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Humboldt County's Most Successful Addiction Treatment Program Might Be Probation 

Meet the graduates of Drug Court

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Photo by Mark McKenna

When Joel Pittman was a kid, he wanted to be a doctor. Instead, the Eureka native found himself homeless at 21, traveling up and down the West Coast, spending around $200 a day on heroin to avoid going through withdrawal or getting "dope-sick." To support his habit, he dealt drugs and stole. He was arrested more than 30 times before his 24th birthday. Family members wouldn't allow him into their homes, "not even to use the bathroom." Today, now 26, he has been sober for two years. He has a new baby, a steady girlfriend and has reunited with his mother, with whom he lives. He's preparing to go back to school to get his associate's degree and become a radiologist. Pittman credits his success in part to his support system and the inspiration of being a new father. But most of all, he credits his probation officer.

"Everybody tells you drug court is almost impossible to do," Pittman says, recalling what he heard in jail when he was offered the opportunity to enter the program as a condition of his probation. "I wasn't excited about it."

Drug court offers some criminals with substance abuse problems the opportunity to enter treatment instead of staying in jail or going to prison. Participants agree to mandatory drug testing, regular court dates, attendance in a treatment program and other criteria their probation officers require. The 18-month program established in 1997 touts a success rate of 75 percent, reporting that three-quarters of its graduates "never return to the criminal system." For Pittman, who tried and bounced out of other treatment programs before graduating from drug court March 23, it was what worked to keep him clean and sober. He was one of 11 graduates to accept a certificate of completion from Humboldt County Superior Judge Dale Reinholtsen this spring.

It's not unusual for addicts to relapse once or twice before succeeding in recovery. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates 40 to 60 percent of all people who seek treatment for addiction later relapse. In that respect, drug court's success rate is in line with other programs — a little less than half of those who began the program between 2013 and 2017 successfully graduated. But those 72 people who shook the hands of their probation officers represent a holistic change. While staying clean and sober is a chief component of finishing drug court, participants are also required to attend various counseling programs, seek employment and stable housing, engage in aftercare, pay legal restitution fees and maintain a clean criminal record.

Barbara Robie, who has overseen the program for the Humboldt County Probation Department for 17 years, says she loves her probationers. Many of them are on their last chance when they enter drug court, usually at the recommendation of the program's substance abuse counselor, Danette Neisinger, who visits the jail to assess potential clients for their readiness and willingness to get clean.

"For the most part, very rarely is it the first choice when someone comes into the probation system," says Robie. Probation offers a variety of resources for people who want to turn their lives around. Robie says she wishes more people would come to drug court earlier but she recognizes they often have to hit bottom before choosing treatment.

That was the case with Pittman, who had struggled with his opiate addiction since the age of 17, when he first started using Percocet and Oxycontin. The oldest of three siblings, his family was split when his mother and father divorced. Pittman, 13, went to live with his father, who he says was an alcoholic. His mother and sister lived in a different household.

"I liked how they made me feel," he says, of the prescription drugs. "Then I got injured and prescribed Percocet. I blew through a month's prescription in about two weeks, started buying Oxy off the streets and snorting it. I was selling to supply and I eventually started stealing. I switched to heroin because it was cheaper."

Addiction, Pittman says, is "a hard thing to explain."

"You're not in charge of your own life," he says. "Yes, you made the decision to try it the first time. But then it consumes you. You don't even notice it until it's too late. All you think about is getting high."

Pittman had been using almost a year before he got "sick" the first time. Opiate withdrawal is often described as akin to getting a bad flu, one that lasts for weeks. Your nose runs, your bowels run, your pores open, your bones ache.

"I didn't know what it was," Pittman says. "I had a pounding head, I was dripping sweat, my mind was racing. A friend said, 'Maybe you're dope-sick.' That's when I started getting a little more desperate. I never wanted to feel that way again. It just totally took over my life, whether I wanted to admit it or not."

Around the age of 19, Pittman began using methamphetamines, too. He started getting arrested "constantly" at age 20. He went to jail, then to a 13-week treatment program, where he lasted 10 weeks before testing dirty and bouncing out. He says he wasn't ready to quit; he was using the whole time. He lost his housing and the faith of his family. He traveled around the West Coast, up to Portland and Seattle.

"It's not easy being homeless here at all," he says, referring to Humboldt County. "And I'm even from here. Some of the hardest places on the streets is here."

The 24 year old didn't feel safe sleeping on the streets, instead using methamphetamines so he could be awake all night. When he had to crash, he would find a stairwell or a laundry room where he could sleep up against the door.

The second-to-last time he was arrested — for having drugs and ammunition — he received three years' probation on condition of completing a treatment program. He went to the Humboldt Recovery Center, where he relapsed again after several weeks clean. The program manager told him to turn himself in. Instead, he went on the run. Finally, after being picked up again, the court said it would reinstate probation if he went to drug court. This time it took.

Pittman's series of second chances can be interpreted several different ways. A movement is currently underway to address what some see as the unintended consequences of California's Assembly Bill 109 and propositions 47 and 57, which reduced sentencing for some criminal offenses. The Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2018, which was recently endorsed by the Eureka City Council under the urging of Police Chief Steve Watson, includes language around serial property theft like that perpetuated by Pittman. If passed, serial property theft would mean a year in jail rather than probation.

Robie says the passage of Proposition 47 has changed the local drug court program's clientele, bringing in offenders with more serious convictions, such as assault and weapons offenses. Robie acknowledges there are additional challenges with this population change, but says they come with increased rewards, some personal and others societal, like Pittman's reunification with his family and his presence in his son's life. Other benefits include reduced cost to taxpayers.

The 11 probationers who graduated drug court in March were facing a total of 37 years of incarceration. According to Coral Sanders, probation's Adult Division director, that cost would have broken down to "15 years being served in our county jail at a cost of about $103 per day and 22 years being served in state prison at a cost of about $194 per day." In contrast, drug court costs about $11 per participant per day. Sanders estimates that, if all of those clients had served just half of their sentences with good conduct credits, taxpayers would have paid more than $1 million to keep them behind bars. The math gets complicated but she estimates those 11 graduates saved taxpayers more than $900,000.

Drug court's touted efficacy can be attributed to a number of factors. The 75-percent success rate, of course, only refers to people who finish the program. The men in jail who told Pittman the program didn't work were, by definition, not part of its successes. Also, unlike many traditional addiction treatment programs, probation doesn't measure success by whether or not its clients relapse but by whether or not they reoffend. The length of the program — 18 months — is one advantage. Many in-patient and out-patient treatment programs are much shorter, ranging from 30-day "spin drys" to longer, nine-month stints. While longer treatment programs are usually considered to stick better, their success often depends more on a client's willingness to get and stay sober than anything else. In that respect, drug court seems to have a good combination of carrots and sticks.

"I think drug court is the best thing since sliced bread," says John Remen, a senior substance abuse counselor with the Humboldt Recovery Center. "The way they have it set up there is perfect."

Remen, who now works with many of Robie's clients, graduated from the program in 2000.

"I was 43 years old, I had 20-some-odd years as an intravenous drug addict and had been drinking since I was 12," Remen recalls. "They didn't want to take me but Judge [Bruce] Watson told them to."

Remen says that without the program he would probably be in prison or dead of hepatitis C, which he has battled into remission in sobriety.

"The good thing about drug court is they actually have teeth," says Remen, referring to probation officers' power to revoke probation if their clients slip up. "Probation is different than it used to be. They used to be there to bust your chops, now people feel like they're really getting help."

Pittman says the structure of drug court was what made the difference for him. In the first phase of the program, participants are required to call daily to find out if they need to submit to a urine test. They're assessed for mental health problems, connected with resources, like doctors and dentists, and most are mandated to a residential treatment program.

Desiree George met Pittman in treatment, as both attended the Humboldt Recovery Center's Wednesday "fun night" at the bowling alley. George, who has been sober since July 18, 2016, says she remembers seeing "the fire" in Pittman, the willingness to stay clean and sober. The two went on to graduate together in March.

George, 32, had her own set of obstacles to overcome on the path to getting clean and sober. She began using methamphetamines at 13, when she says her sister would bribe her with the drug to get her to watch her young nieces. At first, it was just an occasional thing to help her cope with the stress of running a household at a young age.

"I dropped out at eighth grade to help my mom support the family," says George, who took on the responsibility of caring for her two younger siblings and extended family while her mother worked. "[Meth] was this power. I had responsibilities — cleaning the house, watching my brothers, cooking food."

George didn't begin using more regularly until her 20s. At 16, she left her family in Riverside County and moved in with her older boyfriend in Humboldt, where her family is originally from. At 20, living in Reno, she went a little "buck wild" after having her first child, hitting the casinos and drinking. At 21, living in Eureka and working full-time at a motel, she could afford "her own sacks" of meth. She began injecting the drug, using the energy it gave her to hustle money to keep her two young sons fed and clothed. She did landscaping, sold antiques, took various odd jobs. Still, she says, the money never balanced out and, while she says her kids didn't witness her use, they were definitely affected.

"They were never without home or food but they went without their mom a lot," she says. "I missed appointments, we never played ball. I wasn't the mom that sober moms are. In the long run, I wasn't the mom they needed. I was always under the influence."

George says her son recently saw a picture of her from her using days and didn't recognize her.

"I was so skinny, my face was all sucked up," she says. While it was hard to leave her kids to go into residential treatment, she says they understood and supported her. Her husband, who is also in recovery, was also a big help. Her oldest son, she says, is like a "mini probation officer."

"My oldest is very proud of me," she says, her voice catching a little, tears coming to her eyes. "He said, 'You have the key, mom. Now you just have to find the treasure.'"

For George, the beginning of the end of her long run with drugs came with an impulsive decision at the Blue Lake Casino in 2015. She was exiting the lobby with her uncle when she saw a framed picture she liked — one of the casino owner on his wedding day. High and reckless, she took it without considering the consequences. A video of her car's license plate led the sheriff to her several days later. She was with her children at a local fast food restaurant when officers came to arrest her. A subsequent arrest for possession while on probation earned her a felony. Things continued to deteriorate.

"Every time they tested me, I was dirty," she says of probation. Finally, George entered drug court. The best part of the program, she says, were the probation officers.

"They take time to work things out," she says. "They were caring, considerate, mentoring. They gave you that feeling of family."

George, who's now fully employed at a local rehabilitation facility and working toward getting her license as a certified nursing aide, says her "light shines brighter these days."

"I never thought I'd be hugging my probation officer," she says, laughing.

After getting through the first phase, which Robie calls the "foundation phase," drug court participants get into the "goal phase," figuring out what they want out of their recovery and how to get it.

"There's a lot of problem solving, talking about how to get from Point A to Point B," says Robie. "Once they get some success in Phase 2, they're almost unstoppable."

For many, the goal is to regain custody of their kids. That hasn't happened yet for Jill Winnop, who lost custody of her son in 2012 and, after a long battle with heroin addiction, graduated from drug court in 2017. But she gets to see the 10 year old every weekend and says she's glad he has a stable home with his grandparents.

Winnop, 40, began abusing prescription drugs in 2003 when she became a primary caregiver for her boyfriend, who had become paralyzed from the neck down in a skiing accident. In retrospect, she says, she probably had problems before then, having been cited for a DUI at age 18. She transitioned to heroin shortly after she began taking the prescriptions, leaving the boyfriend and beginning a new relationship. That man, her son's father, died of a heroin overdose in 2005. That's when the wheels really started to come off. Despite being a daily user, she thought she was doing OK, maintaining a home and keeping her son in private preschool. But her sons' grandparents saw through this and filed for custody. Within a year, it was all gone — the house, the cars, contact with her son. Winnop kicked heroin in jail.

"It took me two weeks," she says, saying that reaching the end of the road behind bars could be a positive thing. "You have no 'one more favor,' no place to go. OK, it's done, here we go. Locked in a cell, no way to go find anything."

Once the fog cleared, Winnop got a taste for recovery, and for life. As a drug court client, she began treatment at Humboldt Recovery Center. She was sober for nine months before she relapsed for the last time. The stumbling block, she says, was the fact that she had never talked about losing custody of her son. She thought she was ready to get clean and sober, but she didn't begin the hard emotional work of talking about her son and the many losses in her life.

"My son was so little when his dad died," she says. "How I explained it ... I told him his dad got poisoned. And all that time I was still taking that poison."

Without the hard work and resiliency building that are part of a successful recovery, Winnop's relapse took her by surprise.

"It was like that big huge thing didn't exist, like I was at summer camp with the girls," she says of early recovery. "All of a sudden, one of the other girls and I got drunk and I went right back into it all."

Robie says relapse is not uncommon for probationers but it doesn't always mean the end. The passage of Proposition 47 has given probation officers new tools, including the option of "flash incarceration," or putting someone in jail for the weekend if his or her urine tests dirty. Where, before, a relapse could mean bouncing someone out of housing and a job to send him or her back to prison or jail, probation officers now have more flexibility, which Robie says is a strength.

"We've gotten really into evidence-based practices," she says. "We teach problem solving skills. Teaching them how to fish instead of giving them a fish. We give them new ways of thinking to change their problem."

After running for about four months, living with friends in Eureka and Loleta, Winnop returned to drug court and treatment with a new readiness.

"I went back with new eyes," she says. "I took a good look at what I didn't do. I dug deep into stuff I didn't want to look at."

Today, Winnop has become something of a mentor to other drug court clients. (George calls her an "inspiration.") She is employed and in stable housing with her boyfriend, who also recently graduated from drug court.

Graduations from the program, held on the bottom floor of the courthouse in the jury services room, tend to be tearjerkers. As the room filled up with graduates and their families, retiring Chief Probation Officer Bill Damiano stood in the corner of the room, beaming.

"I'm proud of this program," he said. "This is the best program we have."

Damiano, who has been with the probation department for 30 years, says he doesn't know how anyone could hear the stories told at graduation and not be proud.

The ceremony starts with Reinholtsen calling all in attendance to rise. Along with the families and friends of the graduates, most of the probation officers are there, as are counselors from various recovery programs and a few public officials. The room is packed beyond capacity, with several people standing in the back next to stacks of pizzas and a sheet cake. Friends hug, babies are passed from lap to lap and some parents are already dabbing their eyes.

Sanders begins with the numbers: Of the 11 graduates, six have gone on to get their driver's licenses, one has started college, seven formerly homeless clients are now housed. The group has celebrated one marriage, four births and seven family reunifications.

The first certificate goes to Beverly Balke, who puts a hand on her stomach after accepting her diploma from Reinholtsen. Now seven months pregnant and 18 months sober, Balke was homeless for four years before beginning drug court. She's now employed, housed, reunited with her two sons and expecting a baby girl. Over the course of the program she met and married Jason Balke, a drug court "retread" who originally graduated from the program in 2008. Robie says several of this year's graduates were previous clients who needed fresh starts. Jason Balke was once the subject of a petition by McKinleyville residents requesting his probation be revoked because of his extensive criminal history, which included armed robbery, assault and possession. More than 100 people signed the online petition, citing their fear of Balke, who would walk the streets with a stick and once attempted to rob a service station with a large river rock. On his graduation day, however, Balke looks nothing like his mug shot. He looks like a nervous father-to-be, his face shiny, his arm around his wife.

"It's an accomplishment," he says, shyly.

Most of the graduates are anxious and have Robie read their speeches, but George, who is glowing in her bright orange jacket and high heels, wants to speak for herself.

"I would like to thank God and my probation officers," she begins, giving credit to her husband, who said he "always knew" she would get sober. When she shares her son's words about the treasure and the key, she begins to sob, and she's soon joined by most of the room. County Supervisor Virginia Bass wipes tears from her eyes, as does Eureka City Councilmember Kim Bergel. Damiano, who has been booming the words "Good job" from the corner after each certificate, is misty-eyed, as well.

Pittman is one of the last to receive a diploma. His 4-month-old son, Ozias, sits on his girlfriend Sara Fuller's lap. His mother, who once moved while he was in jail and refused to tell him where, is there, too. Pittman, who says his primary goal is now to provide a stable home and a good role model for his son, lost his younger brother Isaac to a Xanax overdose in October. The loss hit the family hard. Not two months earlier, Robie had asked him what — if anything — could make him relapse. This line of questioning is part of the maintenance phase of the program, where probation officers help clients build the resilience that Robie says many children in our community grow up without.

"I told her, 'If a family member died,'" says Pittman.

But when Isaac passed away, Pittman found he was stronger than he had thought. Attending his court date check up after the funeral, he told Reinholtsen the tragedy wasn't going to take him out.

"I didn't want to put my family through that," Pittman told the Journal. "If anything, it made me want to stay sober even more. After that, I knew I was done. I just knew I was done."

Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or linda@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.

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Linda Stansberry

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Linda Stansberry is a staff writer of the North Coast Journal.

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