701. 558. 352. 139. 34. Two.
Those are the number of days some of the 31 participants in the Penobscot County Adult Treatment Drug Court in Bangor have been sober. In ordinary times, they would meet every other week in a courtroom at the Penobscot Judicial Center. Each accomplishment would be met with applause and often hugs.
But these aren’t ordinary times.
Since March 25, District Court Judge Charles Budd has convened drug court weekly in his chambers at the Penobscot Judicial Center using Zoom, an online application he’d never heard of before the pandemic that allows users to chat and see each other live. He conducts the online sessions much as he would in a courtroom but he doesn’t wear his judicial robe. The judge asks how each person is doing, what they did last week and what they learned about their own recovery. If someone has relapsed, he sternly will impose a sanction.
Budd’s peers throughout the state have done the same after Maine cut the number of hours courthouses were open to the public and drastically limited the kind of matters judges could handle to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“We were really worried at the outset that this population would be hard hit by the lockdown,” Budd said. “But, no one has been removed from the program and we’ve had one graduation.”
Despite not being able to meet in person, the program is proving it can be effective as long as it continues to be centered around human connections and support.
Kimberly Morrison, 30, a drug court participant from Hampden reported 314 days of sobriety on Wednesday on the Zoom conference call.
“Meeting in person is better,” she said. “But when you’re in recovery staying connected is very important and this helps us stay connected.”
Morrison said she struggled with opioid addiction for many years. She was convicted of theft and forgery but could not stay clean on her own.
She is one of 180 people currently enrolled in Maine’s specialty courts.
Hannah Gillan, the case manager in Bangor, said that one advantage to meeting online is being able to see participants in their homes via Zoom.
“I’m seeing more of their homelife than I can see when we meet in the office or the courthouse,” Gillan said. “But in some situations, not seeing them in person can disguise things like weight loss.”
For the most part, participants in the Bangor drug court have done well during the state shutdown.
“We have had some relapses, which is always disappointing,” she said. “Others have grown through this process and found ways to take care of themselves, dig in their heels and move forward.”
The judiciary operates six Adult Drug Treatment courts; three Family Recovery Courts; and two treatment courts for veterans and adults with co-occurring substance use disorders and mental illness.
The drug courts are an alternative to jail for offenders with a substance use disorder who are considered likely to reoffend because of their addiction. The courts, overseen by a judge, combine treatment with various measures aimed at holding participants accountable when they violate the program’s requirements.
Not everyone is accepted, and applications in 2019 increased 97 percent over the previous years, according to an annual report submitted to the Legislature.
Seventy of 295 participants graduated from the programs last year.
Participants are subjected to random drug tests, are expected to participate in treatment and regular court check-ins with their defense attorneys and judges, and they can face a range of sanctions — from a requirement to write a reflective essay to jail time — for violating drug court rules. They are expected to work or attend school while they’re going through drug court.
With the program modeled on national guidelines and based on social science research, drug court participants advance through five phases of treatment and supervision — each with less intensive requirements, but more personal accountability, than the last. The fastest someone can complete all five is in just over a year.
The structure and accountability required by the court has helped her learn about addiction and identify her own recovery path, Morrison said.
“I know that I have put in the work, but I also know I wouldn’t be where I am today without drug court,” she said.
Equally important has been the support she’s gotten from her peers online and in person.
“We’ve gone social distance fishing, we meet and go for walks,” she said. “We’re doing as much as we can to keep that connection with each other.”
That includes sharing internet connections for weekly drug court meetings, according to Gillan.
“When one newer participant said she couldn’t meet online because she didn’t have a computer or a cellphone, two people who’d each been in the program longer bought her a phone,” Gillan said. “They’ve really supported each other during this coronavirus crisis.”
Gillian and her counterparts working in other counties have had to adjust to how they operate because of COVID-19 restrictions. Normally, Gillan would administer the random required drug tests using a participant’s urine. Over the past three months, the monitoring has been done using patches that collect a person’s sweat and oral swabs similar to those that test for DNA.
Morrison is one of the latter. She is starting a program this summer that will allow her to help others suffering from substance use disorder.
“Seeing each other physically reminds us that the team is there and they care,” Morrison said of meeting online. “It’s reassuring that they are still there, even in a pandemic and they are going to be as supportive as they can be even though they can’t be there physically.”
Editor’s note: This article was produced through a partnership between the Bangor Daily News and the Solutions Journalism Network, a national non-profit organization that supports rigorous journalism about solutions to problems.