Login | December 06, 2021

Judge Cook discusses Family Recovery Court Program

Legal News Reporter

Published: August 14, 2020

During her time on the Akron Municipal Court bench, Judge Katarina Cook presided over the OVI (operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs) Court program for a number of years, sometimes dealing with parents whose OVI offenses prevented them from seeing their children.
“I remember one of my cases involved a young mother who was not allowed to see her son because she had multiple OVI convictions,” said Judge Cook. “While she was under my supervision, the Domestic Relations Court was monitoring her progress in my court program to decide whether she should be granted visitation.
“The woman did graduate and get parenting time with her son, but I remember thinking at the time that the DR court should have had its own drug and alcohol program instead of monitoring a defendant’s progress in another court program.”
As a result, one of the key promises she made during her 2016 campaign for Summit County Domestic Relations Court judge was to create a family recovery court.
It’s a promise she’s definitely made good on. Less than two years after taking her oath of office in January 2017, Judge Cook started the Summit County Domestic Relations Court Family Recovery Court (FRC) Program.
Unveiled in November 2019, the specialized docket works to assist parents struggling with substance use disorders and mental health challenges, providing support and treatment to participants.
“Families are usually the first to discover a person’s substance use or mental health disorder,” said Judge Cook. “When the person with the disorder is a parent, it’s the child who suffers the most.
“The idea of the program is to unite both parents in the common goal of helping the parent with the disorder to seek and complete treatment.
“The FRC Program allows for more time for these issues to be addressed, building trust with the other parent and the child during the course of their current case rather than proceeding on the normal litigation track,” said Judge Cook.
To provide a more supportive environment to the parent in need of assistance, the Family Recovery Court Program requires both parents to agree to participate.
“The person who has the problem must first admit to it, and then agree to work an active recovery program with the end goal of receiving more parenting time, which the other parent also agrees to,” said Judge Cook.
Alissa Endicott, program manager for the Summit County Domestic Relations Family Recovery Court Program, said the process begins with a referral.
“Participants are referred to me by the judge, one of the court’s magistrates, attorneys, the Family Court Services Department or the parties themselves, ” said Endicott, LISW-S (Licensed Independent Social Worker with Supervision Designation). “Together with the information gathered from the referral, Judge Cook and I assess and identify the issues that are interfering with the ability to co-parent or issues that are causing problems with the existing agreement due to the involved parent’s substance abuse or mental health.
“I explain the requirements of the program and that both parents need to participate, which is extremely important so that the other parent can provide another layer of accountability with the motivation of seeing more of the child or children.”
Assuming both parents agree to participate, an enrollment hearing is held by Judge Cook, at which time they can ask additional questions, before signing off on the agreement.
“It is encouraged if the parties have counsel to have counsel attend, as the parties are entering into a contract with the court,” said Endicott.
A parent can enter the FRC program prior to the finalization of a divorce decree, before a visitation plan has been worked out, or after the parties have terminated their marriage, as part of a request to modify their existing agreement.
The four-phase program lasts between 12 and 24 months, depending upon the parent’s progress.
During Phase One, Endicott said the parent in treatment must appear before Judge Cook every two weeks. The parenting time schedule is initially the same, and oftentimes the participant only has supervised visitation with their child.
“In this phase, the participant completes the chemical dependency or mental health assessment and we review the results of the assessment,” Endicott said. “The sooner the assessment is completed, the sooner the person moves to the next phase, in which parenting time may be expanded, as long as it is in the best interest of the child.
“Each phase mandates different obligations, with each one allowing for fewer appearances in court.”
By Phase Four, participants are expected to have made substantial progress in their recovery and are only required to appear before Judge Cook every 90 days.
“Our approach is always based upon the best interest of the child,” said Judge Cook. “Just because someone is making progress does not mean he or she is automatically getting more parenting time. The child’s well-being will be monitored by the program manager throughout the family’s involvement with the program.”
While the courtroom appearances were designed to take place in person, when the COVID-19 pandemic initially began Judge Cook relied on Zoom and other platforms to conduct remote hearings.
“Judge Cook decided that the in-person component was essential, so about 30 days ago she began having people come back into the building to increase accountability,” said Endicott.
The FRC program partners with a number of treatment providers and community organizations that provide a variety of options to participants, including residential, intensive outpatient and aftercare.
Currently the only other domestic relations court in Ohio to offer a similar program is in Cuyahoga County.
Judge Cook has created a partnership with a provider in Cuyahoga County and is working on building relationships in other counties so participants can receive treatment outside of Summit County in the county where they reside.
“I’ve also applied for grant funding to help low-income participants pay for supervised visits to further eliminate any obstacles to them completing the program,” said Judge Cook.
While there are currently ten families enrolled in the Family Recovery Court Program, Endicott said four others were recently referred and are being evaluated.
“While voluntarily agreeing to participate in this program means that there is an increased level of expectation and accountability from the participants to be actively engaged in their wellness plans, I believe this innovative program will ultimately help families by giving them the tools they need for long-term success by creating safe, nurturing and healthy environments and parenting plans that are truly child-focused,” Endicott said.