by Chris Horne
A small blond boy scampers around on the burgundy carpet, going as he pleases between the tables and chairs. He’s oblivious to the proceedings, even when everyone erupts into applause for his mother because she quit smoking four months earlier. Outside of these four walls, that might seem minor, but the people here understand. Every step counts. She smiles as she straps her son into a stroller, walking out of the Akron Municipal Recovery Court a little prouder than when she arrived.
In a movie, this would make a great ending — challenges met, victory obtained, the day and her demons conquered. But this day is just starting. Two dozen other people are waiting to go next. Each faces demons that aren’t going away any time soon. Perhaps ever. An estimated 80 percent of the Recovery Court’s clients are addicted to opiates. And still, they are buoyed by an optimism that was in short supply before they arrived. Here, they are not bad people. They have an addiction. They can get help.
“We try to treat our clients with respect and dignity,” says Jeff Sturmi, Deputy Chief Probation Officer. “They don’t often get a lot of that.”
As a result, they speak with a lilting hope that their future isn’t doomed by their past. They come in as addicts and leave as addicts, but they are not defined by that alone.
Sturmi has worked with multiple judges here but Judge Joy Oldfield, he says, was quick to grasp “the devastation of addiction.” When she came in three years ago, she thought, as many outside the field still do, that addicts simply make a choice to use, and they should just stop making that choice, and if they make the wrong choice, it just means they’re weak. She credits Sturmi with helping shift her perspective.
“I’m just a different person than I was,” Oldfield says. “He had to tell me, ‘There’s relapse. It’s part of recovery.’ I learned you have to respect that recovery is not magic.”
Her new understanding encouraged the judge to change the name from Drug Court to Recovery Court. This, she thought, put more emphasis on the solution, not the problem. It isn’t about diverting people away from incarceration, but rather helping people change their own lives.
Cassandra says she’s been doing better since her last positive drug screen. She had been sober for a month but then went out drinking. Her caseworker, Rhonda Brink tells the judge her client is also an alcoholic, which helps explain how she ended up using heroin again with an old friend that night.
“I’m so ashamed and disappointed with myself,” she says.
This is true. When addicts relapse, their tolerance is down dramatically. If they try to use at the same level they had when they were active, that’s when they overdose. If it’s cut with something else, like fentanyl or carfentanil, that’s often when they die. Cassandra needs more support.
“I don’t have too many sober people in my life,” she admits.
This is where concerned citizens could play a role. Oftentimes, the difference between a successful recovery and a relapse is the number of people there to support you. Perhaps a version of Big Brothers Big Sisters for adult addicts could fill that need.
“If I could wave a wand to change something,” Oldfield says over coffee, days after court, “I’d want everyone to have a community of support — 20 to 25 people you could call if things go bad.”
She calls this The Cocoon, the layering of structure and support, care and accountability that have made Recovery Court work for more than 1,000 graduates since it started 20 years ago.
“It’s too bad everyone doesn’t have The Cocoon,” Oldfield laments.
Clients qualify for Recovery Court by committing a misdemeanor that’s connected to their addiction, not just drugs. Violent offenders aren’t allowed. Judge Thomas Teodosio runs the federal version, Turning Point, for felonies. Both have relationships with service providers so the clients in their courts get priority access.
“I’ve had people say, ‘I’m so glad I got arrested’,” Oldfield says, acknowledging how this imperfect scenario means addicts who aren’t in the criminal justice system wait an average of two weeks for access to finite resources. The alternative, she says, means letting things deteriorate further for those who’ve already been arrested for a crime.
Because it’s voluntary, clients must agree to a set of rules and consequences. It’s designed with flexibility because the ultimate goal is recovery. However, to provide accountability, the threat of jail time is real.
Each client is assessed and stabilized then they get a treatment plan. Caseworkers from Oriana House do weekly follow-ups then report back to the court, but clients can be referred anywhere for residential, detox, therapy and/or treatment options. Service providers and law enforcement sit in court at the ready if needed.
Sturmi ballparks the success rate around 75 percent, saying the “vast majority respond to the model.” Currently, the court’s capacity is between 60 and 70 clients.
There are two Christophers in court this day.
One says, “I have lots of people I can turn to at church, AA, my family.” He’s going on a church retreat soon. He does temp work to pay bills, but he’s applying for something full-time.
The other Christopher is going to jail. Too many violations. He’ll have a termination hearing to decide whether he gets to stay in the program. Oldfield sets bond at $25,000 and advises him to get a lawyer. His mom sits quietly in the back, watching an officer put handcuffs on her son. Even after he’s led away, she stays.
Throughout the day, Oldfield stresses the importance of “sober support” but cautions against depending on family alone. That burden is unfair. Yes, they want to help, but they’re too close to it. They get fed-up, tired, angry, burned-out. You need sober friends, she says, and sober strangers too. That’s why many go to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. Rebuilding socially is one of a recovering addict’s biggest challenges. Dealers sometimes infiltrate the groups where the addicted seek solace and friends from that old life come calling.
Jacqueline knew two young women who fatally overdosed together. That didn’t make her hate living in a halfway house any less. But a note from her dad, who joined her in court, did. “I told Jackie,” he says to Oldfield, “she needs to look at what she already wants and see what this court is offering her and embrace it.”
Tiffany, who has been sober for almost four months, is joined by her grandpa but he’s too emotional to speak when the judge addresses him. Oldfield reiterates how hard this is on families. She’s a mother herself. Turning to Christopher’s mom, she says, “We just want to solve all the problems, all the time, right?”
Christopher’s mom breaks down. Her voice cracks as she cries. “I do.”
Nicholas has had trouble sleeping. He’s experiencing flashbacks and anxiety. When he wakes up, he feels like he used. “It’s post acute withdrawal,” Brink says. “Your brain is healing.” He goes to three or four meetings a week. He has a 50-something friend who is a recovering alcoholic. All things considering, he feels okay. He’s three months sober.
Shelly has been sober for 30 days, thanks in part to Vivitrol, which negates the euphoric effects of opioids. Despite the progress, she got in a little trouble because she stopped at a yard sale and her driving privileges only allow her to make trips to work, court and the doctor.
LeAnn has been sober for 11 months. She’s closing in on graduation. She has her car back with limited driving privileges. “It’s stressful,” she tells the judge, “but everything gets better if I wait.” That’s one of the guiding principles of the court — the 24-hour rule. You can get upset but give it 24 hours before you act. LeAnn practically giggles as her caseworkers lavish praise on her. She beams as she says, “I’m not dopesick today.”
Since Oldfield took over, only two clients have fatally overdosed. One had only just started in the program. The other she describes as a young woman she expected would make it. That fact breaks her heart just to speak it.
“She didn’t want to die,” Oldfield says, struggling through tears to talk about this 27-year-old woman who had a degree and six months of sobriety, a young woman who was also five months pregnant. “These people don’t want to die.”
Hope is really what The Cocoon provides. The sense that you don’t have to do this by yourself. It’s a reminder that other people have succeeded. Hope tells you, if they did this then you can. It whispers that, contrary to what can feel like popular opinion, you are worth the effort.
“We’re trying to reduce the stigmatization,” Sturmi says. “These are not ‘bad people.’ They are people with a substance abuse problem. For many, the first time they used was the last choice they had. The consequences happen quickly. One, two, three months — and your life is a trainwreck. …We want to empower the client by giving them a nice snapshot of what your life can be in a year without drugs and alcohol.”
She’s fresh-faced and bright-eyed, wearing a light blue and brown plaid shirt. Her brown hair is pulled back. She wears a little silver necklace and a big grin. If you called central casting for a lively 20-something caucasian female, they might send you Eliza.
Today, she’s been sober for 17 months. She’s graduating from the program and later on, at work, she’ll get a promotion. It’s a good day, even if — or especially because — her path took longer than most.
“I got caught when I overdosed,” she says. “That wasn’t what I wanted for my life but I kept doing it.”
She told herself she was different, that she didn’t need to do everything the court required. Then one day, she looked at the people trying to help her. She saw people with jobs, marriages, families — the same kind of things she wanted for herself.
“So I decided to listen,” she says. “I did the things I was told, even the things I thought were ridiculous. That changed my life.”
When she returns to Recovery Court, it will be to help others the way she has been helped, to offer hope and support to another person who is vulnerable but ready to fight for her life.
Someone like Ashley.
One of her friends died because of an addiction. Another has been in a coma for a month. Ashley doesn’t want to die but she knows that’s the risk. Sometimes that sounds better than being dopesick.
“I pushed it to the back of my mind. I told myself, ‘You’ll be high. You won’t feel anything.’,” she admits. “Now, I’m scared to even touch it. I want to feel everything.”
Oldfield asks Ashley how long she’s been sober. “Twelve days,” she says. She’s proud and should be, the judge says.
“You can’t get to 12 months without getting to 12 days,” Oldfield says.
With that, the room applauds just as loudly as they had for Eliza. However, when they realize Ashley’s drug screen was dirty, she has to revise her sober date. A little defeated, but only just so, she says, “It’s been 10 days.”
“In Recovery Court, it gets harder before it gets easier,” Oldfield says. “I’m sorry you lost your friends, but I’m glad it wasn’t you.”
The next time I see the judge, she says Ashley has 17 days sober and counting.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, you can get help by calling the Summit Co. ADM Board’s Crisis Hotline at 330-434-9144, or visit them online at admboard.org