Drug court providing safety net for those battling addiction during global pandemic

Circuit Court Judge Paul Stutesman cracks a smile during a drug court meeting conducted on a Zoom call. Alek Haak-Frost | Watershed Voice

A lot has changed since COVID-19 arrived at our collective doorstep.

Schools have shuttered their doors until further notice, restaurants — at least those that remain open — can only offer takeout or delivery, and many workers have been sent home without the promise of a return date or future paychecks. 

The virus is changing the way people live, and the way they work. What hasn’t changed is the need for certain essential services, and St. Joseph County’s Adult Drug Treatment Court (ADTC) is doing its part to ensure the participants of its program have the support they need, even from miles away.

On Monday, April 6, St. Joseph County Circuit Court Judge Paul Stutesman conducted a weekly court session for ADTC participants with use of the video communications platform Zoom. Stutesman was assisted by his daughter Alison Stutesman, who serves as MIDC / Problem Solving Courts Grants’ Facilitator for Cass County and Cass County Circuit Court. Judge Stutesman said Alison trained for several hours with the program, and will play a similar role for Cass County Circuit Court sometime next week.

The teleconference included 36 individuals with ADTC participants, probation agents, therapists, and case managers all joining in. St. Joseph County Prosecutor John McDonough and Dr. Barbara Howes, the ADTC program director for both St. Joseph and Cass County, were also on the call.

Howes said the quarantine has been a struggle for everyone, and is something no one has dealt with before. She said it’s an especially difficult time for someone who is in the early stages of recovery. 

“Be patient with yourself, OK? And be patient with everyone around you because everyone is trying to figure this whole thing out as we go,” Howes told a participant. “But I want to give you praise, I know you’re trying hard, as best you can, you know?”

“We wouldn’t have put you in this program if we didn’t care, if we didn’t have confidence in you, and please, please, please reach out because if you reach out, only good things can happen.”

County Prosecutor John McDonough

Howes encouraged participants to attend online NA and AA meetings, do readings with their roommates, and not allow the quarantine to hold back their respective recoveries. 

A graduate of the drug program who was on the call Monday said they have “seen a lot of people struggling (with their sobriety)” as they attempt to navigate their way through this crisis, and it “breaks (their) heart.”

Judge Stutesman said if anyone is struggling, drug court meetings are the time to talk about it because participants can get the help they need, but only if they’re honest about their mental health and general welfare.

“If you don’t want to do it in front of me, do it with your case manager or probation agent, […] just talk with somebody,” he said. “The goal here of this program, as you all know, is to get you better. And if no one is struggling during this time, I think we’re failing as a program because there’s no way you’re not struggling during this time because we’re all struggling.” 

McDonough said he has firsthand knowledge that some participants are struggling right now, and those that are “need to reach out.”

“We wouldn’t have put you in this program if we didn’t care, if we didn’t have confidence in you, and please, please, please reach out because if you reach out, only good things can happen,” McDonough said. “If you don’t reach out, really bad things can happen. And the last thing the judge and I, and everyone else on this call want to see happen are those really bad things. So just remember we’re here to help, and take advantage of what you have.”

Howes said participants should “put as much effort” into their recovery as they do filing for unemployment, as their treatment is “as essential to (their) survival.”

“Think ‘OK, I need food, I need shelter, I need money, I need my treatment, and I need my recovery to survive.’”

Alek Haak-Frost is the executive editor of Watershed Voice.