Emily Allen Published

New Family Treatment Court Reunites Nicholas County Families Dealing With Addiction

Nicholas County held its first graduation ceremony for a family treatment court program on May 6, 2021.

Nine months ago, Angie Johnson of Nicholas County got a call that would change her life.

Johnson, a mother of two, had just relapsed after temporarily losing custody of her infant daughter. She was back in an addiction treatment facility when someone from the local courthouse called and asked if she would like to give the new “family treatment court” program a try.

Through family treatment court, parents facing addiction have another option to resolve any abuse and neglect cases against them that could lead to permanently losing custody of their children.

The program connects its adult participants to treatment options, job training, housing, parenting classes and other resources for recovery — all while allowing for regular contact between parents and kids.

More than 180 adults had interacted with one of eight family treatment court programs in West Virginia by the end of April, according to the state Supreme Court of Appeals. By Thursday, 24 adults in five counties had successfully completed the program, including Johnson.

“Today means everything to me,” Johnson said after her graduation ceremony. “Because I am a good mom, I just made really bad decisions. To be 11 months clean, back to work, with reliable transportation and a home to put my girls in, it means everything to me.”

Johnson and her daughter were joined by four other Nicholas County families Thursday afternoon at the local courthouse. An area photographer had taken family portraits of the graduating families, and the framed results stood behind each participant as they accepted their certificates.

Two Different Courthouses

Meanwhile, about 90 miles west in Charleston, officials for Cabell County and the city of Huntington gathered at a different courthouse, arguing before a federal judge that three of the nation’s biggest opioid distributors should be on the hook for their role in the state’s addiction crisis.

The trial has been hailed as a major stepping stone for thousands of communities nationwide seeking similar damages.

“It did start off with opioids,” said attorney Denise Pettijohn, one of a few guardians ad litem in the Nicholas County family treatment court who represents the interests of the children involved.

“Nicholas County was a huge mining county, and that just all dried up. You have a lot of people who probably started off with prescriptions to opioids, to handle the pain of that very hard and rigorous job, and then we made it harder to get those. And they switched.”

To harder drugs. Court officials said Thursday the parents they work with are mostly dealing with addictions to fentanyl and methamphetamines.

Nicholas County Circuit Judge Steve Callaghan oversees the local family treatment court.

Nicholas County Circuit Judge Steve Callaghan oversees the local family treatment court.

Emily Allen
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Nicholas County Circuit Judge Steve Callaghan oversees the local family treatment court.

As a judge Callaghan couldn’t speak about the federal trial in Charleston, but he spoke at length about the difference he thinks family treatment court programs are making in the state’s struggle with addiction and the separation of families.

“Before treatment courts, the only thing we had was law enforcement, and probation,” Callaghan said. “There was some rehab, but not a whole lot. But now, after treatment courts, we have a new way to try to solve the problem.”

Expanding To More Counties

Nicholas County celebrated its graduation ceremony weeks after the governor signed House Bill 2918 into law, allowing the state supreme court to assist more counties in creating their own family treatment court programs.

Callaghan said he invites any interested counties to his courthouse to observe the process, and that it’s not a program that a county can build overnight.

“You have to get the right people, you have to get the right providers and the right lawyers, the right guardian ad litem, the right probation officer. It takes putting together a team,” Callaghan said.

One of the tenets of family treatment court is regular contact between parents and their children, through supervised visits, phone calls and eventually reunification.

But for most of Nicholas County’s first graduating class, these interactions were stifled last year by the coronavirus pandemic, which temporarily halted in-person visitations and closed the courthouse.

“We just did what we could to make it happen,” Pettijohn said. “There was a lot of FaceTime. We did a lot of Zoom visits … And when we were able to open up and start visits again, I think those visits were all the more meaningful for the kids and their parents.”

Family Treatment Court Coordinator Stephanie Smith speaks at a graduation ceremony for the first five families to successfully finish Nicholas County's program.

Emily Allen
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Family Treatment Court Coordinator Stephanie Smith speaks at a graduation ceremony for the first five families to successfully finish Nicholas County’s program.

Throughout lockdown, the court itself still maintained consistent contact with parents. They regularly visited the Nicholas County Day Report Center, and Family Treatment Court Coordinator Stephanie Smith still conducted in-person visits with participants every week, even if those meetings had to be outside.

Smith said that she and her team will continue to support the families they help, even after graduation.

“When we call this their safe place, their support system, I mean, it’s not just like a nice thing to say at the end,” Smith said. “It really is still there for them.”

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.