April 28, 2020
Problem-Solving Courts (PSC) are evidence-based programs whose successful outcomes are attributed to operating in compliance with rules and guidelines set forth in PSC Standards. PSC teams rely on frequent face to face interaction and regular drug testing to monitor the progress of participants. During this unprecedented time, Illinois PSC have responded to the challenges presented by the pandemic by adopting innovative practices to continue providing regular interaction, demonstrating support and care for PSC participants who are among the most vulnerable in our population.
PSC teams began sharing information with participants about how to stay healthy and access food and other essential resources during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Effingham PSC team provided quarantine packets that included a suggested daily schedule to keep participants busy along with suggested activities, crafts ideas, recipes, and they provided materials like coloring books and playdough for the children of the participants. A struggling participant was required to take a picture of positive parenting activities in addition to hourly check-ins through an app called CourtFacts, as an alternative to a jail sanction.
PSC connected participants to teletherapy and online meetings and groups available, encouraging everyone to participate in peer support. Remote individual and group treatment for mental and substance use disorders has continued by phone and videoconferences. Ruth Gerhart, Will County PSC Clinician, indicated that participants are experiencing a great deal of stress and uncertainty. She considers this time an opportunity to strengthen their connection to participants, adding the participants are seeing the team in a different, more human way. Ruth started a weekly Problem-Solving Courts Newsletter encouraging participants to stay on track and keep moving forward. The newsletter features a note from a PSC judge, links to resources, parenting exercises, life skills, a weekly challenge and a pro-social activity. Any participant can join the weekly activity (planting, beading, arts and crafts projects) by requesting a doorstop delivery. The team also reaches participants using social media to share recipes, meditation techniques, weekly challenge updates and inspirational quotes.
Probation supervision has largely modified in response to the pandemic. Officers maintain regular contact with the participants by engaging them through phone apps, telephone calls and videoconferencing. Hannah Ewing, the Tazewell County Drug and Mental Health Court PO, develops discussion questions and talking points individualized for each client to ensure the conversation is meaningful while she continues to assist them in working on goals they set for themselves. She wrote, “I think it is very important to have meaningful contacts with the clients each week. A week during this pandemic seems like an eternity for these clients without their normal routine. Isolation and lack of supports is very hard for them. It is important they know we are still there for them and supportive of their recovery.”
PSC teams are using technology for remote staffings, meeting at the weekly scheduled day and time to discuss participants progress and compliance. While many PSC are unable to safely conduct drug tests, teams are measuring compliance through the individual’s engagement with treatment, the PSC team and compliance with program requirements. Treatment adjustments are administered primarily in instances of non-compliance. The DuPage County Drug Court is focusing on rewarding individuals and considering overall wellbeing during this stressful time. The team continues to observe phase advancements, mailing certificates to participants. They are also mailing incentive packages for their proximal and distal achievements during this difficult time. Incentive packages include activity books, printed sheets for outdoor exercises and indoor meditation, simple recipes, motivational messages from the staff, and more. Judge Athanikar relayed that the team believes it is crucial to uplift and motivate participants to continue their paths of success. PSC are using creative incentives, mailing letters of encouragement or gift cards, reducing community service hours or court fees to reinforce positive behavior.
PSC hearings are beginning to occur with the participant and the PSC team appearing by teleconference or videoconference. Individuals are provided the opportunity to speak with their attorney privately before the virtual court check-ins. Interactions with the judge are one of the most important components of PSC practice. For some participants, the informal court interaction may be a welcome change. Judge Marsaglia, the Grundy County Drug Court judge, has found that participants who struggle to communicate in the courtroom are verbose and interactive.
In navigating continued operation during this challenging time, PSC teams responded by adapting and implementing innovative practices. Illinois PSC teams have demonstrated unwavering commitment to helping people living with substance use and mental health disorders continue on their path out of the justice system and into lives of recovery and stability.