Letter to the editor: Marion Co. should reconsider closing family recovery court

To the editor:

Thank you for Indiana Lawyer’s article on the planned closure of Marion County’s Family Recovery Court, “Confusion, dismay over decision to close Family Recovery Court.” The comments made for the article by a former judge of family recovery court, a public defender social worker and an FRC graduate and recovery coach evidence, from each of their unique perspectives, the value of the family recovery court program. I don’t understand why Marion Superior Court is terminating a valuable program 18 months before the grant funding for it would end. I’m concerned that Judge Amy Jones’ comments may have left some readers with a misimpression that the program was poorly designed. I believe FRC can and should be improved instead of terminated. I urge the judges of the executive committee of the Marion Superior Court to reconsider their decision to close FRC.

Until recently, I was a public defender representing parents in child in need of services and termination of parental rights cases in Marion County. I’ve had many clients participate in FRC and share their experiences of it with me. Anna Chaney, who spoke eloquently in the article about the impact FRC had in her life, is one of my former clients. I saw Anna fight hard for her sobriety and make profound and lasting changes in her own life and the life of her daughter. It took courage for Anna to share her story in this paper and give me permission to discuss my representation of her in this letter. Anna says in the article that FRC saved her life, and her decision to share her story proves how important FRC was to her.

I’m familiar with FRC’s model and design because I served as the PD representative to FRC for its first several years. With court representatives and other stakeholder representatives, I went to national conferences, visited other courts and participated in many hours of discussion about various models of family treatment courts and which was the best fit for Marion County. The combined efforts of the court and the stakeholders in 2010 ensured FRC was an evidence-based program that worked.

If the court closes FRC on March 31, as it plans to do, it will be choosing to forgo money pledged by the federal government to help Indianapolis parents recover from addiction and reunite their families. FRC has been funded for years by a federal grant that was most recently renewed in 2018 for five more years. The court could continue to operate FRC for 18 months under the current grant. If the court terminates FRC before the end of the grant period, it will default on its obligations under the grant and forfeit the available funds.

The amount of potential reimbursement the court is choosing to give up is significant. Marilyn Odendahl’s reporting revealed that the current grant allows the court to seek up to $414,704 per year in reimbursement for FRC program costs. That means the court’s decision to terminate FRC is a choice to leave up to $622,000 in federal dollars on the table.

Judge Amy Jones told Odendahl that the court intended to “see if there’s a better way to do” a family recovery court in Marion County in the future, but the court’s decision to terminate this grant is likely to limit the court’s ability to obtain funding for any replacement dependency court. If the court instead uses the remaining grant funding to strengthen the program, I believe FRC would help many more parents and families.

I don’t know anything about the court’s reasons for withdrawing from the grant other than what I read in Indiana Lawyer. I haven’t been involved with FRC since I left the PD agency in November 2021 to join the Direct Representation Program of Child Advocates. I do know, however, that FRC has a sound model and a solid foundation for addressing any issues it currently faces.

The court cited “dwindling participation” as one reason it decided to close FRC. I know that the pandemic challenged FRC by making it much harder to identify potential participants and build trust with those who chose to participate. I believe the court’s transition in 2021 to a family court model may also have affected FRC enrollment. I don’t know whether the court has taken any steps to increase enrollment; if it has, I’m not aware of them.

In the article, Judge Amy Jones said FRC did not “fit within the model” of what an evidence-based family treatment court looks like. I respectfully disagree with the judge’s assessment. Multiple models of family treatment courts have been found to be effective. Because each jurisdiction’s child welfare law and practice are different, the right model for one court might not work for another.

As a condition of continuing its grant, FRC was required to be evaluated on a regular basis by independent experts. The Office of Court Services certified FRC as a problem-solving court and regularly assessed its functioning in the certification process. If any of those evaluations or reviews identified serious systemic problems with FRC, I’m not aware of them. It’s telling that FRC has renewed its grant several times and that its certification by OCS is current.

One aspect of FRC’s model that Judge Amy Jones specifically identified as problematic is that it is voluntary, not ordered by the CHINS court. There are other courts that operate on a voluntary basis, and some in which participants are ordered to complete the program. Both types of programs have shown to have measurable impacts on outcomes.

According to the article, Judge Amy Jones said she thinks voluntary recovery courts don’t hold participants sufficiently accountable, and Judge Mark Jones disagreed, arguing that voluntary courts do hold participants accountable. I was able to find one of the process evaluation reports of FRC on the internet, from 2014 (https://npcresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/MCFDTC-Site-Visit-Report-December-2014-final.pdf). The report supports Judge Mark Jones’ position — the investigator commended FRC for holding participants accountable.

Another conclusion of the same report was that FRC “follows drug court best practices as well as recommendations for family drug courts.” If the voluntary nature of FRC’s program did not put it out of compliance with best practices in 2014, and that aspect of the program has not changed, what new concern has arisen? Has additional research over the last eight years shown greater benefit from programs that order compliance instead of making participation voluntary? If so, I would hope that the court could change that aspect of the program without destroying FRC entirely.

Finally, the investigator who evaluated the program in 2014 found that “(p)articipants love the program and feel it is helpful to them.” I believe my former clients who told me that FRC changed their lives. I hope the court finds a way to give more parents the opportunity to benefit from it.•

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-Andrea K. Marsh
Indianapolis

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