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Drug courts scramble to keep participants on the path to graduation

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Judge Nina Ashenafi RichardsonWhile the rest of the nation was tracking a ventilator shortage, Leon County Judge Nina Ashenafi Richardson was Googling “sweat patches.”

“I had never heard of them,” she said. “But a drug court participant puts on a patch, and it detects what they may have been using for a two-week period.”

With the help of the wearable tech, and a lightning pivot by her provider team, Judge Richardson’s Leon County Felony Drug Court has remained up and running during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some drug programs have literally shut down,” she said. “This past Friday, I graduated four drug court participants that were in their last 90 days and really worried.”

Leon County Felony Drug Court usually serves between 65 and 100 addicted and alcoholic defendants who are facing felony charges but deemed appropriate for diversion by the Second Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s intake unit.

Participants pay $95 a month and agree to undergo at least 12 months of intensive treatment — regular drug testing, individual and group therapy, and frequent court appearances — in exchange for a chance at having the charges dropped.

The program is non-adversarial, but it’s far from coddling, Judge Richardson said. Admitting addiction and confronting its roots, day after day, can be excruciating, but it’s the only way to recover, Richardson said.

“In advance, they have to say my felony was attributed to my drug and alcohol issue, and they have to commit an entire year of their lives,” Judge Richardson said. “That’s a long time.”

Participants who graduate are like a “phoenix rising from the ashes,” physically and mentally transforming themselves into productive citizens, Judge Richardson said. (SeeCOVID-19 couldn’t keep ‘Anthony’ from obtaining his fresh start.)

“Unfortunately, there are still a lot of people out there, that when it comes to drug addicts or drug courts, believe that treatment doesn’t work,” she said. “It does.”

When COVID-19 struck, social distancing had the potential to bring drug court to a screeching halt, denying participants the counseling and drug testing they need to move from one treatment phase to the next, Judge Richardson said.

“We operate as a team,” Judge Richardson said. “Treatment court is very people-to-people oriented, and that was the first hurdle, so the first thing we did was utilize Zoom.”

Richardson and program managers held Zoom conferences to review individual cases. Judge Richardson also used a Zoom connection from the bench to meet with participants and quiz them on their progress and assure them the program would continue.

Adjusting to COVID-19 required a lot of work.

Counselors at A Life Recovery Center, Inc., quickly switched to Zoom counseling, said Aldonnius Carter, interim executive director and drug court coordinator. It’s a decision they will never regret, Carter said.

“It gave us a way to stay in our client’s lives during this trying time and it’s been phenomenal,” Carter said. “We have clients who are indigent, now they don’t have to worry about catching the bus or finding someone who has transportation to get them to us.”

And there has been a lot of Zoom counseling, Carter said. A Life Recovery Center moves drug court participants through four phases of recovery, each lasting three months, Carter said.

Phase I clients undergo two individual counseling sessions on a bi-weekly basis, Carter said. The rest receive one individual counseling session per month. Clients are also required to attend group sessions twice monthly.

The center currently serves about 50 outpatients and 10 residential patients, nearly all of them drug court participants, Carter said. If COVID-19 had halted drug court, the center’s future would have been in jeopardy, Carter said.

“That’s where most of our funding comes from,” he said. “If those platforms weren’t available, we would probably be looking to shut down.”

And now is not a good time to be closing treatment centers, Carter said.

“The overdose rate has increased across the nation, especially with a lot of people who have received stimulus checks,” he said.

Surina Alvarado, owner and executive director of Anchor Treatment Center, was determined not to let COVID-19 prevent or even slow the routine drug screening that is at the heart of the drug court program.

Adjusting hasn’t been easy, Alvarado said. Drug court clients are required to appear at her center twice a week to submit a urine sample, and many do it while holding down a job or going to school full time.

“We put an announcement on the random message line that they are not allowed to bring anyone else in the building when we’re testing, and they have to wear a mask,” she said. “We have gloves and masks on, we’re constantly wiping things down with bleach, we’re doing everything necessary to make it work.”

After hunting down a shipment of sweat patches, Alvarado began a marathon of online courses, becoming a licensed provider in 48 hours.

“I’m used to a lot of training, we do it all of the time for the Department of Children and Families,” she said. “Anytime there’s a problem, there’s a solution. We don’t shut down.”

Sweat patches have transformed drug testing, Alvarado said.

After submitting a clean urine sample as a control, a participant has a sweat patch applied to the skin like surgical bandage, Alvarado said. The patches detect the same illicit drug use as urinalysis, but the patches stay on for two weeks. They are water and tamper proof.

“They are able to stay at home, they can still bathe, workout, shower, and swim, I’m getting nothing but positive feedback,” she said. “It’s the perfect solution to social distancing because it’s limiting the amount of time that they have to come in and test.”

With far less risk of missing a screening phone call or appointment, there are far fewer violations, Alvarado said.

Alvarado’s center has also been using Zoom to counsel clients, and while it may sound counterintuitive, remote counseling can be more effective than in-person counseling, Alvarado said.

Clients are more relaxed and open, with most of them having grown up using cell phones and laptops, she said.

“Who wants to get up, get dressed, brush their teeth and hair, to go to a place if they can do it from the comfort of their own home, if they can get the same exact treatment, the same exact service?” Alvarado said. “I know it works because I’ve had clients graduate.”

Judge Richardson said the biggest setback COVID-19 has posed for drug court is the loss of graduation ceremonies. Clients who are still going through treatment are inspired when they see others triumph, Judge Richardson said.

“You see people in the audience with tears in their eyes,” she said. “We had one participant living out of his car because he lost everything, and when he graduated, you better believe the people in that courtroom were standing up and cheering.”

The Legislature and the Office of State Courts Administrator deserve credit for funding and administering a drug court grant program last year, Richardson said. The Leon County Felony Drug Court used its grant money to buy the patches, Judge Richardson said.

“When somebody is already vulnerable, then you have this health crisis, and then you have an economic crisis on top of that, it can be really scary,” she said. “Now is when our program is the most challenged, and everyone just went above and beyond the call of duty.”

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