Editor's note: This is the fifth in a six-part series on the drug crisis in our community. This week: Drug court. Next week: What can the community do to solve the problem?
It’s 8:52 a.m.
Every minute that passes by in Superior Court I is felt and noted by those in the courtroom every Wednesday morning.
Every second the clock on the left side of the room ticks closer to 9 a.m., feet start tapping. Nails are bitten off. Hair is twirled. Nervous chatter fills the silence.
As the clock strikes 9 a.m., people start glancing at the wooden door, with a small diamond glass window at the front of the room. The longer it takes the judge to walk out of that door, the more anxiety fills the room.
The tension is thick, hanging in the air, looming over everyone who waits.
Questions fill everyone’s minds, but only a few murmur them out loud.
“Who are they talking about?” “Who’s in trouble?” “Who’s going to jail this time?”
Because in this courtroom — if you have set a toe out of line in the past week — jail is a very real possibility for you. But why are they worried? They did sign up for this after all.
They don’t look like the typical drug addict Hollywood tends to portray. If you saw them on the street, you wouldn’t give them a second glance.
They are our coworkers. Our neighbors. Our family.
And they are trying to get through one of the most difficult times in their lives. They are trying to recover.
On the other side of the wooden door, the judge and jury — both literal and figurative — are deciding their fate.
More than a dozen people surround a table near the judge’s chambers. No, they aren’t the typical jury, but they know more about their clients than the proverbial Santa Claus. How does that song go again? “They know if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”
“She’s already crashed and burned. She’s on fire — the question is how do we put her out?”
Judge William Menges scans the room for suggestions.
All of the people in the room are qualified to answer. They are therapists from Community Howard Regional Health and St. Vincent Kokomo, case managers from Open Arms and the Kokomo Rescue Mission, police officers, public defenders, detectives and probation officers. They have access to drug court participants’ homes, phones and social media accounts. They know what to do.
But when it comes to children, they are torn.
“Who is going to take care of the kids if mom goes to jail?”
Is keeping a self-destructive mother with her children the best option? Or should she be reprimanded for her actions?
Back in the courtroom, Judge Menges enters. The Howard County Drug Court is in session.
“We will start with you first,” he said.
‘It just snowballed’
Like most 16-year-olds his age, John Maher was going to get his wisdom teeth pulled. Little did he know, that first, innocent experience of prescription drugs would lead to him nearly dying — twice — and a lifelong recovery process.
John, a Kokomo native, was prescribed pain medication after the wisdom teeth surgery and then started to use similar prescription drugs recreationally on weekends.
“It just snowballed,” he said.
John graduated from high school in 2003, and by 2005, his recreational usage of prescription drugs had developed into something he needed to function. He was addicted.
“I moved onto heavier and stronger stuff — Oxys — once I started on those it was really bad for me,” he said. Oxycodone, the active ingredient in several narcotic pain medications including Percocet and OxyContin, works to relieve moderate to severe pain by attaching to specific receptors in the brain, according to the Mayo Clinic.
John was going to school at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis while still trying to appease his addiction.
“Things hadn’t really gotten too bad for me at that point — I was addicted and using, but I was still functioning,” he said.
Eventually, he dropped out of college because he couldn’t keep up with both his school work and his growing addiction. He admitted to having a problem.
“I took some time off,” John said. “That time off didn’t help … the usage just escalated.
“All along through my usage I knew I shouldn’t be doing it and I knew I needed to stop,” he continued. “There was a part of me that wanted to [stop], but there was also a part of me that just wanted to keep doing it.”
In 2016, John and his family decided the best place for him was in a recovery program. He left Kokomo for a rehabilitation center in Florida.
“That’s when I was finally just at the bottom,” he said.
Being clean and sober for the first time in more than 10 years wasn’t the kind of relief you would expect. Those first few weeks were “pure hell” John remembered.
“It was absolutely terrible,” he said. “It was absolutely miserable.” John had all of the classic symptoms of withdrawal, coupled with an inability to sleep.
John was in the rehab facility for 45 days and then completed seven months at a “halfway” facility, he said.
He came back to Kokomo in November of 2016, where he found the life he had left all of those months ago. John relapsed.
“I jumped right back into it.”
In December that same year, John was sitting in his car at a CVS parking lot in Kokomo with an acquaintance, getting ready to shoot up heroin.
“I was with another guy, and I remember him saying, ‘Take it easy on it’ and that it was strong,” John recalled, noting he only injected part of the syringe. “The next thing I knew, I woke up with cops and paramedics all around.
“This guy I was with wasn’t even really a friend. I didn’t know him all that well. Fortunately, he was good enough to call the paramedics because he could have just left me. He called the paramedics and then he took off, but he at least got them involved.”
John picked up a couple of charges from the overdose incident, but almost losing his life — the first time — was not enough to make him want to stop.
On March 11, 2017, John was at his grandmother’s house with his girlfriend. The couple were bickering, and he didn’t pay attention to how much heroin he was taking. And frankly, he didn’t care.
“I did it, and once again woke up,” John said. “I just remember the looks on everyone’s faces. At that point in time, I didn’t know, but I found out a couple days later when I was in jail that my dad and girlfriend both had to do chest compressions on me for about 15 minutes.”
In addition to his family’s work to keep his heart pumping, John received several life-saving doses of Narcan during both of his overdoses.
John served about 21 days in jail after the March overdose, before being placed on probation for about 10 weeks. During one of his meetings with probation officers, they asked if he would be interested in joining the drug court program.
“I had heard so many horror stories about drug court in jail. They had said that I was going to fail and I’d end up right back in jail,” John said. “But I wanted the accountability.”
John started the drug court program in the summer of 2017 and hasn’t looked back.
For John, the program started out with checking in five days a week and drug tests about three days a week. The second phase of the program is not as rigorous — checking in three days a week and Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings on Saturdays and Sundays — but John had to get a second-shift job so he could attend all of the required and necessary meetings and court sessions to meet the requirements of drug court.
“I actually feel like the system cares now. They are trying to actually help people,” John said. “There have been times where I’ve actually went to Laura, the probation officer, to talk about things before I even went to my own family. I just feel comfortable with them.”
He is currently in Phase II of the program, and just celebrated his one year of sobriety in March. He was recently promoted to a supervisor position at DC Coaters.
“It’s a huge change from where I was at a year ago.”
‘What do we have to lose?’
As a public defender in the early 2000s, Judge Menges traveled to Akron, Ohio, to a training session for drug court. Howard County needed another court at the time to cope with the amount of drug-related cases, and while lobbying for that, Menges said they would start the drug court program here.
“What really got me interested in drug court more than anything was the fact that we have a 95 percent re-offense rate among traditionally treated drug offenders,” he said. “The national recidivism rate for people who are terminated from drug court at that point was 74 percent. Even just based on the people that failed the program, you still have a substantial reduction in recidivism, so my feeling was, ‘What do we have to lose?’”
The Howard Superior Court I Adult Drug Court Program started in 2007. Within the 10 years since the program’s implementation, 92 people have participated with a little less than half of them — 45 to be exact — actually graduating.
In order to participate, offenders must meet certain criteria and be admitted to the program by the drug court staff. They also must sign a plea agreement, admitting guilt to their charges. If they fail, they will be terminated from the program and will be sentenced for those charges.
Probation officer and drug court case manager Laura Rood said people don’t fail the program because they relapse. Relapse is generally part of the process. People fail because they can’t comply with all of the rules.
“This program is helping the people that want to be helped,” Rood said. “Some have failed from using, but most fail because they break the rules over and over and over again.”
The program lasts a minimum of one year and can extend up to three years, depending on that individual’s situation. Drug court participants are moved into four different phases as they successfully complete specific requirements. If they do not meet those requirements or get caught doing something they should not be doing, they can be moved back a phase, sentenced to time in jail or removed from the program altogether.
So why would addicts even want to participate? For some, it’s the accountability. For others, it’s either this program or a jail sentence.
According to the drug court participant manual, the program allows participants to avoid criminal prosecution by “agreeing to complete a substance abuse treatment program, remain alcohol and drug free, and to complete other program requirements as determined by the Drug Court Program Team.”
One of those other program requirements could mean living at Open Arms or the Kokomo Rescue Mission to get addicts out of homes that would derail their sobriety, or wearing a GPS ankle bracelet so probation officers can know where participants are at and if they are going to their group meetings and probation.
Since the program started back in 2007, Menges said the drug of choice has changed over the years.
“There has been a tremendous difference in the types of drugs people are addicted to,” he said. “When we started drug court, the hard drug of choice was cocaine or crack cocaine and we were dealing with cocaine addicts. Then methamphetamine started rearing its ugly head and we went through a period of time when the generally thought process was, ‘You can’t help a meth addict, they are beyond help.’ One of the things we learned in Howard County in the drug court system is what worked for cocaine addicts worked for meth addicts.”
And now they are working to make that same system work for opioid addicts. One of the first things many of the people addicted to opioids complete during drug court is the Vivatrol program at Community Howard Regional Health.
Vivatrol “blocks opioid receptors in the brain for one month at a time, helping patients to prevent relapse to opioid dependence, following detox, while they focus on counseling,” according to the medication’s website. It became available to addicts a little more than a year ago, and people have been “basically beating down the doors to sign up” ever since, Menges said.
Part of the incentive to join the drug court program is ability to get released from jail to receive Vivatrol treatments, Menges continued.
‘I felt like a demon was trying to come out of my body’
Jeanie Nichols recreationally drank alcohol and smoked pot in high school.
“You try things, but you never think that you are going to get addicted to it or need it every day,” she said.
But after Jeanie became pregnant and gave birth at age 18, she was prescribed hydrocodone — Lortabs. At first, she was just taking what was prescribed, which was a low dose. The longer she took them, the more pills she needed to still get the same pain-relieving effect. Even though she needed a higher dose, Jeanie said the prescription drug only increased her ability to function.
“[Lortabs] helped me do things,” she said. “It gave me energy.”
In 2007, a few months after giving birth to her son, Jeanie began to realize that she was developing an unhealthy addiction to the drugs. She started taking Oxycodone, which she described as a higher dose of a pain reliever.
“Eventually, [Oxycodone] wasn’t working anymore. That’s when I moved on and found heroin, which was even stronger, cheaper and easier to get,” she said.
Jeanie started using heroin in 2014, and by that time, she had given birth to two more children. She described her day-to-day life trying to raise children and feed her addiction as “a struggle.”
“Granted, I had a lot of family to help me because most of my family didn’t even know I had this addiction,” she said. “I would make excuses — like I had to work or go to school, knowing I wasn’t doing either — and I was selling heroin just to support the addiction.”
Jeanie said selling drugs was one of the scariest things she has ever done. She was constantly paranoid and continuously surrounded by a bunch of people she didn’t know.
“It was all about the drugs at that point, everything was drug-related.”
In May 2016, Jeanie needed a way out.
“I had a meltdown that day. I was praying to God, ‘I need a miracle,’” she said. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”
That same day, Jeanie was down the street from her house making a drug deal. Police had been watching her for several days, she said, and they finally caught her in the act.
“I was kind of thankful I went to jail because it gave me the opportunity to get clean. I had never had that opportunity,” she said. Since her family didn’t know about her addiction, she said she was afraid to seek the help she knew she needed up to that point.
Jeanie was in jail for six months. The first few weeks of withdrawal were hellish, to say the least.
“I felt like a demon was trying to come out of my body.”
For weeks, Jeanie was throwing up in her jail cell and even contemplated suicide. “I would rather die than go through this,” she thought. After about a month of horrendous symptoms, she started to feel like she could live again.
While in jail, she applied to get into the drug court program and found she had been accepted a few months later. Jeanie’s first day in court was Nov. 30, 2016, and she is currently in Phase II of the program.
Jeanie’s life looks much different now, working at McAlister’s Deli in Kokomo and supporting her three children. Her youngest son has autism, which has added another level to her maternal responsibilities.
“I get up, get the kids off to school and usually come to probation right after. Then I go to work, come home, do homework with the kids and get dinner ready,” she said. “Then I do it all over again.”
Although she admits she has challenges she has to overcome daily, the normalcy of her life is due, in part, to the drug court system.
“I feel like without drug court, I would have already been back to where I was,” she said. “Because you’ve had this addiction, and you’ve had it for so long, you don’t how — you don’t have the tools.
“I never thought I’d be able to live like this.”
Now that Jeanie’s family knows the battle she has had raging inside of her all of these years, they are more than supportive, she said.
“My dad tells me how proud he is of me like every day now,” she said. “Now I know if it starts to become too hard, I can ask them for help. I’m not ashamed to ask for help anymore.”
As the clock inches closer to 10:15, Laura Rood sits with her head in her hand. She insists that watching people fail doesn’t bother her.
“I am one that has boundaries,” Rood said.
“I’m going to put an asterisk on that. She sets boundaries, but she recognizes what those boundaries are and she will work tirelessly,” Menges corrected. “If she gets a text message and it’s an honest-to-God problem, she’s going to do whatever is necessary to help that person.”
Rood retracted her original statement.
“There are certain ones that bother me … they are the ones I have spent a lot of time on,” she said. “You can still move on though — you don’t dwell on it.”
“You need to make arrangements for somebody to take care of your kids.”
Judge Menges delivers the news to a young mother with tears streaming down her face. She was going to go to jail that day, not because of one specific incident, but because of an accumulation of not abiding by the rules of drug court. The courtroom is silent while Menges pauses, letting the weight of that decision sink in.
“While you’re in jail, you need to think about why you want your kids to grow up exactly the same way you did. Is that what you want for your kids? Do you want your kids to be sitting in court every week? Do you want your kids overdosing, going to jail or going to prison?”
Instead of dwelling on the mother who could die if she doesn’t change her lifestyle, Rood directs her thoughts to the people doing well, like Jeanie and John.
“What gives us the incentive to carry on is how successful some of those graduates have been,” Menges said. “We have some people who are just fabulously successful and would have probably been dead but for the intervention of drug court and Laura’s work with them.”
It’s hard to watch people crash and burn, when they have had every opportunity to succeed in the program. But Rood holds onto something her husband told her son one day after driving past the jail.
“He said, ‘Son, that place is full of good people that made bad choices,’” she said. “You can overcome those choices.”
“People make mistakes. That doesn’t make them bad people.”