|Posted on July 1, 2017 at 12:00 AM|
‘RECOVERY CAN BE FUN’
Bi-annual Conasauga Drug Court Talent Show allows people recovering from addiction to demonstrate their talents to the community – and themselves
By MITCH TALLEY
Whitfield County Director of Communications
Life hasn’t always given them a lot of reasons to smile.
But there they were, the participants in the bi-annual Conasauga Drug Court Talent Show, smiling, laughing, clapping, and jumping to their feet.
Drug Court Judge Jim Wilbanks believes the show – held April 14 before a packed house at Whitfield County Administration Building No. 2 - will provide yet another stepping stone in the recovery of the 92 people in the program.
“The goal of the show,” he said, “was to pull these folks further outside of their comfort zones because to successfully get into recovery and stay in recovery, you’ve got to be outside of your comfort zone. Their comfort zone is addiction.”
The show featured a wide range of talents, ranging from soulful singers to accomplished artists, from a board-breaking kung-fu exhibition to craftsmen able to turn wood into beautiful signs and cabinets.
“I don’t see these folks except in court on Thursdays,” Wilbanks said, “and I saw them in a whole new light today. I saw people singing who I didn’t have any idea could sing. I met some artists today. I even got mentioned in a country music song. That is the first time that has ever happened! So it’s amazing. It’s a spiritual event. I mean, God was mentioned several times today, and participants know that spirituality is the foundation of their recovery.”
It is easy for others to try to tear down those in addiction, the judge said, “but that is the last thing in the world that they need. They need to be built up. They need to know that they are loved and that the community cares for them. That is what this program does.”
Indeed, loud applause and enthusiastic cheers rang out through the auditorium after each performance. Just look at some of the photos accompanying this story. You’ll see folks showing an outpouring of honest emotional support for their comrades and family members.
Wilbanks has seen the hard road these folks are traveling.
Many Drug Court participants hit rock bottom in their addiction. “They lost their homes. They lost their jobs. They lost their families. Their parents put them aside. Their brothers and sisters put them aside. Their children were taken away from them. They had absolutely nothing, so they come literally from the ground up,” the judge said. He hopes the talent show gives participants a way to show others, and themselves, that they are still valuable members of society.
“This is just another way to show them – Look, you are somebody. Look, you have talent. Look, you have ability. Look, you can kick the addiction and stay in recovery,” Wilbanks says. “This is all about reinforcing who they are as individuals because a lot of these folks don’t have any self-confidence at all. They’ve been told they’re bad… Trauma is so prevalent among those in addiction. They were sexually abused or physically abused or emotionally abused. Really, addiction is about people self-medicating because their reality is so bad. They do not have the tools to deal with it.”
But the Drug Court program aims to give people in addiction the tools necessary to turn their lives around.
“It’s about supporting Drug Court participants, NOT doing it for them,” Wilbanks emphasized. “I want to make sure everybody understands that. We don’t do anything FOR them, but we will give them the tools and resources to get in recovery and stay in recovery IF they want it.”
While most of a judge’s duties involve reacting to problems in people’s lives such as divorce, lawsuits, and crimes, Wilbanks says he enjoys the proactive nature of Drug Court.
“I’d rather be proactive,” he says. “I’d rather prevent the lawsuit. I’d rather keep families together. I’d rather prevent addiction – that’s what I’m about.”
Drug Court helps reunify families. The Judge – who has been leading Drug Court since January 2016, but has been involved since retired Judge Jack Partain started the program in February 2002 - says it still amazes him to witness mothers whose children were placed in foster homes or with family members who now are regaining custody of their children due to their successful recovery efforts. People work to get apartments, cars, and driver’s licenses. Judge Wilbanks sees Drug Court as a lifelong way to help people get into – and stay – in recovery.
“Once participants leave the program, they know they’re always welcome to come back here,” he said. “Our doors never close to them. We have an alumni program that is very successful. This is all about building the recovery community, and in building the recovery community, we are being a very positive influence on the whole community.”
Addiction affects men and women from every background and socio-economic status. Almost everyone knows someone who is affected by substance abuse and addiction. “Addiction is killing our community. It’s killing our families,” the judge says. “The Drug Court program is about being proactive and helping people get their lives back.”
To support efforts to help people proactively overcome their addiction, Wilbanks says it is important that someone on the Drug Court staff be available 24/7 to counsel participants in the program. All Drug Court participants take part in additional community-based support programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery, and local churches. Many participants find their spirituality and build connections to a church family during their recovery journey.
Events like the talent show are an integral part of the recovery process, he says.
“It takes a lot of guts to be in this show,” Wilbanks said. “Before they went up front they were all saying they were scared to death and nervous. It’s just butterflies, and I’m sure they all felt them. They were really outside of their comfort zones. But they did it! They did it, and everybody applauded and supported them and yipped and yelled and said ‘That’s great.””
Now the next time a Drug Court participant is faced with a difficult circumstance, whether it be performing again or walking down the street and seeing somebody from their past who is horrible for them, they’ve been empowered. They are strong enough now to keep walking and not respond to that person who was a negative influence in their life. They can just wave them off and keep walking.
“That,” the judge says, “is what it ultimately is all about.”
JUDGE WILBANKS EXPLAINS HOW DRUG COURT WORKS
As Judge Jim Wilbanks stood outside Whitfield County Administrative Building No. 2 on a sunny spring morning last month, talking about the Drug Court program, he paused for a moment to greet one of its participants walking past.
Jose was on his way to his car with a sketch he had just shown in the annual Drug Court Talent Show.
“Jose, that is amazing,” the judge said.
A few seconds later, Wilbanks explained that Jose is beating his addiction and now works at a local restaurant - on his way up the management ladder after starting out as a dishwasher.
“He is well on his way to doing whatever God’s plan is for him,” the judge said.
The same could be said for hundreds of local people who have successfully turned their lives around in the Conasauga Drug Court program started by Judge Jack Partain in 2002 and now led by Wilbanks.
Here, in his own words, Judge Wilbanks explains how Drug Court works:
First, people get charged with a felony. Either the charge is possession of drugs or another felony related to their drug addiction. Many burglary charges in our circuit stem from addiction because people steal things in order to sell them to support their addiction. Those people – either through themselves, their families, or their defense attorney - make a request to join Drug Court through the District Attorney’s office (Susan Beck is our assistant DA who serves with our team).
Each person who requests to join Drug Court must meet certain eligibility criteria in order for the District Attorney’s office to recommend them for entry into the program. Once deemed eligible, candidates go through assessments with treatment staff to evaluate drug dependency and readiness for an intensive out-patient program.
Entry into the Drug Court program is completely voluntary. No one is forced to join. If the team determines that a person is eligible for entry into Drug Court and the person wants to join, that individual will be discussed at one of our weekly Drug Court staffing meetings. This meeting consists of representatives from probation, law enforcement, the District Attorney’s office, Public Defender’s office, Drug Court staff, and myself. Sometimes a detective or probation officer will say, “This is a bad dude. This is somebody who is actually involved in trafficking. He doesn’t just use them, and I don’t think he needs to be in the program.” I listen, and after having a discussion, I make a decision – either this person is not coming into the Drug Court program or this person is coming in. If he is not coming in, the conversation is over. If he comes into the program, he is placed on my docket.
The Conasauga Drug Court is a post-conviction program. That means that part of a participant’s sentence is that they are going to be on probation, and they are going to comply with the Drug Court contract that is a special condition of their probation. If they violate the Drug Court contract, then the balance of their sentence could be revoked and they could go to prison.
Once a person is in the program, we help determine where they are going to live and who they can and cannot have contact with. If they have contact with someone on the “no contact list” and we find out about it, they will be sanctioned. Sometimes a participant will come to me during a Drug Court meeting and say, “Judge, I need to add my sister to the list because I thought she was in recovery but she’s not and I need to stay away from her.” I’ll order her to stay away from her sister. I tell participants that I am happy to be the bad guy. This gives participants an out and a way to walk away from people who are bad influences.
I tell participants that the Drug Court staff will be involved in every aspect of their lives – where they live, who they live with, everything. We have several folks who stay at Providence Ministries because their home is full of people in addiction who are not seeking recovery. You cannot build recovery if somebody is living in a home that has addiction in it. So we get that individual moved into Providence. While they are there, we find them stable, clean, and sober housing. Once a participant moves into proper housing, then we’re off to the races.
The Conasauga Drug Court is a 24-month program. A lot of people are in it for longer than 24 months because of sanctions that set them back. Sometimes they get sent to PDC (Probation Detention Center). Sometimes we send folks who need more intensive residential treatment to Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT) programs that are run by the Department of Corrections. RSAT is a nine-month program operated inside of prison where participants are monitored 24/7.
Our Drug Court is an outpatient program. Participants regularly report to the program directors and go home. We do not monitor them 24/7. However, I do have three community-based law enforcement officers and probation officers who check on participants 24/7. Before participants enter the Drug Court program, I tell them “we’re all in your business. If you don’t like that, don’t come in the program. But we’re all in your business.” I mean that!
This program changes lives. A lot of participants have never had any structure in their lives. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to stay straight. Somebody might call them on the phone and say, “Hey, I got a bag – let’s go use.” If they say yes, they are done. I had a participant who had been clean for 10 years! She told me her kids are 9, 11, 14 years old. She got a call from a friend who invited her to do meth. Sometimes people who are in recovery think, “I can handle this. I can do it one time and it’s not going to affect me.” You cannot do that with meth. I hear repeatedly that people can be addicted to meth after one use! This participant used meth for the first time in 10 years and she went off the cliff. Now she has lost her kids, her home, her relationship, and her job. She bottomed out again, and I had her in court yesterday. She’s coming into the Drug Court program.
I often ask participants how long they have been in addiction. They usually respond that they started using alcohol, marijuana, or their parents’ pain pills when they were 12, 13, or 14 years old. Then they tried meth, then somebody offered them some pills, and then they try cocaine or heroin. It’s just … 12, 13, 14 years old. It is astounding.
People can overcome their addiction and live full lives in recovery. The Conasauga Drug Court can help.