not be easy, but he also says, “If you’re serious about recovery and you want the best opportunity to do it, this is the best program out there.”

“In a system that involves local agencies, a lot of times, things are uncoordinated and gaps are created,” said Parnham. “In the [dependency] drug court, through our partnerships, and our collaborations, and the intense judicial oversight, we eliminate those gaps and make sure the system functions appropriately, which, in the long run, ensures child safety, helps family preservation, and certainly helps the client.”

Dr. Paul Rollins, director of caseworkers for Department of Children and Families’ Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health in Pensacola, sees how much better the various players in the system work together to reach the common goal of reuniting children with their mothers.

“This is a program that looks holistically at someone’s needs. Just because they’re in drug court doesn’t mean that the whole myriad of things they come into the system with are not addressed,” said Dr. Rollins. “That holistic look at the client, the supervision, and the accountability are the essential things that bring everyone together. It forces organizations that didn’t always see things on the same page to work together toward a common purpose.”

Judge Cohen agrees.

“If I didn’t have this intervention center, I couldn’t do it,” she said. “The dedicated staff, and certainly the judicial oversight, and the collaboration of all the different services make the program work. We have a nurse on staff to take care of their medical needs. We have very strong collaborative relationships that work very closely with the client. That’s what we can most attribute our success to.”

The 11th Circuit has developed an intricate relationship with the Linda Ray Intervention Center and the Village Twin Lakes Outpatient Center, both of which provide DDC clients with a wide variety of counseling services. Cohen relies on the intervention center’s “Strengthening Families” program, funded by local, state, and federal grants, to teach her clients how to be better parents.

“The parents learn the developmental stages of children so they respond appropriately to their children’s behavior,” said Lynne Katz, program administrator at the intervention center. “Strengthening Families is different from other parenting programs that have typically been used in courts. It’s an interactive parenting program where the clinicians teach the parents about parenting, but the clinicians also witness the interactive play between the parent and child, so they have an idea how the parents utilize the lessons they’ve learned.”

Clinicians from the intervention center meet weekly with Judge Cohen to discuss the progress of families in DDC. A second program open to clients, “Ages and Stages,” is a developmental screening measure to test whether the children from birth to three-years-old in the DDC system are suffering developmental delays.

“We look to see if the child is developing more slowly than normal in areas like emotional and physical development or their ability to take care of themselves,” said Katz. “If we find that a child is not doing those developmental activities, the child is eligible for early intervention services. Our program provides those interventions. There’s a seamless process that happens.”

The developmental delays are not necessarily a direct result of parents’ drug use, Katz said. For children born to a substance-abusing mother, “there is a whole set of risk factors that will impact on their development. Children born into these families are often on a negative trajectory, in terms of development. They come from environments that cannot support their needs.”

Pensacola’s treatment providers — the Lakeview Center and the Women’s Transitional Center — focus more closely on keeping the parents off drugs, according to Parnham, but parental education is definitely a strong component.

“As the mother demonstrates an ability to stay clean, develops appropriate parenting skills, and so forth, it’s not uncommon to have the family reunited prior to graduation,” he said.

Parnham’s court doesn’t have the same level of funding or treatment services Cohen has access to, but he’s working on it.

“We need family intervention specialists to work with parents during reunification, and we need a facilitator to talk about the mechanics of clients’ case plans,” he said.

Pensacola does have several innovative treatment programs, such as gender-specific and gender-sensitive treatment, and providers in the area have branched out to work with religious organizations. Several clients in Pensacola’s DDC participate in a local African-American church choir for spiritual support.

In the future

In Judge Parnham’s court, since its inception in 1996, 134 children have been reunified with 48 parents. Parnham also estimates nine clean babies have been born while the mother participated in the program.

As of October 2000 — little over a year after its inception — Cohen’s court boasted 50 kids reunited with 13 parents.

Cohen’s Miami-Dade court has been chosen as one of three demonstration sites by the Center for Substance Abuse and Treatment, and both Judge Cohen’s and Judge Parnham’s courts serve as “Host Family Drug Court Sites” for the Drug Court Planning Initiative Family Project, sponsored by the Drug Courts Program Office, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, in collaboration with the National Drug Court Institute and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

“Almost every other week we’ll have judges coming in,” she said, to observe a successful DDC in action.

Judge Parnham is ready not only to expand the reach of DDCs to other areas of the state, but also to incorporate the format of DDCs into other areas of the judicial system.

“I think we can take some of the knowledge that we’ve gained in [DDC] and expand it into the traditional system,” he said. “I, personally, think that every dependent client ought to be treated like the drug court treats them — where the system is held accountable, the individual is held accountable, the resources are there, there’s monitoring by the court, and so forth. Our goal, quite frankly, is to change the whole system to make it more in line with the drug court experience, because we’re getting better results.”

But it’s going to be up to the legislature to fund it, said Parnham.

“We’ve got to demonstrate to the legislature and the public that this is cost-effective, this is public safety-enhancing, the results are better, and the community benefits, and then we’ve got to convince the legislature to support it financially,” he said. “I can defend what we do from any perspective — law enforcement, public safety, therapeutic, rehabilitative — and I can show you, in our particular approach, how we do it better than the traditional system.”

Overall, Florida’s judiciary is very receptive to these non-traditional methods, said Parnham and Cohen, but some of their peers believe the system is too nonadversarial and hands-on.

To that, Judge Cohen said, “I don’t really give a damn. I know what I’m doing works.”

News in Photos