THORNVILLE – On June 23, the Perry County New Direction Drug Court held its graduation ceremony at the Barn at the BackWoods. It was a jubilant affair; strings of light hung from the ceiling, a fine dinner was served, and graduates, alumni, counselors, probation officers, judges and county officials drifted among the tables mingling with each other.
The New Direction Drug Court is a program run by the Perry County Municipal Court designed to help individuals charged with drug offenses work toward overcoming their addiction and finding steady employment. It gives individuals an option for improvement rather than jail time.
People in the program have generally been charged with misdemeanor drug use in Perry County. More serious charges, such as driving under the influence of certain drugs, will generally disqualify a person from participating. However, individuals are placed in the program on a case-by-case basis. Severe charges may not disqualify someone once their background is considered.
One alumnus of the program, Richard Binion, was pulled over for operating a vehicle while under the influence of drugs. Normally, the charge would have disqualified him, but the court, after seeing it was a relapse after being five years clean, decided to push him toward the New Direction Drug Court instead.
The program works with health care providers inside and outside Perry County to provide medical care and a four-step program to its participants. The success rate for the program is 83%, with 100% of participants being employed upon graduation. The program typically includes 30–40 people, though currently only 25 individuals are involved with the program.
“They stay on you, and they keep you on track and with an agenda,” Binion said. “They keep you busy and focused on your recovery.”
Chief Probation Officer Brad Agriesti said the Perry County program is very successful in comparison to other counties. The primary drug issues in the county are methamphetamine and heroin, but the main problem comes from these drugs being laced with other chemicals. Sometimes, a person comes into drug court thinking they are taking one drug, but after taking a drug test they find they test positive for 20 substances.
Amanda Snellings was one of the individuals graduating from New Direction Drug court that evening. In 2019 she was found asleep in her car on the side of the road with her 18-month-old child. She was a victim of severe opioid use.
Judge Dean Wilson sent her to jail for six weeks. Snellings said the detox she went through in jail was one of the roughest periods in her life. While there, she sent a letter applying for drug court and was deemed to be eligible. She then went through four-month treatment at the Georgia Harris House in Waverly, Ohio.
She then came back to Perry County and the drug court placed her in sober living at Perry Behavioral Health. While there, she went through the four-phase plan. Snellings attended counseling, did community service, and navigated herself back into the workforce.
Snellings is now employed as a treatment navigator at Perry County Behavioral Health. Her duties involving helping those in recovery remove obstacles in their lives. These obstacles are any stressors that individuals might face, such as needing rides, filling out insurance forms or finding clothing. Snellings also runs support groups for individuals in recovery, using her experience to empathize with those in recovery and help guide them toward healthier habits.
“Each time, depending on how they ingest (a drug), whether they snort it, shoot it, or ingest it, they’re gambling with their life, and I did that,” she said. “I just didn’t think it would happen to me… I thank the judge, because if it wouldn’t have been for him giving me a drug screening on the day I got charged. I probably would’ve thought I got away with it and would’ve been continuing that behavior.”
Snellings said she used drugs because of past traumas. The drugs helped to numb the emotions that traumas had caused. Drug use and mental health are often intertwined. People may start taking drugs to cope with their undiagnosed conditions. Often, the drugs and mental health conditions can synergize with each other, making the problem worse.
Correlation does not mean causation, however. Snellings said many individuals can become addicted to drugs without having any underlying mental health conditions.
“I took life for granted, and I basically had to lose everything to appreciate what I had,” Snellings said. “I value life more and I’m proud of who I am and that I got my confidence back and I’m proud to say I’m from Perry County.”
Despite the success of the program, there is always the risk of alumni relapsing after completion. Judge Wilson recounted two individuals who died of overdose following the program.
One of them Wilson said he thought of as the least likely to relapse. They had passed the program with flying colors, were older and had kids. He was shocked to see their name in the paper three days later.
The other individual worked on oil lines. They made good money but worked long hours and after a family member passed, eventually they relapsed. Wilson said when they came to court, he offered to put them back in the program, but they declined the offer stating they would rather take the jail time.
I’m still a human being and those things bother me,” Judge Wilson said.
Wilson said many judges become hardened after dealing with so many cases of this nature. He believes it is wrong for this to happen and that judges should always maintain compassion and empathy while attending to their duties.
“When I stop seeing things as a challenge and how I can make it better, than it’s the time for me to step down and be off the bench,” Judge Wilson said. “And a lot of judges don’t have that same philosophy, I think, when they get close to retirement.”
Wilson advocates for care past graduation because of these relapses. While the state has guidelines set for drug recovery programs, they have not put as much thought into aftercare. Currently, graduates of New Direction are encouraged to keep the connections they made while attending the program to address any issues they might face after graduation. Keeping a support group is important to long-term success.
Wilson believes that family is critical to the long-term success of individuals. The graduation ceremony should include the family and be a supportive celebration of success for the graduates. Graduation ceremonies in other counties may just be a pile of pizza boxes on a portable table, but in Perry County they try to make the celebration more regal to encourage the graduates.
Programs like New Direction Drug court give individuals an option when they may think they have none. Kaylee Haughtlee, a case manager team leader for Perry Morgan and Noble Counties said just the knowledge that these programs exist can help.
“Even if people don’t get sober, they’re learning where the help is and where to go when they are,” Haughtlee said.