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Recovery Court program celebrates first graduate

bLACONIA — On December 5, 2013, Heather Albert was facing a trial and a possible prison sentence for felony drug possession. Because of the fledgling Recovery Court, she got a second chance.

Belknap County Prosecutor Melissa Guldbrandsen agreed to drop the felony drug charge if Alpert pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of drug possession. Instead of a 12-month sentence in the Belknap County House of Corrections, she agreed to participate in Recovery Court — a primarily volunteer drug court that took three years to get started. Albert was its first client.

By the next day, said Horizons Counseling Center manager, Albert was ready to quit.

"Just take me to jail," Abikoff recalled Alpert telling her.

But Alpert didn't give up, Abikoff didn't take her to jail, and yesterday, in a ceremony attended by all the program volunteers, N.H. Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau, Belknap County Attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen, police personnel, probation personnel, corrections personnel, public defenders, her own attorney, and N.H. State Drug Court Coordinator Alex Casale, Alpert became the first graduate of the fledgling court. A mid-day ceremony was held in the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division.

Judge Jim Carroll, whose dream for years has been a drug or recovery court in Belknap County, presided over yesterday's ceremony that he held held in the court room where Alpert spent and hour nearly every Tuesday for the past year discussing her progress and her setbacks.

Albert went to counseling for 3 1/2 hours a day, she did 500 hours of community service work — most of it at the Salvation Army. She went to AA meetings; she earned the equivalent of a high school diploma; and she participated in 35 straight days of intensive therapy.

In the process, she stayed sober and crime free.

After the ceremony, she said she can now "live and become part of the community. That's the stuff I could never see myself doing," she said.

She said she has solidified her relationship with her family, is working on getting scholarships and money to attend to Lakes Region Community College and is looking for a job. She is preparing to move into her own apartment — the first time in her life she has been independent.

For Abikoff, Recovery Court is a "labor of love."

"This will change minds in the community," she said yesterday. "It has already changed minds on this team."

When Recovery Court began not everyone was willing to give a break to self-admitted drug addicts. One of the people brought "kicking and screaming" into the fold was Guldbrandsen, whose job is to put drug offenders behind bars, not rehabilitate them.

During the beginning of the program, Guldbrandsen said she "had a difficult time giving an offender what I consider to be a huge break."

She said she would have to find a "significant enough change (in behavior) and history that I am willing to recommend it.

When asked about it late last week, she said she "now has a greater understanding of drug addiction."

Had the program not been in place, Guldbrandsen said Albert — and 10 others who are now progressing through the program — would have cost the state and county a considerable amount of money for incarceration.

She said she is still willing to cede her lunch hour every Tuesday to participate in the program. She said she'll still see drug use as a crime but she likes the program and enjoys getting to know the participants better.

Abikoff and Guldbrandsen said Recovery Court is not just a way to avoid going to jail. To date, Guldbrandsen said two people have been terminated from it and have gone to jail as a consequence.

Sitting in court is no picnic for the participants either.

Last Tuesday, four people met Carroll's stern stare as they tried to explain why they weren't participating to the degree Abikoff felt was appropriate.

One by one, each had to get up and apologize to the court, to the recovery court team, and to each other for not putting 100 percent of their efforts into the program.

One young man missed a meeting, was not participating in group sessions and had made no effort to begin his 500 hours of community service. He was also behind in his sliding scale payments to the program for its costs.

He explained to Carroll that he missed an appointment with his counselor to buy a car.

"Do you have money for a car?" asked Carroll. The man replied that he had borrowed the money from a family member.

"Well then borrow money for the program," Carroll said, telling him he had until the next Tuesday to complete 10 hours of community service and bring in some money or he would be terminated.

A second woman who had acted out during a counseling session apologized for her behavior and, on an upbeat note, told the court she had arraigned to do her community service at an animal shelter.

The real focus of Recovery Court is addiction said Casale — the state drug court coordinator who told Alpert yesterday that one of the toughest parts of her journey is immediately in front of her.

He told her that being the first person to make it through the program is "a big deal" but taking on the world without supervision and constant treatment can be a huge challenge. He said that by being the first, she would be seen as a example by the community and the pressure on her would be immense.

"Don't let your guard down," he said to her as she nodded her head. "Addiction is for the rest of your life. Do what you need to do to stay sober."

Nadeau had similar words for Albert.

"Now you have the ability to make healthy choices," she said, congratulating Alpert for making it through the program.

Nadeau said one of her goals as chief justice is to have a drug or recovery court in every county in the state.

"I'm excited to be here," Nadeau said. "This is the right way to address addiction and stop re-offending."


CAPTION: Jacqui Abikoff of Horizons Counseling Center, left, watches as 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division Judge Jim Carroll presents heather Alpbert with a sobriety token and a certificate for her successful completion of the Recovery Court program. Albert is the first graduate of the Belknap County Recovery Court. (Alan MacRae/for The Laconia Daily Sun)

Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 March 2014 04:06

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Judge orders man to stay out of Laconia after alleged assault

LACONIA — A Jewett Street man was released on $5,000 personal recognizance after appearing in the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division in response to two counts of assault that allegedly occurred Sunday night at 7:30 p.m..

Richard Sweeney, 31., is accused of pushing his girlfriend backwards causing her to injure her ankle and then grabbing her son in a "bear hug" to try to take his phone away and prevent him from calling the police.

The incident is alleged to have occurred in the residence all three shared.

Police affidavits said the son told them Sweeney and his girlfriend had been arguing or most of the evening and when the argument started to escalate, he picked up a shared telephone to call the police.

He said Sweeney allegedly "bear hugged" him and scratched him. When the boys mother went to break them up, Sweeney allegedly pushed her. Responding officers noticed the boy's hand was cut and his mother's ankle was swollen.

Judge Jim Carroll agreed to release Sweeney as long as he lives in Peterborough with his uncle, not come into Laconia unless it is for court or medical issues, and to say completely off Jewett Street when he is in Laconia.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 04 March 2014 02:32

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In Meredith, conservatives give N.H. Senate president a hard time about new insurance plan

MEREDITH — With the New Hampshire Senate poised to vote on its plan to provide health insurance to 50,000 residents of meager and modest means this week, Senate President Chuck Morse of Salem found himself defending his conservative credentials when he touted the proposal to two dozen voters gathered at Church Landing last evening.

The information session was hosted by Senator Jeane Forrester (R-Meredith).

Morse began by describing the plan, which would use federal funds to insure those earning up to 138 percent of poverty with carriers, insisting that it would not lead to "an increase in the Medicaid rolls or add a dollar to the state budget." The three-year pilot program, he explained, is contingent on the federal government granting the state waivers from regulations by March 2015 and funding 100-percent of the cost of the program and would terminate if either condition is not met.

Morse suggested there were only two alternatives, both unacceptable. On the one hand, there is the annual cost of uncompensated care, which he called "a hidden tax" that adds $400 million a year the insurance premiums paid by individuals and businesses throughout the state while on the other, there is the expansion of Medicaid that he warned "will sink the ship in New Hampshire."

"Why?," asked Josh Youssef of Laconia, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2012, prompting Morse to reply, "I don't know how you'd pay for it. It's going to drive us to something. I don't know what it is."

"This program is not Medicaid," Morse insisted.

He explained that New Hampshire taxpayers would bear half the cost of extending Medicaid to the approximately 58,000 people who would become eligible. Describing Medicaid as "a broken system," he said that "what tried to do here was protect us from Medicaid."

Questioned by William Baer of Gilford about seeking federal funding, Morse replied "if you won't accept federal money, you won't accept this program" then reminded his listeners "there's a helluva lot of federal money in our budget, We don't run the state on our own money."

Youssef suggested the plan was "a capitulation to Obamacare" and asked about its "impact on the conservative voter base."

"I think about that 24 hours day, seven days a week," answered Morse. "The Democrats aren't happy with this plan either," he continued, noting that he expected two among the 13 Republicans in the Senate would "vote for something else." Remarking that "I grew up close to John Sununu, about a mile away," he declared "I'm not worried about whether I'm conservative enough."

"There is a perception that the GOP has not stood up to the Democrats" said Baer, who added the party could be "severely damaged by a weak stance on this issue."

"Trust me," Morse responded. "I'm in the midst of all that. He said he had met with representatives of organizations opposed to the plan while stressing that "there's no way to get around that without talking to people." He said that while he was in Meredith, Senator Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro), the Senate Majority Leader, was speaking to the Merrimack County Republican Committee, which was voting whether or not to endorse the proposal.

When Baer repeated that "selling out" could impair Republican fortunes in an election year, Morse countered that "the reality is we can't even find a governor's candidate right now."


Last Updated on Tuesday, 04 March 2014 02:27

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Gilford School Board member Demko resigns

GILFORD — School Board member Allan Demko resigned from the board last night, writing he was unable to continue due to failing health.

Demko's term ends in March of 2016. He was elected last year.

The Board accepted the resignation with regret and, since elections are on March 11 and it is too late for anyone to appear on the ballot, the district will advertise for a replacement board member.

Chair Sue Allen said once the new board is convened after next week's election the district will accept applications from any Gilford residents who wish to serve until March of 2015.

In 2015, the district will add a one-year term to the ballot as well as the two three-years terms that will be up for regular election.

The board also recognized outgoing member Paul Blandford who, after serving 12 years, decided to not seek re-election.

Rae Mello-Andrews, who lost to Demko in 2013, is the only person running for election at Tuesday's election.


CUTLINE (Blandford) Outgoing School Board Member Paul Blandford was given a painting of Gilford by the members of the School Board as a way of thinking him for 12 years of service to the school district. Blandford is not seeking reelection. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Gail Ober)

Last Updated on Tuesday, 04 March 2014 02:21

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