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Claremont to host state's first Family Treatment Court

Claremont District Court Judge Jon Yazinski sees the way parental addiction and mental health problems contribute to child abuse and neglect cases.

"I would say 90 percent of the abuse and neglect cases I see involve a parent with a substance abuse issue," Yazinski said.

This could change as the Claremont downtown courthouse is soon to be home to the state's first Family Treatment Court. Similar to the drug courts, which offer people charged in drug crimes with alternatives to prison, the Family Treatment Court is focused on alternatives to the normal system of crime and punishment.

Judge Susan Ashley said the goal for the Family Treatment Court is different because it doesn't necessarily start with an arrest, but with a referral from the Division of Children, Youth and Families.

"The goal is different," she said. "It’s not about an alternative sentence, it’s about finding a way to achieve better outcomes for a child and a family."

Sullivan County already sees a higher rate of abuse and neglect cases, as well as parental termination cases, than the rest of the state. A lot of the problem stems from the opioid addiction crisis, which has been taking a turn for the worse this year during the pandemic, according to psychiatrist Erin Barnett.

"People are reacting to despair," Barnett said.

Barnett, a professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, said addiction often comes as a result of childhood trauma, creating a cycle of abuse and neglect for children, and addiction for adults.

"People the most vulnerable to addiction are those who had hardship and trauma in early childhood," she said.

The Family Treatment Court could be a tool to stop the cycle, getting parents into treatment for the addiction, and getting them the parenting support they need. Melony Williams, the clinic supervisor with TLC, a Claremont-based scale service organization, said she is seeing many people who need help.

"The families that we’re going to be serving have very complex challenges. The way to overcome it is through connections," she said.

Yazinski said that, often, he’s the one to chase down help for families that he sees coming into his courtroom, calling overworked social workers and trying to find treatment centers.

The Family Treatment Court will have dedicated staff to coordinate care with the families, getting the parenting classes and treatment programs for the parents, and the support the children need as well.

"We’re going to actually have someone who is going to be there for the parent," he said.

The goal of the Family Treatment Court is not to separate families, which can cause trauma of its own, but to get the parents healthy enough to care for their children.

"If we can’t heal the parent we can’t reunite the child," Yazinski said.

The Family Treatment Court will start with a year of planning and development, meeting up the screening process for family intake, and in the second year the Family Treatment Court will take on cases. The third year, data collected in the first year will be analyzed to see what is working, and how the program can be expanded to the rest of the state.

The pilot program is being funded thanks to a $1.75 million federal grant secured by Heather Kulp, the circuit court administrator for the state. Kulp wants to see the Family Treatment Court program eventually rolled out throughout the state.

"We’re starting with this small pilot program in hopes this will bring systemic change in New Hampshire," she said.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has encouraged the United States Department of Justice to expand the Family Treatment Court program in recent years, and helped Kulp secure the grant.

"When someone has a problem with substances it is not just a problem for them, but their whole family," Shaheen said.