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Dunn County will begin a program in 2019 that county leaders hope will keep more families together and children out of foster care.

The county’s Criminal Justice Collaborating Council hopes to accept its first family into the new Family Treatment Court program this summer.

The program aims to help treat parents who struggle with addiction or mental health, and prevent their children from being placed in foster care or shorten their stay.

Eligible parents will have children and be dependent on methamphetamine, opioids or alcohol, said Dunn County Department of Human Services director Kris Korpela. Parents may have a history of trauma, need housing or have a child with special needs.

The process will begin when the county investigates a family after a referral from the Department of Human Services. If children aren’t safe — or immediately at risk — the county files a court action, Korpela said.

That’s where Family Treatment Court comes in.

“We’ll also say to the family: We have an alternative,” Korpela said. “In addition to the traditional process, we’d like to offer you involvement in the Family Treatment Court.”

Parents will meet with the Family Treatment Court team weekly or biweekly. Parents may undergo treatment, drug and alcohol testing, therapy and meet with a Dunn County judge often.

The same judge who oversees a Child in Need of Protection or Services, or CHIPS, case will oversee the same parent or parents in Family Treatment Court, Korpela said.

The main incentive for parents is to reunite with their children, according to the county’s grant application.

Child abuse and neglect reports soared in Dunn County between 2013 and 2017, increasing by 111 percent, according to the county’s grant application. At one point in 2017, every single child — out of 45 placed with relatives in Dunn County — was taken from a home as a result of a parent’s substance abuse.

But research shows Family Treatment Courts outperform the system already in place, according to the county’s grant application.

“You’re really looking at investing in the next generation of our community … and what we’re doing, particularly with methamphetamine-affected families, it’s not working,” Korpela said. “At least not consistently.”

Family Treatment Court will mimic some parts of Dunn County’s adult Treatment Court, but there are a few key differences.

Adult Treatment Court has been in place for 10 years, according to the grant application. People enter after being charged with, or convicted of, drug or alcohol charges. Through the program they access treatment. If participants violate the court conditions, they can be sent to jail.

But Family Treatment Court will deal in civil matters, not criminal, Korpela said. Participants can’t be sent to jail if they break the rules. Instead, children may stay in foster care longer if parents don’t follow the court’s instructions.

“In adult Treatment Court you’re trying to avoid a consequence … but in Family Treatment Court you’re really attempting to get a reward,” Korpela said. “You’re really trying to get your kids back, keep them from being placed outside the home in a much more effective fashion.”

Pivotal funding

A $125,000-per-year state grant — which will continue for four years — will fund new employees to run the program. An extra $67,500 from the state for the first year will help the Dunn County CJCC create and organize the program.

Dunn and Rock counties were the only two in Wisconsin to receive such grants.

If Family Treatment Court is successful, Korpela expects the program to fund itself. Finding foster care for children with substance-abusing parents — on top of treatment, respite and day care — is “incredibly expensive” and contributes to the spike in costs for the Department of Human Services, she said.

The CJCC will take several months to build the program’s framework, Korpela said after the Family Treatment Court work group’s first meeting Tuesday. They’ll decide how to determine family eligibility and how participants will be referred.

On July 1, the program aims to start by accepting one or two families.

Similarly to adult Treatment Court, parents will likely take at least a year to graduate from the program, said criminal justice coordinator Sara Benedict.

While methamphetamine use is a huge reason children are removed from Dunn County homes, alcohol abuse shouldn’t be counted out, Benedict said: “There are ripple effects of costs to the taxpayers. … The issues compound with methamphetamine.”

County supervisor Mary Solberg, chair of the county’s Health and Human Services Board, praised the program at a Jan. 16 county board meeting: “I think this will be very well received by our community and our families in need.”

Compassion from the county — working alongside the court system — may keep more families together in the long run, Korpela said.

“It sounds almost inconsequential and maybe sad to say it, but one of the most effective rewards for many people is just praise,” Korpela said. “People thrive on knowing they’re doing a good job.”

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Dunn County News editor

Sarah Seifert edits and reports for the Dunn County News. Contact her with tips or story ideas at 715-450-1557 or at editor@dunnconnect.com.

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