Government Shutdown Delays Opening of New Drug Treatment Court

Officials had hoped the Flathead Family Treatment Court would start in March

By Justin Franz
Flathead County Justice Center. Beacon File Photo

The establishment of a drug treatment court in Kalispell has been delayed by the partial federal government shutdown.

Officials had hoped the Flathead Family Treatment Court would begin hearing cases as early as March, but District Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht said the federal grant that is paying for the new court has been held up. The delay has prevented the new court from hiring an administrator.

“It’s frustrating,” Ulbricht said. “But I hope that we’ll be up and running as soon as we get the funding when the government reopens.”

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded $600,000, to be spent over three years, to Flathead County for the establishment of a drug treatment court. Ulbricht will oversee the new court with assistance from the Montana Department of Justice, the Office of the State Public Defender, the Child and Family Services Division of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and local treatment providers. The court is expected to handle 12 families during the first year.

The court, dubbed the Flathead Family Treatment Court, will focus on cases where children have been placed in foster care and will offer treatment instead of punishment in an effort aimed at reuniting families. According to Ulbricht, 150 children were removed from their parents’ custody in Flathead County in 2017; 120 of those cases were because of drugs.

Despite the delay in funding the effort, Ulbricht said she and others involved are still meeting regularly and will be ready when the funds finally arrive. Ulbricht said she’s still hopeful that she’ll be able to start hearing cases this spring.

According to a new study from the Montana Healthcare Foundation, there are 28 state treatment courts serving about 550 participants annually. But the number of people benefiting from the drug treatment courts would easily double if they were appropriately funded.

“Treatment courts are the most researched and effective criminal justice intervention we have for defendants with substance-use disorders,” said Beth McLaughlin, the Montana Supreme Court Administrator. “However, many people in Montana that need these services still do not have access to them.”

The report’s authors call for an expansion of drug treatment courts across the state. Montana’s treatment courts are currently funded by a combination of state funds and federal grants.

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