Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Problem Solving Courts Are Effective But Limited Due To Underfunded Treatment Resources. 

In the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children, and the Courts Student Fellows Program class, we have learned about a variety of problem solving courts in Maryland.  One recent creation are drug treatment courts, which in Maryland began under former Chief Judge Robert M. Bell’s administration.  The court was created from the perspective that a collaborative, problem solving effort between departments, with oversight for accountability, would help reduce addiction-driven crime and drug use.  Drug treatment courts throughout Maryland now assist criminal defendants charged with non-violent crimes through rehabilitative methods instead of punishment.  
One of the many experiential learning opportunities offered through the Student Fellows Program class was ability to  observe the collaboration in a drug treatment court.  As a clinical social worker, my prior professional experience fostered preconceived notions of drug treatment courts that were relatively accurate.  I believed courts were not likely to order evaluations without a defendant’s prior consent to treatment, as this would be deemed expending unnecessary resources without commitment to follow through.  Yet, defendants who are entangled in the disease of addiction and the reality of current criminal charges can feel pressure to commit to treatment without specifics on type, duration, location, or treatment expectations, only later to decide the punitive option is more suitable for them.  Further, treatment resources are limited, resulting in treatment history and funding being a priority over an individual’s needs.  This can be very frustrating for case workers, individuals, and families attempting to deal with the disease of addiction, where the potential for relapse is known to be part of managing treatment expectations.  At the same time, courts do not have the authority to order private treatment facilities to contractually accept an individual, and state funded residential treatment resources are extremely limited.  Thus, individuals desperate for help frequently find themselves in limbo.  It often takes time to find a drug treatment program that will accept an individual who has a long history of treatment, limited personal funding, and a negative outlook or attitude toward treatment. This leaves courts to constantly balance complex individual needs with resource demands, availability, and policies. 
Specifically noteworthy to me during my observation of a Baltimore City drug treatment court were two defendants.  One who was sitting in front of me had made remarkable progress but with great struggles.  He appeared to be invested in the drug treatment court model and concerned with other defendants who were currently facing adversity in their treatment progress.  It was obvious the drug treatment court model had paid dividends in his life.  Then, more specifically, I vividly recall a defendant who appeared before the court with a “recommendation” “requiring” residential treatment, yet the planning quickly shifted to an outpatient treatment plan when a lack of funding for inpatient treatment was revealed.  What were the court’s options for this defendant?  Should he remain detained awaiting necessary, available, residential treatment, or for should he be released to an outpatient program and try to manage this option?  Neither plan seemed viable, but the court ultimately discharged this defendant to outpatient treatment. 

These complicating factors can easily turn a collaborative effort into finger pointing, especially if the plan in place results in individual or community harm.  In reality courts, departments, agencies, and staff generally are doing the best they can with resources available.  Accordingly, my drug treatment court observation confirmed for me the immediate need for legislative action to significantly increase funding for mental health treatment, encompassing substance abuse, as a top priority.  Underfunding results in insufficient treatment resources and often leads to increased recidivism, resulting in a higher cost to society.  Funding for preventive measures has always been more cost-effective in the long term than reactive measures.  Yet, as a nation, we still let crises trigger change.  Why?  When sufficient funding is available to advances more effective resources for individuals in need, such as drug treatment courts and other problems solving court models, the outcomes for individuals and families are greater, all to the betterment of our communities and our nation.

Monday, October 27, 2014

They Fight For Us, Can We Show the Same Respect? A Call for Veterans Courts in Maryland

            In 2012, there were over 1 million American soldiers in active duty across the world.[1] Luckily this number has dramatically decreased in the recent years, but that leaves the United States with a growing number of veterans returning from war trying to readjust to civilian life. Veterans have to deal with the tragedies that they witnessed while serving their country, and most fail to seek any help to deal with what they experienced. Issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder and substance abuse are common problems faced by these returning veterans. These problems have been linked to increased criminal behavior, landing a number of our veterans in our criminal justice system. The men and women who were brave enough to fight for our country now face time in prison.

To combat this threat of prison, Judge Robert Russell developed the first Veterans Court in Buffalo, New York, in 2008.[2] Veterans Courts are problem-solving courts aimed at helping veterans deal with psychological problems resulting from war, while still holding the veteran accountable for the criminal behavior. In areas that have Veterans Courts, veterans who enter the criminal justice system have the option to accept treatment from Veterans Courts. Once accepted into the VC treatment program, the adversarial roles of the attorneys dissolve, and the parties become a team focused on helping the veteran. The team develops a plan of treatment, including mental health counseling, substance abuse counseling, and help with employment, housing, and education. The veteran is also paired with a peer mentor who can help the veteran deal with problems that are unique to serving in active combat. The judge leads the treatment team and ensures that the veteran is following the treatment. The whole process is individualized for each veteran and looks for a holistic approach incorporating a wide array of services.[3] Everyone on the team is focused on helping the veteran succeed through the program and get the necessary help he/she needs.

While the concept of Veterans Courts is still relatively new, the impact of the courts has been favorable. For example, in Pennsylvania, those participating in the Veterans Court program had a recidivism rate of one percent.[4] Similarly in New York, veterans had a recidivism rate of 40 percent when not in a veterans treatment program, and that number dropped to 6 percent for those veterans who completed the treatment program.[5]

Maryland has approximately 476,000 veterans residing in the state today.[6] In 2012, Governor Martin O’Malley approved a task force to research the effectiveness of Veterans Courts.[7] The task force strongly recommended a pilot program for Veteran Courts in Maryland, and a Veterans Court should start in 2015 in Prince George’s County.[8] Unfortunately, this is all dependent upon funding. While funding is a problem for all programs across the state, I believe that this program is so beneficial for the veterans across Maryland that this program needs to get started so veterans can get the help they deserve. These people have put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms.  We should be able to provide necessary services to help veterans return to civilian life.

[1] https://www.vetfriends.com/us-deployments-overseas/index.cfm
[2] Hon. C. Phillip Nichols Jr., Veterans Courts: A New Concept for Maryland, 47 Md. B.J. 43, 44 (2014)
[3] See generally Nichols, supra note 2; http://justiceforvets.org/sites/default/files/files/Ten%20Key%20Components%20of%20Veterans%20Treatment%20Courts%20.pdf
[4] Nichols, supra note 2, at 49.
[5] Id.
[6] Id. at 44.
[7] Beth Totman, Seeing the Justice System Through a Soldier’s Eyes: A Call to Action for Maryland to Adopt a Veterans Treatment Court System, 16 J. Health Care L. & Pol’y 431, 434 (2013).
[8] Nichols, supra note 2, at 46.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Family Law Attorney Panel Discussion

This semester through my participation in the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children, and the Courts Student Fellows Program, I was able to meet a panel of successful and enthusiastic Maryland family law attorneys. The panel of attorneys was able to provide insight into their experiences in a career field where their work often does not receive the recognition and praise that it deserves. The attorneys provided unique perspectives into their journeys to the practice of family law and useful words of wisdom. Some always knew that they wanted to practice family law, while others began practicing in other areas of law until family law chose them. Each panel member added valuable perspectives to the discussion, and it was a breath of fresh air and reassurance for me as a second-year law student with a passion to help others through child advocacy and family law.
From the panel discussion, I also gained a better understanding of how family law attorneys dedicate their careers to advocate for broken families and how they often meet their clients at the lowest points in their lives. Seemingly for some clients, the attorneys are a lighthouse in a hopeless sea of never-ending issues, including domestic violence, poverty, child custody, and divorce. The attorneys transform their clients’ lives and provide them with the peace of mind that they will work for them to resolve their issues. I listened as the panel described how they work long hours but expressed just how rewarding it is to impact the life of someone else in a way that is life-changing, whether it is helping a distraught woman get out of an abusive marriage or assist a deserving parent to gain custody of their children during a nasty divorce. I walked away from the panel feeling empowered and enthusiastic about the career path that I chose and with a better understanding of the importance of the work of family law attorneys.
Whenever I express my interest in becoming a family law attorney to others, the usual response I receive is “Why? You will not make any money.” Through this panel discussion and my experiences in child advocacy and family law thus far, I am persuaded that there is no way to put a price on the ability to make a substantial difference in the lives of children and families in crisis.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Dealing with Feelings of Inadequacy in the Truancy Court Program

Each week, law students involved in the University of Baltimore School of Law Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts Truancy Court Program (TCP) discuss at the weekly team meeting each of our TCP student’s cases and the deeper issues that students may be experiencing that result in truancy.  This past week one of my fellow law school classmates bravely expressed that he feels inadequate to help the TCP students.  We see these students once a week for an hour, and we talk about their goals, problems, and possible solutions, but is it helping?  My classmate’s comment struck me because it’s a feeling I have from time to time.  Some of the TCP students have issues that are hard to find solutions to, including illnesses in the family, poverty, and overcrowded houses.  In these situations, what can we as law students do?  One of my TCP student’s mothers was diagnosed with cancer, which required the student to miss school a few times last year.   Situations like that are problematic because there is no quick and easy solution.  Even with the “simpler” issues, such as being disruptive in class or poor grades, we direct the TCP students to coach classes and encourage them to get help.  Nonetheless, there is always the lingering feeling that the work we do for the TCP students is not helping them.

I find myself not only wanting the TCP students to end their truant behavior, but I also want them to become scholars and leaders in their community--especially with the group of TCP students I have at Reginald F. Lewis High School.  I see so much potential in these students and would love to see them achieve their short-term and long-term goals.  Realistically, however, I understand that the students face so many hurdles, some of which are beyond the reach of my ability to assist.   It’s a good feeling when we see the TCP students absorbing what we say in our one-on-one meetings at the TCP sessions, but I struggle with the thought, what happens when we leave?

In response to my classmate’s comment in our meeting, one of the TCP staff members simply stated, “We help the students more than we know.”  It is so easy to feel as though you are not doing enough because some of the tougher problems are not solved immediately.  I didn’t take time to consider, however, that my presence is helpful.  For some of these students, the TCP provides the support and attentiveness they do not receive anywhere else.  That statement put things in perspective for me.  Nothing great is achieved overnight, and you never know how your actions may be positively affecting another person.  Naturally, I still want the TCP students to end their truancy and achieve their goals, but I understand that things take time and that my help is not in vain.  I look forward to continuing my work with the TCP because it is a huge step in the right direction for the students involved.