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Group Aims To Bring Back Family Drug Court — Without State Or Federal Funds

The Indiana Supreme Court is considering a sentence appeal for a man convicted in 2020 of killing and mutilating his ex-girlfriend at her Jeffersonville home.
ONA News Agency/Wikimedia Commons
The Indiana Supreme Court is considering a sentence appeal for a man convicted in 2020 of killing and mutilating his ex-girlfriend at her Jeffersonville home.

In 2010, Kentucky pulled funding for family drug courts, including Louisville’s. This court was for parents who had social services take their children away because of neglect or abuse as a result of addiction.

Instead of going through the process of gaining custody without many supports, the family drug court sent parents through an intense year-long program that included drug rehabilitation, weekly drug testing and eventually job training – all with a case worker to guide them through.

Since then, heroin and prescription opiate use has grown in Kentucky. A state social worker testified last year that there are more children in the foster care system because of the epidemic.

Now, a group is drumming up donations to bring back family drug court — without state or federal funding.

'I probably would have died or gone to prison'

In 2003, Yolanda Coleman wasn’t in a great place. Despite kicking her drug habit in the past, she had relapsed and starting using crack cocaine again. And her 7-year-old son wasn’t happy with his mom. Coleman had stopped helping her son with his homework, and mornings were especially tense because she’d stayed up all night using drugs.

“He was used to things getting better, and they went back to getting worse," Coleman said. "I was getting calls from the school and going to the school.”

Coleman told the school counselor she had relapsed.

“I don’t know who turned me in with {child protective services], but it was an intervention,” she said.

In May 2003, social services came to Coleman's home in the early evening. Two police officers and a social worker took her two children. She was given the option to go to family drug court, though she wasn't familiar with the concept at the time.

Now 56, Coleman has a job working in social services, helping public housing residents with job training and buying a home. The 7-year-old son she lost custody of years ago is now 22. And she has a good relationship with him.

“I probably would have died or gone to prison," Coleman said. "Probably would have some more angry people out here — my son, my daughter.”

Coleman is an example of what Kentucky’s family drug court once did for parents who had substance abuse issues. The program is designed to provide more support to parents who have lost their children because of addiction, making sure they complete the required treatment and court appearances to help them regain custody.

In the past, the family drug court got mixed results: a 2005 evaluation by the University of Kentuckyfound low retention rates. Only one-fifth of people going through family drug courts had graduated, although almost all of those people had been reunited with their kids.

But there were signs of success, too. Almost 90 percent of the graduates were holding down jobs six months after graduation, compared with a baseline of 30 percent.

Family Court Judge Denise Brown will be adding family drug court cases to her docket when the new privately-funded program starts back up next year. She said in the past, people might not have chosen this voluntary option or stayed in the program because of a fear of jail time. That was the common penalty for failing a weekly drug test or not showing up to work.

“There would be no punitive aspects to it, which was a barrier in the previous court," said Brown. "Sometimes people would not volunteer to be in the program, because there was a possibility that they would have to go jail.”

Jail time won’t be used in this new family drug court. Instead, if a participant fails a drug test, judges will use penalties like community service or increased treatment.

Jane Emke is the past-president of the National Council of Jewish Women, and lives in Louisville. She’s the one spearheading fundraising efforts to bring the court back, with one big change: Emke and others are pushing for what they call a "rapid response."

“The sad thing is they’ll have one of these people come into the court and they’ll set a court day for two weeks hence, and the person overdoses before they can even make the court day," Emke said. "And we want to intervene right when they come to the attention because of neglect of their children.”

Through fundraisers, the group has raised enough to support two years of the court, and hopes to get enough for a third year. The money will primarily go toward paying for two case workers who will manage up to 15 cases at a time, which means there will be 30 spots for parents each year.

For Family Drug Court graduate Yolanda Coleman, her success in the program and subsequent sobriety has paid off. She tears up thinking back to how the program changed her relationship with her mom.

“When I started working as a family mentor I had an old Tempo and it broke down on me, and we went out that day and my mother co-signed for a car," Coleman said. "She bought the car — because I didn’t have any credit — for $16,000 and I paid every freaking payment. Wasn’t nobody believing in me like that. That’s a lot of money to say, it’s going to get taken care of.”

And now, Coleman is paying it forward. Last month, she helped her 17-year-old daughter buy a car to get to school and work.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.

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