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Communal Approach

Drug court program helps participants gain sobriety, learn real-life skills.

Early on a Wednesday morning a young man stood before Judge Burke F. McCahill and Judge Thomas D. Horne and told them he had experienced a monumental moment in his life. Less than a week before, he said, one of his old friends had shown up at his house and offered him his drug of choice. Instead of giving in to temptation, he told his friend to leave and went back into his house.

"I am very proud of myself," he told the judges. "It was a turning point for me."

"I think that deserves a round of applause," Horne said.

The morning was not as happy for another man, who stood before the judges and admitted he bought over-the-counter medicines and narcotics from a dealer. He told the judges he had been dishonest about the meetings he had been attending and his sobriety. The day before he had sat with a Sheriff's deputy and recommitted himself to his sobriety.

"I am not giving up on myself," he said.

"Well, we're not giving up on you either," McCahill said.

For all of his honesty, however, Horne told the man he must be taken immediately to jail to await the opening of a bed in an in-patient treatment facility.

"That's the reality of the program," Michelle White, a justice planner from Community Corrections who organizes the drug court program, said.

SEVEN PEOPLE APPEARED before Horne and McCahill, Wednesday, March 7, as they do every Wednesday, at 8 a.m., for drug court and the chance to tell the judges where they stand in the process of their recovery. Each of the seven people have voluntarily entered Loudoun's drug court, a treatment program for adults with drug-addition problems. Established in 2004, the drug court requires coordination from several county departments, including Community Corrections, the Circuit Court, the Commonwealth's Attorney's office, the Sheriff's Office and the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse.

"There are lots of players," White said. "We are really lucky to have these people working for us."

The drug court program is open to people on supervised probation for felony convictions, with no violent felonies on their record and who have violated their probation because of their drug use. By rerouting participants into the program instead of jail, Community Corrections estimates the drug court saves the county $90 per day, per offender.

"We are taking stock of each person individually," White said. "That could mean different levels of intervention are most appropriate."

In addition to appearing in court once a week, participants must take regular drug tests, meet regularly with their probation officer and attend group therapy sessions.

"We are very strict about even taking some over-the-counter medicine," White said. "Any violation of the program can send the person directly to jail."

While there is no set length of the program, White said the average participant takes approximately 15 months to graduate.

"There is a minimum of 12 months," she said. "There are four phases to pass through, with 90 days required for each phase."

THE PROGRAM does not only focus on sobriety, but on helping participants change their behaviors and lifestyles.

"This is a very comprehensive, very intensive program. We look at the whole picture," Suzanne Miller, a therapist with the program, said. "It is about finding a job, paying child support, obtaining transportation. A regular person needs to deal with all those things."

White said the program's goal is not to have any of the participants under supervision after they graduate and their probation ends.

"We want to have them become successful members of society," she said.

In order to ensure that the participants are successful, the drug program forces them to focus on other areas of their life while working to remain sober, including going to school, finding and maintaining a job and reconnecting with their families.

"It's not easy," White said. "It's not designed to be easy. We're really looking for people to make a lifestyle change."

In order to achieve a lifestyle change for participants, representatives from every county department involved in the program are present in drug court on Wednesdays, in addition to meeting and reviewing cases individually.

"Everyone really must work together," White said.

One of the participants told McCahill and Horne on March 7 that he was surprised how difficult the program really was.

"It pushes every button you have," he said. "But I am ready to push through."

WHEN THE DRUG court was founded in 2004, it was created as a pilot program and has not yet been able to grow past that point. After its first year, Commonwealth's Attorney James E. Plowman became vocal about his concerns about the program during the Board of Supervisors' budget work sessions for the fiscal year 2006 county budget. He was specifically concerned about the $324,000 requested as an enhancement in the fiscal year 2006 budget.

In a letter to the drug court program team members dated May 5, 2005, Plowman stated that he supported the 2004 pilot program, but was not comfortable with any additional funds requested by the program's staff.

"In my mind, a pilot program has a certain meaning," he wrote. "Specifically, let's try this out and see if it works for us, or if it works at all. With no additional financial resources being committed to the effort, it seemed to be a reasonable experiment with very little risk."

Even with Plowman's resistance the program has survived, but White said it has not been easy.

"The money for drug courts have shrunk," she said. "Even when [the federal government] has the money, they'll fund maybe two programs per state."

Most of the federal money, she added, is earmarked to help start drug courts, not to running a court once it is in place.

Money is available through some grants at the state level, but Virginia requires a 25 percent cash match from the locality. The money for running of the drug court trickles down from federal grants, White said.

"The Virginia Superior Court and the chief justice are advocates for the drug court," she said. "The state money goes to their budget and they disperse it."

FOR THE FIRST time it looks like the county might provide money for the program as part of the yearly budget.

Community Corrections is requesting $45,000 for a drug court probation officer for a temporary one-year position. The county had received a grant from the Virginia Office of the Executive Secretary and the state's Supreme Court that funds the position through Sept. 30, 2007.

"We would have to renew our grant at the end of September," Ted McDaniel, director of Community Corrections, said. "The position is in there just in case we don't receive the grant."

McDaniel said that a drug court planner has been doing case work in addition to planning for the court, but that the caseload has gotten too large.

"The number of cases is certainly growing," McDaniel said.

While White was on hand during the board's first budget work session to answer questions, no supervisors questioned the inclusion of the position in the budget. However, the board will not be making straw vote cuts to the budget until March 22, so the position's inclusion is still tentative.

DETRACTORS OF THE program point to the low numbers of people it is serving as an indication of its failings, but those involved with the program say it is designed to serve more participants.

"It can serve a lot more people and it should serve a lot more," Miller said. "It is just one of the more different things that a person can do."

White said that with a program as small as Loudoun's, it is difficult to do a true progress report that shows its overall effectiveness.

"The best way to sell something is to show how it works," she said. "Until you go and sit in the court room and experience the drug court, you can't fully understand it. It really is a completely different experience from traditional Circuit Court."

As to assertions she has heard that a residential rehabilitation facility can offer the same quality of treatment participants get in the program, Miller said the drug court goes above and beyond.

"Residential treatment doesn't give you the how I'm going to make it in the real world training," she said. "I came to Loudoun County specifically because it had a drug court. That's how much I believe in it."