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Home » They're not criminals. In Northampton County recovery court, they're people who need help. – lehighvalleylive.com

They're not criminals. In Northampton County recovery court, they're people who need help. – lehighvalleylive.com

She lay face down and unconscious on the bathroom floor. A coworker found her and called for the club manager.
“Someone overdosed in the bathroom again,” the coworker said.
The manager of the strip club nudged the passed-out woman’s head with his shoe, turning it so he could see her face.
“Oh. It’s Kennedy,” he said.
That’s the alias Jade Hoffman adopted as a stripper in Daytona Beach. The young woman who grew up in the Slate Belt remembers her head banging on the floor as she was pulled by her legs out of the stall.
She vaguely recalls being half naked and readying to go on stage when she passed out.
She remembers someone calling for an ambulance. Then she ran away.
“I did not want to show my face,” Hoffman said. Her coworkers didn’t know she was injecting heroin. Nor did her boss. She was ashamed of her addiction and ashamed of herself.
Six years later, Hoffman isn’t ashamed anymore. She has a fiance and a toddler son. She’s a case coordinator at an inpatient rehab, working with others to overcome their problems with drugs and alcohol.
The 30-year-old Wilson Borough resident cuddles with her 1-year-old at every opportunity. They take trips to the park. They go to basketball games. Her job gives her life meaning. Her turnaround is a living testament to the potential for success for those enrolled in the Northampton County recovery court program.
“When you’re in addiction you feel like you’re as good as dead. You feel dead inside. But it’s not permanent. That is a lie I told myself for a long time,” Hoffman said.
“I’ve never been as alive as I am now,” she added.
The program is tough. It holds its participants accountable with strict rules and requirements. But unlike the regular courts, this diversionary program emphasizes treatment over punishment. It recognizes the dignity of each participant. It gives them ongoing, multifaceted support toward recovery. That support continues despite relapses and setbacks as long as the participants remain committed to getting sober.
For graduates like Hoffman, it can be life changing.
“Nobody ever showed me how to be an adult woman before,” Hoffman admitted.
Northampton County Judge Craig Dally had an inkling when he ran for judge in 2009 that he might want to start a drug court program. He was a member of the state House of Representatives at the time and had observed the drug court in Philadelphia.
Northampton County’s program, launched in 2015, caters to individuals who can’t complete their probation or parole, or for low-level offenders such as repeat DUI offenders, whose drug and alcohol problems keep landing them in trouble. The program is now known as recovery court.
The court is gaining momentum while the number of Pennsylvania’s heroin and opioid overdoses is growing at an alarming rate. The Pennsylvania Department of Health calls the opioid crisis the worst public health crisis in the state. The number of overdose deaths in Pennsylvania has doubled over the last 10 years.
Recovery court wants to reverse that trend.
“It’s for high-risk, high-need people,” Dally said. “It’s for people who have had repeated attempts at treatment and cannot stay clean.”
The participants are evaluated regularly by a 13-member treatment team that includes Dally, probation officers, a prosecutor, a public defender and recovery specialists who previously overcame substance abuse issues and now want to help others.
Participants meet regularly with counselors, attend self-help meetings, get regular drug tests, keep jobs, perform community service and write essays. The longer they stay drug and alcohol free, the more the restrictions are lessened and the higher the expectations go, according to Stephanie Steward, the coordinator for problem solving courts for Northampton County. Details about the five-phased approach are available online.
The program typically takes two years to complete.
“There’s nothing easy about recovery court,” said Jordan Knisley. She was formerly the public defender assigned to recovery court. She was elected last year as a district judge in South Bethlehem. She’s been asked this year to fill in on recovery court as a judge when Dally is unavailable.
“If you’re going to take the program seriously, it requires you to change your whole life,” she said.
With arched brows and pursed lips, Hoffman recalls a long road with a lot of U-turns before she finally arrived at recovery.
She started using drugs with her mother when she was 12. Her mother has abused drugs her entire life.
“I felt like I was closer to her when I did it,” she said. Her father killed himself, Hoffman said.
Despite her drug abuse, Hoffman got good grades in school but failed classes due to truancy. Her mother moved her from hotel to campground to apartment all over the Slate Belt and Poconos. She lacked supervision. When a guidance counselor called trying to help, Hoffman’s mother was furious and refused to talk to Hoffman.
Hoffman found herself doing drugs as a teenager with men in their 30s.
“I thought this was more fun and less stressful than reality. Because reality sucked,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman isn’t alone in this pattern of behavior.
“We have a lot of younger people whose addictions started very early in life, whose lives might have been stunted by that,” Steward said.
Felicia Fehr also followed her parents down the road of substance abuse. She started drinking at age 11, convincing herself she could maintain control if she just drank but refrained from smoking marijuana. Then she started smoking marijuana at age 14. That’s what her friends were doing.
“I didn’t want to be left out,” Fehr said.
Other recovery court participants started their habits later in life, Steward said. Some have advanced degrees. One participant in the court has a doctorate in music. A pharmacist was in recovery court in November because he broke into a pharmacy to get drugs. He was sober the previous seven years.
They use drugs because they’re overwhelmed with problems in their lives. They don’t want to feel hurt, shame or pain. Those involved with the recovery court program will tell you that drug users cover over their emotional pain with drugs.
“Once opioids get a hold of you, it’s like being brainwashed. I didn’t care about anything else. All I was looking for was the next one. It didn’t matter what I had to do to get it,” Fehr said.
The 29-year-old Bethlehem woman dropped out of high school to get low-paying jobs to feed her cravings for alcohol and marijuana. Fehr turned to opiates when she was 19. That’s when her life really started to unravel.
She found herself homeless and shoplifting to pay for gas, for a hotel, and, of course, drugs.
“My thing was razors, shaving razors and Roc eye makeup. It’s expensive wrinkle cream,” she said, referring to the items she targeted for shoplifting. She’d get arrested, get placed on probation, violate probation and then get released to start stealing again for more drugs.
The six months prior to her admission to recovery court were a whirlwind. She was hiding from police with her boyfriend. They stayed in a friend’s barn in the winter with no heat. Some days she prayed to get caught because she didn’t have the courage to turn herself in.
“Some days I would be mad to wake up and I was still out in the world,” she said.
She shoplifted from Kmart and got caught after a high-speed chase. She remembers hiding out in the woods, calling her mother to say, “I just want to let you know I’m going to be in jail today. I’m running from the cops right now. I’ll call you when I get there.”
When police found her group, she was the only one an officer tracked down.
“He came after me and I just stopped running. It felt like that spiritual white flag of surrender, like ‘I’m done,’” Fehr said.
Knisley said she’s heard stories like Fehr’s over and over.
“They tell us that they have been struggling with their addiction, that they’re so sick and tired of living the lives they have been living, that they’ve tried over and over again to get sober but they can’t do it. And they don’t know how to do it,” Knisley said.
That’s where recovery court comes in.
Jenny Duval works for Lehigh Valley Drug and Alcohol Intake, which pairs recovery court participants with services they need.
She asks all the enrollees what they’re willing to do for their recovery.
“If they say ‘everything’ you really need to follow through. They’ve reached rock bottom,” Duval said.
Getting into recovery court is just the beginning. That’s when the real work starts. Like Fehr, Hoffman also had a long history of drug abuse before she wound up in recovery court. To get away from her mother she dropped out of high school and was emancipated at 17. She had a baby and moved to California. She wound up homeless after leaving what became an abusive relationship. She lost custody of her son, fled to Florida, to Pennsylvania, to New Jersey, continuously changing her environment but not changing her drug usage.
She finally landed in recovery court after running from a Pennsylvania rehab. She hid for nine hours under a barbecue grill from police who weren’t even there.
“I was completely hallucinating from meth, heroin and Xanax,” she said. Her muscles atrophied to the point where she went to the hospital for four days to learn how to walk again.
Fehr and Hoffman were both skeptical about recovery court. They were desperate for answers but weren’t convinced they’d find them.
Fehr said her father told her to just do her time and get on with her life. Inmates in Northampton County Prison told her recovery court is a “set up.” But Fehr learned that the inmates who disparage recovery court were ones who had tried it but couldn’t handle it. They blamed the program, not themselves, Fehr said.
She recalls begging to get into the program and being warned by her probation officer, Cynthia Greene, that recovery court isn’t a “get out of jail free card.”
Recovery court was a challenge for Hoffman. She made mistakes. A lot of them. The first phase of the five-phase program is supposed to take about 60 days.
For Hoffman it took 595 days.
She went through four rehabs, two halfway houses and four stays in prison.
“They called me a hard case and a chronic runner,” she said.
She knew drugs were a dead end, that they brought nothing but chaos and misery to her life, and yet she somehow lacked the wherewithal to resist that urge to keep using.
While under the supervision of recovery court she would leave rehab in Philadelphia to buy drugs in the notorious Kensington neighborhood.
“No area in Pennsylvania has been more disproportionately affected by the ravages of the opioid epidemic than Kensington,” said Thomas Hodnett, acting special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Philadelphia Field Division in a recent news release about a major drug bust.
Hoffman kept buying the drugs even though they kept ravaging her body.
“A couple times a week I would end up in the hospital because I couldn’t breathe,” she said. They’d revive her, give her breathing treatments and steroids, she said.
“As soon as I could walk, I would leave against medical advice,” she said. She’d turn right back to drugs, she said.
A kind counselor in Philadelphia helped her gain some traction back toward recovery. She was so far behind in recovery court she was afraid to go back to Northampton County to finish. Also, she had qualms about moving into a homeless shelter in Northampton County where not everyone was in recovery and drugs might be available. But she stuck with recovery court anyway. This time she didn’t run. She got through it by addressing each requirement one by one.
“I just started doing little things,” she said. Intensive outpatient treatment. Regular drug screenings. Therapy. She got a job. She got a narcotics anonymous sponsor. She started getting tags from NA. She stopped communicating with her drug-addicted mother.
Finally, after 595 days she finished phase one.
“I had no more problems because I was like, ‘Wow. I can do this.’ It gave me confidence to trust them and trust myself,” Hoffman said. “With each improvement, I wanted to stay the way I was, rather than being on the run, homeless in the winter, dopesick.”
More than three years after she enrolled, Hoffman graduated the program in March 2021.
It takes patience on the part of recovery court to stand by someone like Hoffman. Those who run the program must decide frequently whether the participants are sincere in their recovery or just looking for an excuse to leave prison.
“If you’re open and honest about everything and you’re asking for help, it’s the treatment court’s job to then give you the help that you’re asking for,” Knisley said.
The people in charge of recovery court want to see the participants succeed, which makes a huge difference. The recovery court enrollees have a group of people encouraging them to stay clean rather than castigating them for slipping up.
“Everyone works together as a team,” said Bonnie Winfield. She’s a retired Lafayette College professor who runs The Journey Home, a program for female inmates in Northampton County Prison.
Dally, Steward and specialized probation officer Frank Toto attend regular conferences and training sessions to learn best practices for recovery court. One important lesson Dally has learned is to be patient with the court participants. Relapses are part of the recovery process, he has learned.
Winfield remembers Judge Dally touching on this point during a public lecture about recovery court.
“When I heard him speak, I felt like, ‘This man gets it,’” Winfield said.
In November, one of the recovery court participants swore his alcohol test was a false positive. The judge had to weigh the man’s credibility against the likelihood the test has failed. The judge gave him the benefit of the doubt rather than violate him. In his gut, the judge believed the man wanted to change.
“Early on, I used to lock people up a lot more than we do now,” Dally said.
Incarceration is used only as a last resort in recovery court. The approach has yielded increasingly improved results. Fewer graduates of the program wind up back in court, Steward said. Those who do relapse now have the tools to right themselves more easily.
Hoffman was racking up successes in the recovery court program when she missed a urine screen. She missed plenty of them early in the program. This time she cried when she slipped up. She let down the team and she felt remorse.
“It hurt me to feel like I was ‘that person’ again,” Hoffman said.
As the participant gains self-esteem and confidence, recovery court gives them the day-to-day life skills and the structure they need to re-enter society.
Some of the participants earn a GED. They get a driver’s license so they can drive to work. Many have never paid bills before, much less paid them on time.
“There are people on the team to recognize these needs. Recovery court realizes we need to take a holistic approach,” Knisley said.
The court works with participants so they can meet the myriad responsibilities of living a sober life.
One by one, the participants weighed in before Dally during a court session in November.
“I self-sabotage,” said one participant, who admitted she could be attending more narcotics anonymous meetings.
One participant asked to switch his court date to accommodate his new job. Dally obliged.
One missed an appointment with a counselor because he was looking at a new apartment. He didn’t get the apartment because the landlord disapproved of his drug use history. Dally encouraged him to keep trying for a place to live and stressed the need for him to stick with treatment.
One man moving into phase three of the program said he has learned to distract himself when he gets the urge to use drugs. After a 20-minute distraction, the urge goes away, he said.
Now that Fehr isn’t hiding out in a barn, she’s keeping a clean house. She’s making meals in a crock pot, so she has dinner waiting after a busy day of work and school.
“I kind of graduated from buying ramen noodles at the dollar store to teaching myself how to cook,” she said.
Cooking dinner might seem like something everyone takes for granted, but it’s a life-changing skill for some people in recovery court.
When she has a rough day, Fehr takes a bubble bath rather than taking drugs. She roller blades around her apartment. That might seem juvenile, but it beats using drugs.
“I’ve been doing silly things throughout recovery I consider healing,” Fehr said.
After juggling treatment, work and recovery court, Hoffman now knows how to meet the demands of being a mom, a student and a case coordinator at a rehab facility.
She wasn’t sure she was ready to have another child, given her guilt over the way she handled her first son. Now she sees parenthood as a blessing. She’s reconciled with her 12-year-old son and sees him periodically. And she’s elated to give her 1-year-old the life she never had.
“He is the biggest blessing in my life,” Hoffman said. “I get to provide him a life I could only dream of having as a kid. By that I don’t mean providing him material goods. I mean attention.”
She watches him run. She watches him smile. She can’t wait to see what the future holds.
Fehr bought a house and moved in this month.
“I never thought I’d be in a position where I’d be able to do that,” she said.
Recovery court typically has about 60 active participants with a maximum capacity of about 80, Steward said. Since the program was founded six years ago, 67 people have graduated.
Some say that’s a modest total and would support expanding the program. The Lehigh Valley Justice Institute is a nonprofit organization that’s investigating ways to reform the justice system so that fewer people wind up in prison. Executive Director Joe Welsh said recovery court helps achieve that goal.
The Northampton County District Attorney’s office prosecuted 1,400 drug-related crimes last year. While many of those cases didn’t result in a prison stay, it appears to advocates like Welsh and Winfield that more people could be helped by diversionary courts.
Northampton County District Attorney Terence Houck said recovery court is selective because violent offenders don’t belong there.
“We’re not taking any risks with any cases we put in at this point. No violent offenders. We’re not doing that,” Houck said.
Steward said the criteria to enter recovery court are selective. You must be 18 years old, must have lived in the county at least 90 days and must have a substance abuse disorder requiring treatment.
You can’t participate if you have committed murder, felony sex offenses and violent offenses with a gun. Some violent felonies are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. She said the court is meeting the needs of the community.
“We have never had to turn an applicant away because of capacity,” Steward said.
Welsh agrees that violent offenders have no place in the program and belong in prison.
“There are some people who need to be removed from society for their own good or for the good of others in society,” he said. “The problem is not incarceration per se. It’s massive overincarceration.”
Many drug offenders who aren’t helped in county prison eventually graduate to state prison.
Lehighvalleylive.com obtained some alarming figures from the state corrections department through a right-to-know request.
The county can’t force people to enroll if they aren’t serious about their recovery. When those sorts of people enroll, they drop out.
“Sometimes people don’t sign up for the program for the right reasons,” Knisley said.
Funding is also an issue. The program relies on annual state grants of $200,000, Dally said. They cover ongoing training for staff and help defray some costs for participants, such as the cost of urine screens. These grants aren’t guaranteed for renewal each year.
When it comes to recovery court, Northampton County is ahead of neighboring Lehigh County. Lehigh County started its program less than two years ago and has only a handful of participants and no graduates.
“We are currently reviewing our admission criteria to consider expanding the program to include those with less severe levels of substance use dependency,” said Stacey Witalic, speaking on behalf of Lehigh County. She’s the communications director for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. Even if recovery court isn’t expanded, individuals in the local justice and corrections systems could benefit from implementing lessons learned in recovery court, advocates say.
Probation could be less restrictive, according to Marvin Boyer. He’s the board president at the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute. Inmates released from prison can be on probation for years and get violations for simple infractions like missing a drug test for a job interview, he said. Too many offenders are going to prison for minor probation and parole violations, he said.
“Judges don’t want to appear soft on crime,” Boyer said.
Prison is the worst place for a drug offender, Hoffman said. It temporarily keeps them off drugs and might make them rethink their lives. But it also walls them off emotionally. That fuels the need for drugs when they get out.
The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection, Hoffman said. When she counsels people in recovery, she asks each of them to come up with a strategy to avoid giving in to drug cravings. She said nine out of 10 people on the verge of using drugs would just want someone to talk to. Putting them in prison means cutting them off from connections they need.
“Punishing an addict and making them feel alone is probably one of the cruelest things you can do. Because they’re already alone,” Hoffman said.
Not only do the offenders suffer by going to prison, their children suffer. At best the offenders need to find someone to care for the children temporarily. At worst, their kids wind up in foster care.
The prison lacks helpful programs, Winfield said. Director of Corrections James Kostura says COVID has forced the temporary suspension of some programs. He said inmates are free to start their own in-house narcotics anonymous or alcoholics anonymous groups. He’s working on getting permission to bring in 2
recovery specialists to meet with inmates.
Hoffman said more needs to be done for inmates upon release. They’re given little direction. They’re handed a paper telling them to call their probation officer and a rehab and put on the street sometimes with nowhere to go and nothing to eat. If the inmates don’t know where they’ll live or where their next meal is coming from, they’re less able to take care of their probation requirements, their treatment or find a job. Winfield and Hoffman are working on a program to hand out backpacks to inmates upon release from Northampton County Prison. They might get a $5 gift card from Wawa to get a sandwich or a coffee and some basic toiletries.
Certified recovery specialist Jenn Latham says inmates upon release need someone to meet them at the gate. It’s a vulnerable moment and without guidance the inmates are likely to turn to what they know best: the street and drugs.
“You go back to your old life because that’s all you have,” Winfield said.
Imagine a high school senior not sure about whether to go to college. That senior is more likely to enroll if he gets a campus tour rather than handed an application and told to fill it out himself. Latham said inmates should be pre-enrolled in recovery programs upon their release. Someone should drive them to their first appointments. She thinks certified recovery specialists should be allowed in prison to counsel inmates, but Kostura hasn’t given the thumbs up yet.
Programs like recovery court don’t always work. They need grant funds to survive. They need a team effort. But they beat the alternative of letting chronic drug users fend for themselves, advocates say.
The graduates can’t thank the program enough.
Fehr graduated from recovery court on Valentine’s Day 2019, a little more than two years after enrolling. She invited a childhood friend to the ceremony. She was teased for making a big deal of her graduation, but to her it really was a big deal.
“I never graduated high school. I never completed anything, so it was a huge deal to me,” Fehr said. She’s stayed clean since her enrollment.
One of the November graduates thanked the treatment team for its unconditional help and support.
“Every time I completed a goal in this program it made me feel like I grew 10 times,” he said.
Putting drug offenders in prison overlooks their unmet needs. As long as those needs are unmet, they are likely to relapse.
“Everybody judges addicts until it’s someone they love. Then it pushes you one of two ways: You either learn to empathize or you grow hate. I don’t know any good that’s ever come from hate,” Hoffman said.
If you have a substance abuse problem or know someone with a problem, there are resources to get help:
Lehigh Valley Drug and Alcohol Intake, 100 N. Third St., Suite 401 (Santander Bank Building) Easton, Pa. 18042, 610-923-0394.
Northampton County Drug & Alcohol Division, 2801 Emrick Blvd, Bethlehem, Pa. 18020. 610-829-4725. A case manager is available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to help you access services, regardless of whether you have insurance and regardless of financial need. On weekends or holidays, call emergency services at 610-252-9060.
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