Family Wellness Court now in session

By Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News

The impact of the opioid and heroin epidemic is felt especially hard within Indigenous communities. When researching this disheartening topic, you may get caught up in the alarming statistics as it pertains to overdose and death by overdose in Native America. One might overlook the efforts and the resiliency of tribes across the nation who are refusing to give up on their loved ones, whose lives are in the clutches of addiction. Children are largely affected by the drug crisis and many are subject to face the system, often placed in the care of a family or community member when the parent has fallen to their addiction. Of course, most parents want to regain custody of their children, but where do they begin?

There’s a cynical-leaning expression that is often voiced when speaking of recovery, along the lines of ‘you can’t help those who aren’t willing to accept help,’ which is arguably true, but what of those who are actively seeking help but don’t know where to turn? Those who want to get clean and reclaim guardianship of their kids but need guidance and support? Those who have went through treatment and mandated drug court and have yet to find a solution?

The Tulalip Tribal Justice Department believes they’ve developed a system that will not only help their tribal members start their journey in recovery, but also reunite them with their children. They also strongly believe that, if followed properly, their system can help their participants regain custody sooner than the standard state drug court, and will be more effective in the long-term, helping their clients maintain sobriety by equipping the individual with the necessary tools and support to fight their addictions. Of course, the timeline will vary as each person who opts to participate in the voluntary program will receive a personalized plan to follow. 

On the afternoon of March 10, a group of approximately fifteen gathered in the courtroom at the Tulalip Justice Center for the first of many court hearings. The assembly, who wore masks and followed social distance protocols, consisted of a handful of courthouse officials, attorneys, beda?chelh representatives, counselors and recovery specialists. This team is dedicated to reuniting Tulalip families by helping the parents attain and maintain sobriety, tackling the epidemic that has driven a wedge between numerous families head-on.

Known officially as Family Wellness Court, the new system was originally inspired by the amount of success stories that came out of the Tulalip Healing to Wellness Court. Those participants showed a great response to the program which features a plan-to-recovery that is tailored to each client’s individual needs. Additionally, the Healing to Wellness Court requires weekly meetings, cultural give-back hours, and a strong desire to get clean. Another aspect that has proved helpful for the Healing to Wellness Court participants is the new sense of community that is gained from engaging with their fellow participants in the program. Each participant is involved throughout the entire duration of the weekly hearings and shows their support to others in the program in both the good and trying times. Drawing from the Healing to Wellness Court model, the Tulalip Justice Department hopes to mirror those success results while also reuniting tribal parents with their children by helping them overcome their battle with addiction. 

Said Tulalip Tribal Court Director, Alicia Horne, “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.”

The very first Family Wellness Court hearing featured a ceremonial blessing by Tulalip tribal member Whaa-Ka-Dup Monger, who also offered encouraging words of support to each participating parent. Tulalip’s Chief Judge, Michelle Demmert presided over the hearing, which included a total of five individual cases, three of which were held over Zoom as those participants were registered and receiving care at local treatment facilities.

“Today was the very first day of Family Wellness Court which is something that I fully embrace because I feel that restoration and healing are components of justice. Too often our justice models are based on the Anglo system which believes in punishment more than it does healing,” explained Judge Demmert. “I’m Tlingit and I come from a lot of healers and traditional folks and this just means a lot to me because we are a community-based people, we support each other, we have families. Those relationships are important to nurture, so we need to do things differently as a Native court.”

  Each client begins by sharing how long they have been sober. And whether that’s days, weeks or months, the courtroom erupts with applause, showing genuine encouragement and support for the parent and what they’ve accomplished. Then together, as one team, they review the participant’s week, ensuring they are on par with their plan while also discussing their trials and tribulations they encountered since their last hearing. If the parent is in compliance and on-track, the team will discuss the next phase of the personalized plan and the participant will get to pick an incentive of their choosing out of a basket that includes Native-designed houseware, tasty snacks and a variety of trinkets and gift cards. If the parent is non-compliant with the Family Wellness Court, the team will re-evaluate that parent’s plan, provide intervention services and resources and discuss areas to improve. 

“We want people to understand it’s different than the standard dependency proceeding that parents involved with beda?chelh go through,”  stated Family Wellness Court Coordinator, Melissa Johnson. “With more frequent review hearings, 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. 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. 

“We want to give them the skills, the foundation to maintain that healthy lifestyle once they’re finished with our program. Family Wellness Court is important because it’s strengthening families, it will help families get healthy and allow us to display our support as a Tribal Court and a community. We have a really good team. I think the team approach is going to be so important for us going forward.”

After a productive and successful first hearing, the Family Wellness Court has high hopes that their new system will bring healing, reunification, and a new beginning for parents in recovery. Judge Demmert reassured each new client that relapse is a part of one’s journey to sobriety and it is important to learn and grow if a relapse occurs while on the road to recovery. The important thing to remember is to pick yourself back up after a relapse and continue striving for a healthy, clean and sober life. 

“To me, personally, I’m 33 years in recovery,” shared Judge Demmert.  “I think it’s really important for people to know that about me so that they don’t think I’m judging them like I’ve never been in their situation, when most likely I have. I want them to know that there’s hope, that I believe in them and that I love them. I really do.”

Judge Demmert also shared a special message to the recovering parents in Family Wellness Court stating, “We’re proud of the choices you’re making and we’re here to support you. These are not easy choices and we recognize that. We’re here for you and here to serve you.”

To qualify for the Family Wellness Court, 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.