Treatment courts provide an alternative to incarceration

The Eau Claire County treatment court system is regarded as the most expansive of its kind in the area, serving as an alternative to jail or prison for drug offenders. © 2017 Nicole Bellford 

 By Nicole Bellford

She had lost custody of her first two children. She was five months pregnant with her third child. Her teeth had begun falling out.

In early 2016, Jaclyn Reidel said she decided she had finally reached a breaking point in her battle with a methamphetamine addiction that had lasted nearly two decades.

“There was just this little voice in the back of my head, telling me I was going to have a heart attack,” Reidel said. “I just knew that I didn’t want to die.”

To combat her addiction struggles, Reidel said she requested placement in one of Eau Claire County’s four treatment courts, aimed at providing a long-term, rehab intensive alternative to jail or prison for offenders suffering from drug addiction. Treatment court administrators provide that the program has made an impact on both the rising meth problem in Eau Claire and treatment court participants, allowing for Reidel and those in similar situations to continue on a healthy road to recovery.

The Rising Meth Problem

A recent study conducted by the State Department of Justice reported the past five years have seen a drastic increase in methamphetamine related cases throughout the state of Wisconsin. Specifically, west-central areas of the state, such as Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls, have recorded the most severe statistics.

The study states nearly 300 meth-related cases occurred in Eau Claire within the past year, which is an 895 percent rise since 2011.

The Leader Telegram covered a Chippewa County public forum in July 2016, speaking to Chippewa Falls police drug investigator Steve McMahon about the seriousness of the rising meth problem in the area.

McMahon said the majority of his caseload in 2016 was meth-related. In addition, he said the community experienced a rise in the number of women who were pregnant and continuing meth use.

The Journey to Treatment Court

Reidel said she said she first tried meth at the age of 15. While it began as a weekend activity, she said her addiction led to the event of her moving out at 16-years-old and using meth at least once a day.

Although she graduated high school and got married at 19-years-old, Reidel said her quick divorce just one year later caused a pickup in her meth use, resulting in her first jail sentence at 21-years-old.

A graduate of AIM court this past year, Jaclyn Reidel suffered from a methamphetamine addiction for nearly two decades. The image on the left depicts Reidel before she began her treatment program, and the picture on the right depicts Reidel on the day of her graduation from treatment court.

Throughout the next 12 years, Reidel said she was an “on and off” meth user, as well as in and out of county jail. Reidel had two children while addicted to meth, being forced to give up her parental rights to her parents and grandparents.

When Reidel decided it was time for a change, her request to be accepted for treatment led to her placement in treatment court.

While the Eau Claire County Department of Human Services reports that several areas across the state have implemented some type of treatment court, Eau Claire County’s is the most expansive, offering four different subgroups within the treatment court system.

These four groups include drug court, Alternatives to Incarcerating Mothers (AIM) court, mental health court and Chippewa Valley Veteran’s court. Reidel received placement in AIM court.

According to Eau Claire County drug court coordinator Dawn Dutter, a drug offender’s placement within a subgroup of treatment court is determined by what court experience would provide the strongest fit for their addiction situation.

Dutter said she has worked within Eau Claire’s treatment court system for the past six years, starting as an AIM court administrator, and switching to the drug court coordinator position within the last year.

Looking at the treatment court steps, Dutter explained the process as a team effort, consisting of community members such as a judge, public defender, treatment specialist and a doctor all working together to help the participant maintain sobriety. Dutter said the process typically consists of multiple phases, lasting between 10 and 12 months.

“The purpose is twofold,” Dutter said. “We want people to receive proper treatment, and we want our community to be a safe environment.”

A Closer Look at the Process

While in AIM court, Reidel said her treatment process started out by providing participants with a strict schedule, thus creating a sense of structure that was previously missing from their lives. This structure included weekly meetings and therapy sessions that eventually weaned off toward the end of the program, Reidel said.

Reidel said the aspect of treatment court that proved most successful for her sobriety were the weekly therapy sessions. She said the sessions helped her understand her using was a coping mechanism to mask deeper issues, such as a troubled childhood and a past abusive relationship.

“It (the therapy sessions) built up my inner strength,” Reidel said. “I am happier internally. I can smile and laugh. I can feel joy, and I don’t think I could have done that on my own.”

According to AIM court coordinator Marsha Schiszik, AIM court’s strongest features include having additional team members on staff to aid participants in both their addiction and family management, such as social workers, family services professionals and child development specialists.

“Treatment court in itself is a lot of work,” Schiszik said. “But then, you are also a mother. You are also a parent. You have to manage recovery groups, recovery meetings, with parent teacher conferences, all of those expectations. When you have kids it’s more.  We obviously discuss that a lot more in AIM than we would in any other courts.”

Aside from family management, Schiszik also said AIM court often treats women who have dealt with domestic violence in the past. She said therapy sessions and domestic violence specialists have helped AIM court develop the proper resources to address this issue.

As a whole, Schiszik said she believes the treatment court method allows for participants to regain control of their lives on all fronts and for the long haul.

“We are able to walk with the person to help them get stabilized not only with sobriety but with housing, their employment, their children,” Schiszik said. “We are there for a long time.”

Comparing Options

In terms of comparing the options of treatment court versus jail-time, Dutter said she knows what works.

“Going to jail or prison won’t treat the addiction,” Dutter said. “Evidence based research has showed us that longer-term programming for clients with a methamphetamine addiction gives them a better chance at success at having recovery and long-term recovery.”

According to Eau Claire County treatment court data, graduates of the program through the first three quarters of 2017 were saved approximately 6,000 jail or prison bed days due to their participation. In addition, of the 13 program graduates through Sept. 30 of this year, all but one maintained at least 90 consecutive days of sobriety.

Of the 11 graduates who started the program unemployed, each of them gained employment by their graduation date, and of the 12 graduates who did not have stable housing when they were admitted into the program, each one achieved housing by the program’s end. Lastly, three out of the four AIM court participants in 2016 who had Children in Need of Protection of Services (CHIPS) regained custody of their children by graduation.

Overall, Dutter said she believes Eau Claire’s expansive treatment court system will continue to improve the outlook for drug-related cases in the community, much like Reidel’s.

“These treatment courts are different,” Dutter said. “I’ve seen the most people succeed, because they work. The numbers will keep growing.”

 Moving Forward

Following her graduation from the program in May 2017, Reidel said she currently sponsors treatment court participants. In addition, she regularly visits her first child, is working on gaining custody of her second child, and has full parental rights of her third child.

Looking back, Reidel said she will always grateful for the opportunity to be a part of treatment court.

“It (AIM court) was my program,” Reidel said. “It saved my life.”

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