Belknap County Recovery Court seeks to expand
By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Valene Colby grabbed an opportunity to recover from addiction at a time when all seemed hopeless.
The 35-year-old Laconia woman had a long history of drug use. She started smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol as a teenager before graduating to LSD, cocaine, prescription pain killers and heroin.
Along the way, she walked out on her husband and children, was arrested and was sent to prison. After release, she re-offended and found herself back behind bars.
That's when the system threw her a lifeline in the form of Belknap County Recovery Court, which offers people intense therapy instead of incarceration.
“If it wasn't for Recovery Court, I would either be dead or back in prison,” Colby said in a panel discussion Thursday.
The program has 11 participants. If it had enough money, it could triple in size and help more people in need of services, said Jacqui Abikoff of Horizons Counseling Center.
An infusion of more than $100,000 in state funding is expected later this year. Plans to apply for a federal grant had to be changed when it was determined regulations require that state funding be tapped first.
The experience of every drug court participant is different. All are subject to strict supervision and random urine tests. Some break the rules and return to drug use, which can lead to penalties, including a return to incarceration. But most ultimately benefit from the program.
The National Association of Drug Court Professionals cite studies showing that 75 percent of graduates of such programs remain arrest-free at least two years after leaving and that these programs reduce crime 45 percent more than other sentencing options.
“What we're doing is taking people who were a drain on our society, who were costing us money to support them in our jails and in prison, who were costing us money going in and out of hospitals uninsured, and teaching them that insurance is important, that insurance is something that will help them and giving them the resources to access the treatment they need to return to health and sanity and giving them the ability to be productive members of their communities,” Abikoff said.
Colby has been a success story.
She hasn't had any relapses and is in the final stage of an addiction therapy regimen that lasts about a year. She is working and has had reunions with her children. She serves as a coach to other participants.
This is a far cry from where she was a couple years ago.
“I thought I hit rock bottom, and then I found out that rock bottom has a trap door,” she said. “One would think that once you've lost your kids or ended up in prison, that would be enough, but people don't understand that addiction is a disease, not a moral choice. It's a lonely and hopeless place to be when you stop caring if you live or die.”
Her addiction progressed in a way that has become common. She held down a job and functioned during the week, but used alcohol and cocaine heavily on the weekend.
Then she began taking powerful and highly addictive opioid-based pain killers. People can easily get hooked on these drugs, and then turn to heroin when they can no longer get them.
“Absolutely, that's what happened to me and most of the addicts I know,” Colby said.
As her drug abuse grew worse, she ended up selling drugs to maintain her habit and was arrested on a charge of intent to distribute. She spent time in Belknap County Jail and in the New Hampshire State Prison for Women in Goffstown.
Prison gave her additional exposure to the drug and criminal world and connected her with bad influences. It also did not end her access to drugs.
“There's just as much drugs in prison and jail as anywhere else,” she said. “It comes in in different ways. It doesn't take much to get it and use it.”
When she was given the option of the treatment program, she was finally ready to accept help.
“I made the decision that if I went back to prison, I was probably going to repeat the cycle over again. I wanted to give myself a chance to change and change my life.”
Judge James Carroll, who presides over Recovery Court, said the decision to participate in the rigorous program is a difficult one.
“I'll say to the potential participant, 'You've got to be kidding me. You really want to do this? Quite frankly, if they did their time it would be a lot easier on them. It's a year of intensive commitment, responsibility and being held accountable for literally 24-7.”
Numerous recovery sessions, community service and appearances before the judge are all typical. The aim is no less than to change the participants' way of thinking.
A key ingredient is the support that is offered.
“I think it's important from my perspective that somebody believes in them, that they can be better than they are, that they can be the best at whatever they want to be,” Carroll said.
“I think these folks are some of the finest people who have the most potential. If we don't make a commitment, we're throwing them by the wayside. I don't think there's anybody who should be thrown by the wayside. They deserve an opportunity and I tell you directly, it's not a gimme. It's not a mulligan. It's a commitment.”
Belknap County Recovery Court participant Valene Colby, left, participates in a panel discussion Thursday with Jacqui Abikoff of Horizons Counseling Center and Belknap County District Judge James Carroll. (Rick Green/Laconia Daily Sun)
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