Milwaukee County Drug Court Committed to Reuniting Families; Giving Addicts Second Chance

May 22, 2018

It may be rare for people seriously affected by substance abuse to get a chance to start over. However, Milwaukee County’s Family Drug Treatment Court is helping families do just that – and has been for several years.

Drug court, veterans court, mental health court… these are just a few examples of the types of specialty, or problem-solving courts, that seek to address specific problems in the justice system on an individual level.

Drug courts emerged in the late 1980s and set a precedent for the others. Funding from the federal government last fall is helping Milwaukee County cope with the opioid crisis.

The money was earmarked for the Family Drug Treatment Court.

“We work with families where the parents have a substance abuse disorder and where the child has been removed from the home because that substance use disorder caused a safety issue in the home, Rebecca Foley explains. She's the treatment court's coordinator.

Foley says it’s a 12- to 18-month program with a “four phase approach to substance abuse treatment.” It starts with a period of detox and recovery, and ends with participants having found a stable home and job, and reintegrating into the community.

Participants must remain active in the program for one year in order to graduate.

The program has proven to be quite successful according to Foley, including in keeping families together. “We are seeing a significant increase of kids going home. The other thing that we see is that when kids go home they stay home in family drug treatment court so there are not a lot of re-detentions or re-entry into the child welfare system at all.”

The court is not criminally based, rather the desired outcome is safety and permanence for the children and healing for the family.

Foley says one reason the process works is that participants work closely with officials and meet with the judge on a weekly basis.

The court’s presiding judge, Joe Donald, says he finds that part rewarding. “I can understand and see just little changes. Changes in their demeanor, changes in how they communicate with the court, changes in how they communicate with other participants or even their own family.”

The weekly meeting, in addition to other support staff, is something Robyn Ellis says helped her find success in the program. “This support system behind me, and it was legal too. I’m going to court every week and I’m sitting in front of a judge and I’m still messing up, but they’re supporting me instead of shaming me."

Ellis graduated from the program in 2014. Just one year earlier, her life was spiraling out of control.

Ellis says the problems began just a few weeks after she gave birth to her daughter. Her mother died, and she started using prescription medication, heavily, to numb the pain. She says she struggled with addiction for a few years, before her family removed her daughter from her home.

“My sister ended up calling CPS and reporting incidences that were going on and, you know, at the time I remember being really, really mad at her for doing that to me, like how could you do that to me, you know felt really betrayed by her. Pretty much after that happened Family Drug Treatment Court got involved," Ellis says.

She  says it took her a while to live up to what the program asked of her. After a 90-day inpatient treatment she relapsed.

It was going 7 months without her daughter that she says she realized she needed to change. She didn’t want to follow the footsteps of her mom, who was an alcoholic. “Looking back and to see what I put my daughter through is really, really difficult because I grew up in that kind of environment so it was like replaying the tapes of when I was young.”

Now, Ellis says, life with her child is amazing. “I’m so grateful and blessed to be sober and alive, have this relationship with my daughter because the bond is, it’s unbreakable. She trusts me today,” she says tearfully.

Ellis is one of many success stories to come out of the specialty court system. However, critics have voiced concerns about the programs, according to Walter Dickey. He's an emeritus professor of law at UW-Madison.

“One worry is that they actually end up widening the net of people who are brought into the criminal justice system that their existence leads to the sort of referral of cases that otherwise be so low level that they wouldn’t merit the system’s attention," he says.

Yet Dickey says the pros work well; people get the treatment they need, and stay out of prison.