Family Wellness Court an alternative, collaborative approach to reunification

By Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News

At the start of 2017, the Tulalip Tribal Court implemented a new program to assist addicts on their recovery journey. The Healing to Wellness Court originally drew a bit of skepticism from Tribal membership due to failed experiments with drug courts in the past. However, after tailoring the wellness court to the individual client and incorporating cultural involvement, the program saw success, with a handful of clients completing the program and many addicts who are clean and working hard to maintain their sobriety.

Four years since the announcement of the Healing to Wellness Court, the Tribal Justice department is gearing up to introduce a similar program, but with an emphasis on not only helping their clients live healthy and sober lives, but to reunify families who have been torn apart by the opioid epidemic. Family Wellness Court aims to get the parents clean, help them regain custody of their children and get them out of the court system for good. 

Tulalip Tribal Court Director, Alicia Horne explained, “The Family Wellness Court is very similar to the Healing to Wellness Court. It’s an alternative program to help parents with addiction and it’s an evidence-based program to help parents with addiction sustain sobriety. This is something that is different from your traditional beda?chelh case management. The Family Wellness program has wrap-around, intensive family case management to help the family as a whole, so the parents can maintain stable sobriety.”

Although the Family Wellness Court’s game plan mirrors the Healing to Wellness Court model in many aspects, the court wants to stress that the two programs are completely separate from one another. Family Wellness will work with individuals on their own accord, through either a referral or self-referrals, as the new program is 100% voluntary based and not mandated by the courts. Whereas the Healing to Wellness Court works on criminal cases and their clients could potentially face jail time if they fall out of compliance. Family Wellness Court is a guided program where a team creates an individualized plan for the parent, and since the program is voluntary and does not work on criminal cases, the client does not face jail time if they fall off track.  

“We’re one of the first in the nation to be doing this as a tribe because we want our people to be healthy, happy and successful,” said Family Wellness Court Coordinator, Melissa Johnson. “We want people to understand it’s different than the standard dependency proceeding that parents involved with beda?chelh go through. With more frequent review hearings, in the drug court model, they get a chance to show their progress in real-time. They tend to get their kids back faster in this type of program because of the intensive case management and the added support.”

A team will meet regularly, on a weekly-basis, to discuss the client’s progress or regression. The team then decides on the appropriate action to take, whether that is awarding them with incentives or providing intervention services or resources to help them find their way back to the road of sobriety. 

“We assist parents with medical care if they need it, as well as referrals to housing, helping with job placement, job training, so they can live a healthy and sober life and maintain it on their own,” Melissa stated. “We want to give them the skills, the foundation to maintain that healthy lifestyle once they’re finished with our program. One of our goals is to have fewer CPS and beda?chelh involvement.”

Members of the team include Tulalip tribal court’s Chief Judge Michelle Demmert, Associate Judges Janine B. Van Dusen and Leona Colegrove, as well as a Child Advocate Attorney, Parent Advocate Attorney, beda?chelh Manager (Natasha Fryberg), beda?chelh Social Worker, Substance Use Disorder Counselor, Family Wellness Court Coordinator (Melissa), Recovery Support Specialist, and the Wellness Program Manager. 

Said Melissa, “The team meets weekly and the program is going to last around a year, sometimes it takes longer. It’s based on individual needs because some parents need more support than others. Rather than feeling lost in the system, the participants will gain a sense of continuity and identification with the program. The hearings will allow the judge to provide the support, encouragement and responses as needed. What happens really is the courtroom becomes more of a therapeutic environment versus what it is now. We want them to build trust and a relationship with the judge, so they’re not afraid of interacting with the judge.”

The Tulalip Tribal Court believes that this collaboration between multiple departments, with the same intent of helping someone attain sobriety, is the key to success with drug court clients. Helping them establish relationships with the judges and task force members, the clients are included in the entire process from the moment they accept the help from the Family Wellness Court to the moment they are reunified with their children. 

“I am thrilled that the Tulalip tribal court and community will be able to engage in this holistic child welfare program,” shared Child Advocate Attorney, Chori Folkman. “Studies have shown that this type of collaborative team-based approach results in faster case resolution and more families becoming reunified than a normal child welfare case. The support of beda?chelh will be complimented by all the other team members who will be working hard to support the needs of parents to become healthy and reach their full potential for the children. I think that in the Tulalip system, we can make this type of court successful as we tailor it to the specific needs of the Tulalip community.”

Another reason that clients are remaining clean and sober throughout and following their journey with the Healing to Wellness Court program can be credited to the Tulalip culture. The program requires its clients to fulfill ‘give-back’ hours to the community. During those volunteer hours, clients not only occupy their time and keep their hands busy during fun, healthy community events, they also begin the process of reintegrating back into the tribal community by participating in cultural practices such as singing, dancing, and learning more of their ancestral lifeways. 

Alicia agrees that the cultural aspect is one of the major contributors to the success of Healing to Wellness Court clients, which is why the tribal courthouse elected to include community and cultural involvement in the new Family Wellness Court program, providing good medicine while encouraging their clients to drop the bad drugs.  

With the establishment of the Family Wellness Court, the Tulalip Justice System continues to combat the drug epidemic on the reservation. The tribal court recently launched the ODMAP program which tracks overdoses that occur on Tulalip territory to help prevent and reduce the loss of lives due to overdose in the community. 

Family Wellness Court intends on officially beginning operations, offering their services to the community, by mid-January 2021. To qualify for the Family Wellness Court’s services, you must be the parent of a Tulalip tribal member who currently has an open child dependency case with the Tribal Court System. Please contact your attorney, beda?chelh social worker or call (360) 716-4764 if you believe the Family Wellness Court can benefit you and your family. 

  “The Family Wellness Court is a model of a community involvement approach. We hope that the community will begin to see the courts as a healing institution; one that can provide solutions for the communities’ various needs,” expressed Chief Judge Demmert. “The Family Wellness Court is another example of how the tribal justice system is evolving to address the needs of the community in a culturally competent manner. We all need to recognize that we have the knowledge of our ancestors standing with us and at times, holding us up.”