Resurrecting hope

Editor’s note: Last week the writer focused on internship with the Dunkirk Drug Treatment Court. This week the writer relates how court is conducted locally.

On a Thursday morning in March , the weekly session of Drug Treatment Court began in the City of Dunkirk with the Hon. Walter F. Drag presiding.

The expectation was that the judge would be in a robe, at the podium, towering over defendants. The reality was very different. Instead, the participants were called to sit at a table. The judge, dressed in a suit and tie, sat across from them as they came forward one by one – 19 in all.

“We try to make drug court an informal setting,” Drag said. “We’re on a team together. We’re part of it with you (the defendant), as opposed to talking down to them.”

Treatment Court Coordinator LeeAnn Lazarony said, “We want the clients to feel they’re in a safe, secure environment. They’re so worried when they come here.”

According to information provided by nycourts.GOV, the basic concept of a drug treatment court is to create a dramatic intervention by the court in cooperation with an entire team which includes the defense attorneys, prosecutors, treatment professionals, educators, and law enforcement. Non-violent addicted defendants are given the option to enter voluntarily into court-supervised treatment.

Each defendant who chooses to participate signs a contract, agreeing to abide by specific requirements. Not everyone completes the program, and there are sanctions in place if needed. However, during the session held the last Thursday in March, the majority of participants were making steady progress toward their goals.

There are three treatment phases that successful participants must complete. A detailed intake assessment is completed. The treatment team members discuss the status and progress of each individual prior to a courtroom session.

Phase one is the acceptance phase. The duration is at least three months, with weekly court appearances. Requirements include focusing on developing a clean and sober lifestyle, undergoing treatment, and providing documented participation in five self-help meetings per week. Drug-testing as well as interest and improvement in work and/or school are also components.

Phase two, the commitment phase, lasts at least 4-6 months. It requires bi-weekly court attendance, four weekly self-help groups, continued treatment, recognition of relapse triggers and improved employment. The development of the sober support system and a personal relapse prevention plan are key factors.

Phase three, the trust phase, lasts for five months. It includes monthly court appearances, a continued sober lifestyle, continued treatment, three weekly self-help meetings, and further progress with vocational goals. The client writes a personal relapse prevention plan.

Graduation celebrates the accomplishments of the individual, including the person’s commitment to sobriety/a clean lifestyle, improved family relationships, employment progress, and the adoption of the values of recovery.

One of the most difficult aspects of the program is the limited availability of in-patient beds for those who need them.

“There’s a dire shortage of beds,” said Drag.

Some of the clients in the courtroom were visibly distressed at the prospect of other options because of this.

The judge spoke to The judge spoke to them reassuringly, treating them with respect and kindness. Several of them nodded as he advised them, “Recovery has to be the most important thing in your life.” and “There are lots of distractions. Stay focused.”

In response to a question about the difference between Mental Health Court and Drug Court, Drag explained, “A designation of mental health is based on the diagnosis. Seventy percent have dual diagnoses.”

When there is a co-occurring chemical component, the primary diagnosis is made using the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Drag noted that assignment is overwhelmingly on the substance side.

He added, “Once they have a sober history, they can switch from one part to another. They can float between the different parts. We focus on individual needs.”

Lazarony expressed empathy for the situations that many of the clients have endured.

She said, “I say (to them), you would’ve done better if you knew better. Now you know better, so you can do better.” She added, “We don’t judge, we just move on. The interns can’t believe the transformation of the people.”

The Drug Court has served over 300 graduates. In addition, there is the ripple effect of the positive impact on children, significant others, employers, and the community as a whole.

“We’re fighting the stereotypes. It can happen to anyone,” Drag concluded.

This program provides tools and options for recovery, responsibility, productivity and hope.

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