As we work urgently to adjust our programs in New York to meet the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re also helping practitioners around the country. Our expert assistance team has been working urgently with drug treatment court practitioners to brainstorm alternatives to help participants maintain sobriety, even when courts and treatment programs are closed, and check-ins can no longer take place in-person.
“Late last week, statewide drug court administrators all started e-mailing each other and raising the alarm of how this virus could impact the operations of treatment courts,” says Annie Schachar, director of the Center’s Treatment Court Programs, who describes the challenges to treatment courts posed by COVID-19 on the latest episode of In Practice.
Treatment courts rely on face-to-face interactions with participants. They also typically require frequent in-person drug testing. And those who receive medication, such as methadone, typically have to show up on a daily basis to receive it.
Schachar worries about the impact of closures. “The people who are in treatment are among our most vulnerable populations,” she says. Many have health problems, have recently been incarcerated, and face food or housing instability.
Within days of hearing from statewide administrators, Schachar’s team hosted a webinar [slides available] explaining the challenges and providing advice. “At the time that this came to our attention, the question wasn’t really yet, ‘what’s going to happen if court systems completely shut down?’" But within days, many treatment courts ceased or reduced operations.
“There have been a lot of, shall we say, creative solutions,” Schachar said.
Schachar’s advice is to prepare for the worst-case scenarios. “The most prudent course of action right now would be to develop contingency plans that assume a full shutdown of courts and potentially of treatment providers as well,” she said.
She also hopes courts will “take a step back from a hardline approach of making sure everyone is getting drug-tested,” and focus for now “on basic health and safety needs.”
Among the Center’s other advice for practitioners:
- provide participants with information about how to stay healthy and access food and other essential resources during the outbreak;
- use remote technology and tele-services, including social media platforms, to stay in touch with participants;
- use remote technology to maintain regular team meetings so that staff can continue to track the status of clients.