The Family Drug Treatment Court of Victoria (the FDTC) was established in May 2014 by Magistrate Greg Levine, who had spent years heading the Children’s Court of Victoria – as well as countless hours researching similar family drug court initiatives in the USA and UK.
Since its inception, the Court has helped parents overcome their drug problems and reunited families torn apart by the harmful effects of drug addiction.
A Drug Court with a Difference
Practically, the FDTC bears a number of similarities to the NSW Drug Court: participants are required to attend court regularly, submit to frequent drug testing and participate in treatment programs which may include residential rehabilitation.
But unlike the NSW drug court, which aims to help individuals break the cycle of offending, the Family Drug Treatment Court is entirely family focussed.
The FDTC’s primary focus is family reunification rather than avoiding serving prison time for drug offences; and the program works closely with child protection services and other organisations which provide drug treatment services for families. And while traditional drug courts often impose prison sentences for non-compliance, the FDTC rarely sends people to prison – even if participants fail or withdraw from the program. This is because ‘the focus of intervention is safeguarding the child, not punishing the parent.’
To be eligible, participants must be:
- aged under 21,
- have a child aged between 0 and 3 who is in out-of-home care,
- live in a specified catchment area,
- want to have their children returned to their care, and
- be committed to stopping their drug use and ‘creating a safer, more stable family environment.’
They must also be willing and able to participate in the program, and be prepared to commit to the program for at least 12 months.
Besides these differences, the FDTC has appealing incentives: if a parent successfully completes the program, the Court can make an order that their child, or children, be returned to them.
If a person does not complete the program – but makes significant progress – the magistrate can extend the program for a short period to enable them to complete their goals.
The Magistrate with a Plan for Change
The FDTC is run by Magistrate Greg Levine, who was inspired by similar courts in the United States and United Kingdom.
After years as a Children’s Court Magistrate, Levine was concerned by the fact that 65% of child protection cases involve a parent with drug or alcohol related issues.
Besides the high financial cost of taking kids away from parents, Magistrate Levine saw that displaced kids were more likely to develop behavioural problems and perform poorly at school due to the instability of their situation.
And while their children struggled to adjust to new environments, drug-dependent parents were offered little or no support to overcome their addictions.
After attending several Court hearings in overseas Family Drug Treatment Courts, he published a paper in 2012 highlighting the positive impact that these Courts had in the community.
In particular, he found that:
‘Family Drug Treatment Courts offer a proven structure and set of processes for interrupting the intergenerational harm caused by substance abuse and for giving parents the very best chance to rehabilitate and be reunited with their children.’
He also observed that these courts ‘save money, particularly through the reduced use of foster care.’
He further noted the high success rates associated with such programs, including statistics which indicated that participants were likely to complete the entire program, and that family re-unification rates were 20-40% higher than parents dealt with in the regular court system.
The FDTC has already assisted numerous young parents to regain control of their lives – and reunite with their children.
One of these parents is ‘Jack’, who spoke to the media about his success in recently graduating from the program. Jack had used ice for nine years, and his addiction eventually led to the removal of his two-year-old daughter.
But after 12 months in the program, Jack was able to get his life back on track – and now has sole custody of his daughter.
It is hoped that FDTC will eventually be expanded to other Australian states and territories, including NSW.