Working in the Family Drug Court isn’t easy, but that’s why Polsinelli has committed extensive resources to staff two full-time pro bono attorneys there. Participants’ stories are sad, their addictions and struggles are difficult to overcome, and their legal obstacles are steep, but they are in need of help to improve their lives and provide a future for their families. By being part of the Family Drug Court’s team for over 20 years, Polsinelli attorneys have helped to guide families through a difficult and emotional process towards positive change.
Twenty-five years ago, Jackson County Missouri Circuit Court took a more innovative approach to low-level drug offenders and began one of the first Drug Court programs in the nation. Drug Courts focus on cases involving alcohol or other drug dependency issues, providing sentencing alternatives that include treatment and other therapy-based options. After this program was successful, the Court began the Jackson County Family Drug Court in 1998.
The Family Drug Court serves families that have been referred there, primarily for allegations of child neglect, and typically related to parental drug use and addiction. The goal of the Family Drug Court is to help parents treat and overcome substance abuse issues so families can be reunified and the cycle of abuse can end. The Family Drug Court facilitates this outcome by providing wraparound services with a number of community partners, including drug treatment facilities, mental health providers for parents and children, and medical care for children. To achieve success, the Court works closely with each family to develop a plan that will support a parent’s recovery and provide the resources each parent needs to maintain sobriety.
The Family Drug Court differs from other courts in that it provides holistic services to families and serves a maximum of 110 families at a time. Each family has a team of professionals supporting them, including attorneys, Guardian ad Litems, a juvenile office attorney, the Program Coordinator, social workers, drug treatment professionals, and mental health providers. Families in the program are subject to bi-weekly court appearances to monitor a parent’s progress with their recovery plan, and parents must provide clean urinalysis testing while in Drug Court.
Polsinelli is proud to be a key partner in this program. Over 20 years ago, Polsinelli, stepped up to help these families by providing two full time attorneys who represent indigent parents pro bono in the Family Drug Court and Juvenile Court. Today Polsinelli attorneys, Marina Bell and Teresa Anderson, work with parents every day to achieve the best possible outcome in difficult situations for these families as part of the Family Drug Court Program case team.
Teresa Anderson has worked in the Family Court for 18 years; in that time, she has seen countless families reunified after parents successfully completed their individualized recovery plan.
“I have been privileged to be part of the Jackson County family drug court program,” Teresa says. “I am pleased that our firm has been willing to commit both my position and a second position to this court as I feel that it has given me an opportunity to directly impact the lives of so many people in hopefully a very positive way. I have been able to grow as a person in doing this work.”
At this time, Teresa and Marina are handling a docket of 118 cases between the two of them that address the critical issue of families impacted and often separated by drug use. In 2018 alone, they have worked on 242 cases in the Family Drug & Juvenile Courts.
Marina and Teresa work directly with their clients, most often the parents, to advise them of their legal rights and collaborate with the program’s team to develop the best approach for their clients to achieve stability and success for them and their families. Marina helps her clients deal with the reality and gravity of their situations.
“Our clients come from backgrounds most of us can’t imagine,” Marina explains. “My job includes not only providing legal advice, but also assistance with navigating the world in a safe, sober way. They are making sweeping life changes, and it’s so inspiring to watch them succeed.”
One of the hardest issues in these cases is the impact that a parent’s addiction has on the children. The majority of children in the program have already been removed from their parents and placed in foster care or with family members when the case is referred. Not only are children likely suffering the effects of trauma as a result of the drug abuse and neglect, those removed from their parents suffer an additional trauma by being separated from their parents. To address and assist as best they can with this reality, the Drug Court team is trauma-trained.
“Our program has also worked hard at recognizing the trauma that is inflicted on families when children are removed from their parents, including understanding the trauma that the family may have been undergoing prior to court involvement,” Teresa explains. “In recognizing this aspect of the lives of those we help, we’ve been able to provide better services and acknowledgment to the families in order to help them heal.”
Participation in the Drug Court can change the trajectory of people’s lives, providing resources and support that traditional sentencing options cannot. “The Drug Court Program was tough, but it helped save my life,” says former participant, Julia Foster. “I am a much stronger mother now because of this program. I will be forever grateful for going through Drug Court.”
Director of Pro Bono Services, Michelle Clardy finds the pro bono work in the Family Drug Court critical because she considers families and children to be the foundation of our communities and often are the ones most in need of pro bono services.
“I’m proud of Marina’s and Teresa’s tireless efforts to help parents impacted by substance abuse work to overcome their addiction and be reunified with their children,” Michelle says. “Polsinelli has and continues to make a significant contribution to this program through our pro bono efforts in a way that has a meaningful impact on both these families and the Kansas City community at large.”
The Drug Court Program in Jackson County has received national recognition and awards for its outcomes. Every year since its inception, the Family Drug Court in Jackson County has outpaced the national average for families being reunified and has lower recidivism rates for families returning to the Family Court system. In addition, the Jackson County Family Drug Court earned a distinction from the Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention by being selected as a Peer Learning Court in 2012.
Polsinelli is proud to have been part of the Jackson County Family Drug Court program for over 20 years. Our attorneys’ participation has provided support and hope to many and serves as a great example of how pro bono services can truly change lives.