Vancouver Drug Treatment Court – meeting COVID with creativity & flexibility

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Notes: This eNews is out-of-date. It was archived on May 30, 2022.

Like other courts in BC and around the world, the BC Provincial Court’s Drug Treatment Court of Vancouver (DTCV) suspended in-person courtroom appearances in March 2020 due to Covid-19. But the Court and its dedicated treatment team knew that consistent, continuous support and supervision were crucial for drug court participants. Could they continue their work and still provide this during the pandemic?

DTCV is an integrated program that provides an opportunity for individuals who struggle with substance use issues and have been charged with a criminal offence to get treatment. It was a race against time – how quickly could its dedicated treatment team of Corrections BC case managers and Vancouver Coastal Health counsellors find ways to replace the comprehensive in-person treatment the court provided while keeping participants and staff safe from COVID?

The team began developing virtual treatment alternatives almost immediately. They started virtual counselling and group sessions using telephone and Zoom, obtaining and lending tablets to participants who lacked a suitable electronic device to connect with them. They sent electronic progress reports to Judge Harbans Dhillon, the judge who’s conducted DTCV since 2015, and she held weekly court check-ins with participants by telephone.

In a court-supervised treatment program, the participants’ interaction with the judge is a crucial factor. Losing this connection, and court supervision generally, was particularly difficult for participants in the first few weeks. Recognizing this, Judge Dhillon wrote a message to be read to all the participants engaging in virtual treatment sessions. Her April 23, 2020 letter included these passages:

"First, I want to reach out to all of you to say how much you are in my thoughts during these unprecedented times. In the middle of a world-wide health crisis, every aspect of our lives has changed in order to ensure the health and safety of us all.
I hope each of you is safe and secure while you shelter in place. If you are hearing this message, I know you are still connected to the treatment team. I applaud you for continuing on your path of recovery. I applaud the treatment team for using innovation and limited resources to keep the program running. Now, more than ever, we need to reach out to survive and thrive.
As for me, you should know that I have missed the weekly updates on the All Stars, the Almost Stars, and the hope-to-be Stars in Courtroom 303. Sharing in your journey of recovery, and encouraging you to find your own pathway, is an uplifting part of my work as a judge. Who would have thought that the courtroom was a place of connection and joy, but DTCV is unique in the sense of community it brings to all of us. I continue to have confidence in you, and know that you have the building blocks to sustain yourselves until we can get back to having regular court sittings.”

The DCTV prosecutor and defence lawyers worked collaboratively with the treatment team, the judge, and court clerks to resume COVID-compliant court operations on May 19, 2020, one of the earliest re-openings of regular court operations in BC during the pandemic. The creativity and flexibility of everyone involved and their ability to adapt to frequent changes enabled the court to operate effectively – remotely at first, and then with a combination of remote and in-person court appearances, services, supervision, and counselling.

For the last sixteen months, Judge Dhillon has met virtually (initially by telephone and then using the MS Teams video conferencing platform) with DTCV case managers and lawyers before each court sitting. They review case progress reports outlining recent successes or concerns about treatment compliance for each participant. The courtroom has operated with the judge, sheriff, and court clerks attending in person, but out-of-custody participants usually attend by telephone.

Urine testing at DTCV’s dedicated Treatment Centre was suspended for some months but has resumed with new, COVID-safe procedures. The drug court’s “All-Star list” of participants who have attended all their treatment sessions and tested negative on urine screens for illicit drugs is once again growing, and the court has been able to accept new participants and celebrate graduations.

The court even has a virtual spinning wheel used to select prizewinners amongst participants who have shown perfect program compliance! (Prizes are modest gift certificates donated by local businesses.)

The steep challenges presented by a pandemic have been and continue to be met by the resiliency of the participants, who are engaging in virtual programming and continuing to make regular court appearances by phone or videoconference on MS Teams. And the court has continued to function effectively with the support of the exceptional case management team and dedicated court team.

There have proven to be advantages to the combination of telephone, in-person, and video conferencing the court has adopted for court appearances and team meetings. The drug court’s community partners have contributed to virtual learning opportunities – for example, court participants have been able to participate in Financial Literacy Sessions through the Vancity Financial Institution, and Employment Information Sessions through WorkBC and Mission Possible. And even before the pandemic, participants living at treatment centres could make routine court appearances by telephone to avoid missing scheduled treatment programs and venturing into Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside where the court is located.

A drug court participant’s letter attests to the effectiveness of the team’s efforts during the pandemic:

“Covid-19 has made things very difficult in our lives today but Drug Court has come up with so many ways to keep us fully hooked in, keeping us on our weekly schedules, and it's helped a lot for me during COVID-19. Each staff member is kind/caring and a positive support system for us and for that I’m grateful I was given the opportunity to participate in the program because it saved my life.

Today I’m able to say thanks to Drug Court/(my counsellor)—I’m one year clean and sober again and given everything I’ve learned so far during my participation as a client at Drug Court I’ve been able to achieve my goals and become a better person.”

The writer, like several other participants, went on to graduate from DTCV - in spite of the pandemic.