In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a shared feeling of uncertainty among the Lewis County Drug Court staff that the program would be able to carry out its task of helping people who enter the criminal justice system overcome drug use disorders.
Isolation is not a recipe for success for those dealing with substance abuse issues, Drug Court Manager Stephanie Miller said, and the world was entering a time when isolation was, and still is, the name of the game.
Because of the pandemic, the program immediately stopped taking new participants for fear that they couldn’t adequately give them the kind of support a person with a drug use disorder needs.
In May, The Chronicle reported that despite the pandemic, drug court was still having success, which was a relief for the staff.
But now, after almost eight months of going through the pandemic, Miller says the drug court isn’t just succeeding, they’re having one of their most successful years in the program’s history.
From Jan. 1, 2020, through Oct. 1, the program has seen 21 participants graduate.
For reference, the program has an average of 13.5 graduates a year and even if the year ended today, the 21 grads will be among the highest number the program has seen in its 16 years of existence, rivaling 2012 and 2013 when they had 21 and 25 graduates, respectively.
The requirements to graduate from drug court include at least six months of sobriety, at least 15 months spent in the program, completion of their drug treatment with Eugenia Center, have stable housing, be either employed or attending school for a minimum of four months and if needed, have earned their GED or high school diploma.
And it isn’t uncommon for someone to go above and beyond the requirements, Miller said, like getting their driver’s license back and paying for car insurance, getting off of Department of Corrections supervision and regaining relationships with family members, among other things.
Meghan Geise, 33, graduated from the program two weeks ago after joining in August of 2018 and is just a couple days shy of hitting 26 months of sobriety.
Geise was able to see how the drug court performed both under normal circumstances and during the pandemic, and like many, she was hit with anxiety and uncertainty when COVID-19 emerged as a serious public health threat.
“There was a big adjustment, I felt kind of a little lost, a little like I don’t know what to do, I have to be by myself,” Geise said.
For the previous 18 months leading up to the pandemic, Geise had been attending meetings with the XII Step Club, a group that includes Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Emotions Anonymous, among others, three times a week, a requirement for all participants of the program. But in March, the pandemic hit and she said it felt like everything changed.
However, Geise was pleasantly surprised to find out that she actually preferred moving her meetings to a virtual format, saying it gave her more time to be with her family, who she characterized as her north star in her path to recovery.
“We started doing Zoom meetings, and I don’t know, but I liked doing the Zoom meetings, I actually enjoyed it a lot and I did way more than required,” Geise said, adding that she still attends the Zoom meetings for the XII Step Club.
Geise realizes that she is fortunate in that she found Zoom meetings to work better for her, noting that many of the participants in the program loathed the online meetings.
But even if shifting to an online format was irritating for some, it hasn’t affected the dropout rates.
To date in 2020, Drug Court has had to boot five people from the program for noncompliance, which is the exact same amount that they had to kick out in the same time frame in 2019.
Ronnie Filer, 34, who has only been a part of the program since August, said this year has been about “rising to the challenge” and the pandemic was just another one he was facing.
He made the point that converting an in-person meeting to a zoom meeting, which he has had to do in some instances, seems minute when he compares it to the problems he was facing when he was abusing drugs and alcohol and living an unmanageable lifestyle.
“What’s been working for me is just the security you get from having a team of people that care about you behind you,” Filer said. “It gives that sense that no matter what the world throws (at you), you’re going to be okay.”