First Place, 2018 Howard C. Schwab Memorial Essay

Family Drug Courts: Combatting the Opioid Epidemic

Stephanie Tabashneck


Every day in communities across the country, courts are confronted with the devastating impact of the opioid crisis. From 2016 to 2017, more Americans died from drug overdoses than were killed in the decades-long Vietnam War.1 Most of these overdose deaths were from opioids.2 While the opioid crisis has influenced many spheres of society, opioid use disorders have a unique impact on families.3 A parent’s addiction not only affects his or her own life but destabilizes an entire family system.4 Children with an opioid-dependent parent are at risk of neglect, abuse, and instability.5 Inundated with opioid-related child welfare cases and custody disputes, family courts are faced with the at times daunting challenge of how to manage these complicated cases.6 Judges confront difficult questions. Is a child better off with a parent who repeatedly tests positive for opioids or in a foster care placement of unknown quality? To what extent, if any, should opioid-dependent mothers or fathers have supervised visitation with their children? If a parent is taking methadone, is he or she merely trading one addiction for another?7 Traditional family courts often lack the resources to address underlying substance use problems. Parents with an opioid use disorder may want help, but without treatment or support, they are frequently headed toward the permanent loss of custody of their children.8 This difficulty has resulted in a skyrocketing number of children in out-of-home placements.9 Yet there simply are not enough good placements for foster care to be an acceptable default solution.10

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