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6/6/2018 11:04:00 AM
Indiana chief justice: Opioid crisis affects all the courts
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The National Judicial Opioid Task Force, which is an arm of the National Center for State Courts, has launched an "Opioids and the Courts" web page at

Scott L. Miley, Herald Bulletin CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — Setting up national judicial guidelines that can be adapted by states should be a priority in handling the opioid epidemic as it impacts nearly all courts, Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush said Tuesday.

"Setting up a framework from a national perspective for the judges, chief justices and court administrators to take back to their states is urgent," Rush said.

Rush is co-chair of the National Judicial Opioid Task Force, which is holding its third meeting to discuss ways that courts can help people and communities hit by the opioid epidemic. 

For example, one topic at the conference is seeking federal money to provide jail-based treatment that includes treatment post-incarceration. Another issue is ensuring that judges have certified treatment programs for offenders.

The task force, whose other co-chair is Director of the Administrative Office of Tennessee Courts Deborah Taylor Tate, was established last fall with eight members. Membership has grown to 29 and is comprised of state court justices and other court administrators with experience in working with people with substance abuse.

"Courts and judges are really the external motivation for people to seek and get treatment," Tate said.

Rush added, "There's really no docket not affected by it."

Rush noted that efforts should be implemented individually by states. "But we need to get tools to the state," she said. "There's not a one-size-fits-all answer to this."

In Indiana, 60 percent of children in foster care are there due to substance abuse in their family, Rush said.

"We're number one in the country with regard to child removals and that in and of itself is traumatic," she said. "When you think about a child, it's the trauma of being separated from your parents, perhaps in multiple foster homes and this drug has such a hold on them. I've never seen a drug have this hold."

Rush has previously said there needs to greater understanding of the crisis, noting that "one thing we don't know as judges is the science of addiction."

A statewide summit which will include training on the science of addiction and focus on medication-assisted treatment is set for July 25 in Indianapolis.

Opioids were involved in 42,249 deaths across the country in 2016, and opioid overdose deaths were five times higher in 2016 than 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Indiana was among states with significant increases in drug overdose deaths with a 23.1 percent increase from 2015 to 2016.

The Indiana State Department of Health reported 785 opioid-related drug overdose deaths in 2016 out of total 1,518 overdose deaths that year.

An earlier survey by the judicial task force found needs for state opioid plans, an understanding of the epidemic's impact on courts, treatment interventions, specialty courts, funding and court interventions for adults, juveniles and families.

Indiana is one of 10 states that has task forces from both the executive and judicial branches. Only Tennessee has those and a legislative branch task force.

One focus of the panel has been in keeping families together and parents out of jail. That has led the task force to look at how states deliver substance abuse services.

Clark County recently received $2.1 million for family recovery court. Indiana had 29,000 youth in the child welfare system last year, Rush said. There were court appointed special advocates (CASA) for 26,000 children. 

"So we've got a gap," Rush said. "When can you safely keep a baby with a parent while they're going through recovery? What are the tools they need to have that because, again, you're always trying to balance a child's safety which comes first."

She added, "As a judge, seeing this kind of trauma just pour into your court, it's almost like you can't not say something because it's horrific what you're seeing. Our judges roll up their sleeves and say tell me what we can do and give me the tools."

In her State of the Judiciary address in January, Rush said the state's opioid epidemic was changing the nature of the Indiana's legal system.

"Addiction has swept into every community and is flooding every court — and not just in Indiana but across our country," Rush told the joint session of the Indiana House and Senate.

"People often ask me the same question they are asking you: What can we do about this crisis? I have only one answer: Together we must do everything."

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