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New Help for Addicts

Addicts who violate probation can now participate in program to help them overcome their dependencies.

Drug and alcohol addicts in Loudoun County who violate probation will now get another chance to set their lives straight, thanks to the inception of Loudoun's adult drug treatment court.

The highly structured program, which got its start here in June, is designed to help people who continue to break the law in non-violent ways because of their addictions, according to Michelle White, criminal justice planner with the county.

"It actually seems to work for a population of people where maybe nothing else has," White said.

To qualify for enrollment in drug court, a person must reside in Loudoun County, be alcohol or drug dependent, have a pending probation violation due to his or her dependency and have no prior conviction for violent felonies or weapons offenses.

Currently, three people are enrolled in Loudoun's drug court, which is capped at 10 members since it operates on existing resources — although White hopes to receive federal grant as well as local money in the future. Those in the program pay a $100 fee to start; what an enrollee pays for treatment beyond that is determined by an individual financial assessment proctored by the county.

Once enrolled, addicts follow a strict schedule of court appearances, drug screenings, appointments with probation officers and self-help meetings.

"It is an intense, structured program to monitor drug addicts and provide treatment," said Phil Erickson, a substance abuse program manager with Mental Health/Mental Retardation/Substance Abuse Services. Erickson supervises the treatment each individual receives.

"Because an individual reports to court every week, if they are not complying with treatment, they get sanctions," Erickson said.

FAILURE TO MEET requirements — such as missing a court date or failing a drug screening — results in instant reprimands which could vary from a writing assignment to GPS monitoring to incarceration. At the same time, however, participants receive positive feedback as they progress through the program's three phases of treatment.

For people who have had solely adversarial relationships with judges and other court officials, the drug court provides a venue for addicts to overcome their dependencies and have a positive experience in court, according to White.

"We want to do positive reinforcement when they're doing very well," White said. "Last week, someone received a handshake from a judge. That's a big deal."

The program also encourages cooperation among the various institutions involved, from the judges to the Sheriff's Office to the treatment specialists like Erickson.

"It's a cooperative, interagency project," Erickson said. "It brings everyone together in providing treatment." Thanks to the partnerships involved, information sharing among the agencies has become more efficient, he added.

Before the drug court program's local debut, addicts had more of a chance to slip through the cracks of the court system — and less attention might be paid to the root of their criminal activity, namely, their dependencies.

"They could still get access to treatment, but it generally took a little longer," Erickson said. "If someone violated their probation, they will be returned to the jail and they will have minimal treatment in jail."

DOWN IN ROANOKE, the location of Virginia's first drug court, 10 years of treating addicts through the court system has paid off. According to Mike Fasbre, senior probation and parole officer with the Roanoke Circuit Court, a recidivism study showed that only seven percent of the people enrolled in the Roanoke program since 1995 have been charged with a felony since graduating. While it's impossible to determine how many graduates began using drugs or alcohol again, the study did prove that drug court was keeping addicts out of the court system.

Fasbre, who has been involved with the Roanoke program since it began, had some advice for Loudoun's new program.

"Just keep working and don't get frustrated," he said. "This is a very, very frustrating group of people to work with. They'll do anything they need to get the drug."

He stressed the importance of continuing treatment after graduation via a strong community 12-step program.

"They need to be hooked into the recovery process for the rest of their lives," Fasbre said.

Rob Franchok, a probation officer with the drug court program, is in tune with an addict's needs and behavior.

"You have to remember that you're dealing with people who have a very strong addiction," he said. "You have to remember that an addict will act like an addict."

Individuals are required to be in the program for a minimum of 12 months — and be clean for the six months prior to graduation. For many addicts, however, it's not a case of progressing neatly through each of the program's three phases, Franchok said.

"Someone can be doing very well and boom, it's just a little trigger and they can relapse," he said.

For everyone who is involved in the county's fledgling program, however, a mix of pragmatism and hopefulness is prudent.

"It's about keeping people out of jail, helping people get a better life that's clean," said Erickson.