The Opioid Crisis

The Opioid Crisis and How Family Court Judges Can Respond

By: Barbara J. Pariente, Florida Supreme Court Justice

Every day, misuse and addiction to opioids causes deaths and destroys families. In the judicial system, the effects of addiction on families are well known. When I attended the opening of the 2018 Florida Legislature, Senate President Joe Negron, Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, and Governor Rick Scott all spoke about the urgency of addressing the opioid crisis. Because this affects all Floridians and Florida’s families, significant resources may be budgeted in this legislative session.

Whether in family court, a problem-solving court, or while hearing any court docket, we must address the addictions that destroy lives of families. In family court, the impact of opioid addiction is most visible in the dependency docket, in many cases overwhelming our foster care system. We see babies born addicted to opioids and families torn apart by addiction. Our Early Childhood Courts could not be more important than now.

The impact of opioid misuse and addiction also affects domestic violence, dissolution of marriage, delinquency cases, and of course criminal cases as well as all of our problem-solving courts from veterans courts to adult and juvenile drug court to mental health courts. 

Several months ago, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators called for the establishment of a national judicial task force to make recommendations on how the courts can address the opioid epidemic. You can read more about this important initiative below but we in the court system cannot wait.

What can we do, as members of the Florida judiciary? Are there actions we can take now to address opioids and families in court?

Below are practices we can set in motion, in the areas of judicial education, leadership, and decision-making. These are largely adapted from the recommendations of the National Council for Juvenile and Family Court Judges and align with existing family court initiatives. I have also included a list of actions for chief judges and trial court administrators.

Judicial Education (request, seek out, and receive training):

  • Understand psychopharmacology, addiction, and substance abuse treatment.
  • Learn the purpose of medically-assisted treatment for opioids and best practices.
  • Know the ramifications of opioid treatment on the Adoption and Safe Families Act and reunification timelines.
  • Gain knowledge about adolescent development and the impact of substance abuse on the adolescent brain.
  • Understand the importance of early brain development and the impact of substance abuse on the developing brain during the first years of life.

Judicial Leadership:

  • Create a trauma-responsive court environment.
  • Identify gaps in services and needed funding to support necessary resources and services.
  • Provide leadership to interrupt the illegal distribution pipeline for prescription opioids.
  • Advocate for prevention strategies with youth in school or community settings.
  • Advocate for substance abuse treatment.
  • Convene or participate in a community response team to include medical professionals and local public health departments.

Judicial Decision-Making:

  • As always, coordinate all related cases involving one family to ensure that judicial decision-making is based on comprehensive, complete information about a family.
  • Read case documents with a trauma lens and use trauma-responsive court practices from the bench to ensure the gathering of necessary information to make good decisions.
  • With training and an understanding of opioid addiction and treatment, make determinations regarding the best interests of the child in child abuse and neglect proceedings.
  • With training and an understanding of opioid addiction and treatment, interrupt the substance abuse cycle in young people who appear before you in court.
  • Refer opioid users to appropriate substance abuse treatment and ensure treatment completion.
  • Hold treatment providers accountable for using evidence-based treatment models.

Chief Judges and Trial Court Administrators

  • Analyze circuit data regarding filing trends and opioid-related cases (if available), and consider reallocating judicial officers and court staff to dockets handling individuals impacted by the opioid epidemic.
  • Support, initiate, and expand diversion options for people with substance use disorders.
  • Encourage interest among judges to sustain and expand local family court problem-solving courts.
  • Encourage more judges to get basic training on substance use disorders and the history of trauma within this population to better understand the needs of individuals with these disorders.

Read the news release from the National Center for State Courts to learn about how national state courts leaders are responding to the opioid crisis.