Family Drug Treatment Court Review

Wisconsin Lawyer: Family Drug Treatment Court: A Boost to Families in Children’s Court: (

Family Drug Treatment Courts

In the October 2022 issue of the Wisconsin Lawyer, Brown County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Walsh wrote an article on family drug treatment courts. Family drug treatment courts are modeled after other treatment courts that have been successful in helping individuals address their substance abuse through intense services and supervision of the court. Family drug treatment courts specifically address substance abuse and its impact on a parent’s ability to adequately provide for their children. 

In Wisconsin, participants are parents who are subject to a  Child in Need of Protection or Services (CHIPS) order with children placed outside of the home. The parent participants would work with a team of various individuals, such as a judge, attorneys, a prosecutor, child welfare caseworkers, a guardian ad litem, coordinators, and other relevant treatment providers. This team helps the parents become not only sober and crime-free but also supports the parents in achieving the ultimate goal of reunification with their child(ren). 

Generally, children placed in out-of-home placements due to substance abuse stay in out-of-home care for the longest period of time and have the lowest chance of reunification, but Judge Walsh highlights that early research in family drug treatment courts has shown that the support from these courts results in better outcomes and shorter and fewer out-of-home placements for the children. Milwaukee County was the first in Wisconsin to implement a family drug treatment court, and data indicates that it has resulted in a higher rate of family reunification than non-participants (41% compared to 28%).  

Brown County began Family Recovery Court, its own family drug treatment court, in 2020. Judge Walsh described some of the obstacles the Brown County Family Recovery Court faced as it was starting out, such as how to effectively hold participants accountable when, unlike in other treatment courts, the participants were not on probation supervision and subject to stayed jail time. Brown County struggled with whether or not to accept parents facing criminal charges, but it recently restructured the program to serve two populations: “people sentenced into the program on probation and people participating without criminal repercussions.”

Judge Walsh is optimistic about the Brown County Family Recovery Court, and I am too.  This alternative program provides additional supervision and support to individuals who could benefit from it.  Additional supervision does not work for everybody, and family drug treatment courts are not a one-size-fits-all solution, but this program allows parents a choice to participate with the local agencies in the conventional manner or apply for the Family Recovery Court.  

I believe an especially important feature of these courts is the multidisciplinary approach they take.  The team includes representatives that cover the criminal justice system, the child welfare system, representatives for the children, treatment professionals, and other agencies as needed.  Many times, there is a disconnect when parents are dealing with the child welfare system one day and the criminal justice system the next. There are questions of how one case will affect the other, or how to address a criminal sanction while meeting the needs of their children. Having everyone in one place to consider the needs of every system will hopefully lead to greater efficiency and understanding of all factors in a given situation.  

Parents in Brown County who are facing a CHIPS order due to substance abuse may want to ask their attorney or caseworker about the Family Recovery Court.