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Impact of COVID-19 on Florida Family Dependency Drug Courts

NCJ Number
Olivia K. Golan; Fatema Z. Ahmed; Barbara Andraka-Christou; Rachel Totaram; Yara Asi; Danielle Atkins
Date Published
February 2024
11 pages

This study exploring the impact of COVID-19 on family dependency drug courts (FDDCs) concluded that if FDDCs continue to rely on virtual hearings beyond the pandemic, they must develop practices for improving client engagement during virtual hearings. FDDCs should preemptively develop procedures for improving parent-child visitation during future public health crises, because limited visitation opportunities could weaken parent-child bonding and, ultimately, the likelihood of reunification. To promote parent-child reunification, FDDCs facilitate substance use disorder treatment for people whose children have been removed due to parental substance use. Although existing research has examined COVID-19 impacts on adult drug courts and civil dependency courts, studies have yet to examine the impact of COVID-19 on FDDCs specifically. To explore the impact of COVID-19 on FDDCs, researchers conducted 20 focus groups and 5 individual interviews with court team members from five Florida FDDCs between 2020 and 2022. Data were analyzed using iterative categorization. Five overarching themes emerged. First, FDDCs adopted virtual technology during the pandemic and more flexible drug screening policies. Second, virtual technology was perceived as improving hearing attendance but decreasing client engagement. FDDC team members discussed a potential hybrid in-person/virtual hearing model after the pandemic. Third, COVID-19 negatively impacted parent-child visitation opportunities, limiting development of bonds between parents and children; parent-child bonding is a key consideration during judicial reunification decisions. Fourth, COVID-19 negatively impacted the mental health of court team members and clients. Court team members adopted new informal roles, such as providing technical support and emotional counseling to clients, in addition to regular responsibilities, resulting in feeling overwhelmed and overworked. Court team members described clients as feeling more depressed and anxious, in part due to limited visitation opportunities with children, which decreased clients’ motivation for substance use recovery. Fifth, COVID-19 decreased recruitment of potential clients into FDDCs. (Published Abstract Provided)