It is a truth universally acknowledged that Oklahoma is badly in need of criminal justice system overhaul. The state regularly tops the charts for incarceration – and a lot of that is because of drug offenses. One in three people incarcerated in Oklahoma is doing time for a drug offense, and two in three incarcerated women in Oklahoma have “moderate to high need” for substance abuse treatment. There’s hope that serious reform might be on the way, exchanging a system that’s “tough” on crime but woefully ineffectual for one’s that’s leaner and smarter – but a tiny specialty court in Tulsa is already two steps ahead.
Tulsa’s family drug court is a spinoff of your garden variety drug court, a model that uses “the coercive authority of the criminal justice system” to provide rehabilitation rather than incarceration. The family drug court focuses on providing treatment to parents who are struggling with addiction and have lost or are in danger of losing custody of their children as a result. Participants must have a pending civil case filed in Tulsa County District Court alleging that their children are deprived due to issues surrounding substance abuse.
Family drug court curriculum lasts between 18 months and two years. The families work through four phases of rehabilitation (engagement, treatment, community reintegration and independent living) aimed at eventually reunifying parents with children, and the family living independently. In order for a family to participate, treatment must include everyone responsible for the welfare of a child, including “all ‘significant others.’” One of the program’s cohorts, for instance, included a child’s father and mother, and also the father’s mistress.
Family Drug Court is intense. Along with family involvement, the clients are closely supervised, including drug testing and frequent meetings with the Family Drug Court Team. The FDC Team performs an assessment and provides a wide array of services for the client, such as substance abuse treatment, counseling sessions, parenting classes and psychological evaluations – essentially forming a support system around the client as the client progresses through the program. It’s a support system that can outlast the duration of the curriculum: shortly after she graduated the program, one participant’s child was killed in a car accident. The participant recognized that the event could trigger a relapse and reached out to the FDC team to help her stay sober and healthy while she grieved.
For all its intensity, the results are impressive; Tulsa’s FDC has been recognized as one of the best in the country. In its 6 years of operation, 130 families (including 206 parents and 275 children) have graduated from the FDC. Two in every three parents successfully finish the program and are reunified with their children. By comparison, the reunification rate in the state welfare system at large is slightly above 50 percent – and FDC does it in nearly half the time, thus saving the state an estimated $3,711,166 over a three-year period. No child whose family has gone through the FDC has been returned to state custody. And of the 11 infants born to women participating in the FDC, all of them have been born drug-free.
A report on the Tulsa FDC by a research team from the University of Kansas concluded, “…there is clear and compelling evidence that [Tulsa’s FDC] has accrued benefits to multiple human service delivery systems” – but went on to note, “…how these benefits become more fully realized remains in the hands of project and State leadership.” FDC currently has 40 open cases (50 adults, 59 children), and is operating at capacity, its scope limited by available funding. The program’s organizers are currently seeking more funding to sustain current services, and hopefully to expand in the future. As the KU report rhetorically asked after summarizing the Court’s efficiencies: “$3,711,166 in savings in one OK county for a 3 year period – what are the implications for statewide implementation of FDCs?”