Sheila Barrera was addicted to opioids 10 years ago. Today, she is a coordinator for the Coffee County Safe Baby Court and a case manager for the Coffee County Family Treatment Court, two of the programs under the umbrella of Coffee County Drug Court Foundation.
The Mental Health Court, Veterans Court and Recovery Court, also known as the drug court, are part of the foundation, as well.
While the recovery court is most directly associated with tackling drug addiction, all programs work together to solve the problem.
The recovery court is a two-year treatment program for nonviolent offenders whose current offense is a result of illegal drug use or who have a history of drug abuse.
Mental health court helps people with mental issues, while the veterans court focuses on military veterans fighting drug addiction. Both the family treatment and safe baby courts help individuals with addiction and mental issues by offering assistance to their families.
Individuals battling drug addiction can often benefit from more than one program, according to Martha McCallie, a licensed clinical social worker and an addiction specialist. McCallie has been involved with the drug court foundation for several years, doing mental health diagnoses, addiction assessments and individual therapy.
All of the participants in the programs have drug or alcohol problem and/or some type of mental issue, McCallie said.
Breaking the cycle
“I would say the majority of the people in jail are either mentally ill or they are drug addicted,” McCallie said.
When individuals become dependent on drugs end up in jail, they find themselves in a vicious cycle. Raised by parents who struggle with addiction themselves, they often lack family support. Many don’t have a high school diploma, and that makes things even tougher, according to McCallie.
“They are working minimum-wage jobs, trying to get by, and they are not getting by, so they turn to drugs,” McCallie said. “They find out that it’s quicker for them to sell drugs than to make money on a normal job. They become addicted to the lifestyle of selling drugs, and then it’s even harder for them to stop. And they have little kids they have to figure out how to raise without that [income].”
That’s why those individuals need to be encouraged to further their education, said McCallie.
“There is an [adult literacy] program at the jail, but it’s just not big enough to cover the population there,” McCallie said.
From her experience with inmates at the jail, “the majority of people there just assume they are going to go to jail because that’s what mom and dad did,” said McCallie.
The recovery court offers a solution.
“It’s a long process, but it’s a way for them to get out of the system,” McCallie said. “But they have to want to get out of the system – so can we instill in them to want it more.”
Many individuals don’t believe a way out of the “vicious cycle” exists and making them aware they have other options is one of the main goals of the drug court foundation, said McCallie.
One of the people the foundation has helped through its comprehensive approach is Barrera. Several years ago, Barrera struggled with addiction. Today, she is a coordinator for the Safe Baby Court and a case manager for Family Treatment Court.
The two programs are new initiatives. The family treatment court started last year, and safe baby court was launched in January, with Coffee County being one of only seven counties in Tennessee to offer the safe baby program.
The safe baby court treats individuals with children up to 3 years old.
“That’s the most critical time developmentally,” Barrera said. “Most of these babies are taken from their home. That can change the structure of their brain – they do not hit milestones, they do not learn like other children. That can be reversed, but it takes a lot of work.”
The safe baby court offers child-parent psychotherapy and therapeutic visitations, said Barrera.
One of the main goals of the program is strengthening the bond between the child and the parent.
The family treatment court is similar, but children can be of any age. The program was recently awarded $1.6 million from the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
Treating ‘the whole person’
All individuals in the programs have drug or alcohol problems and a mental illness issue. Using a comprehensive approach, the programs focus on more than just the addiction.
“We are looking to see if a person has problems above and beyond the addiction,” McCallie said. “If a person has addiction but also another mental health issue, [the two] are considered co-occurring, and they have to be treated parallel with each other because one will affect the other. If the person doesn’t take [his or her] mental health medications, that may cause a relapse.”
Paying attention to all of an individual’s issues is important, said McCallie.
“So you treat the whole person and, then, you have to treat the whole family,” McCallie said. “If we can get the child and the parent in a therapeutic visitation, they learn to get along with each other and connect with each other. If they need trauma therapy, we have that. If they just need some parenting skills, we make sure that’s done. But, first, we have to get them sober and we have to get them stable. And then we can build on that.”
Many of the female clients have a history of sexual abuse, and the program offers a treatment focusing on that, as well.
Barrera knows the benefits of the recovery court system firsthand.
“The program saved my life,” Barrera said. “I was a hospice nurse. I had been in a wreck and got a pain medicine. I should have been smart enough to ask for help, but that’s not how it works.”
People who have never battled dependency can’t understand how addicts can choose narcotics over their children, said Barrera.
“It’s not that simple,” she said. “No one in their right mind will do that. That’s what drug addiction is – you’re not in your right mind. The minute you need that drug, your brain is telling you you’re going to die without it.”
And that thought never leaves the addict, even after entering recovery, she added. The addict just needs to learn not to act on the impulses.
“When I was going through my addiction, no one knew,” she said. “I was really good at not letting people see how much pain I was in.”
The drug court foundation helped Barrera.
“I was at my worst – I just didn’t care what would happen to me,” she said. “What I found in [the program], besides treatment, was acceptance. I never felt judged. And I have a great, loving family, but they did not understand why I did what I did and how hard it was every day no to do that again.”
Barrera graduated from the drug court program about 10 years ago.
“I went back to school and I majored in phycology. I called Mike Lewis [director of the drug court foundation] and told him I needed an internship.”
Lewis told Barrera she could start the following day.
“I’ve been [with the program] ever since,” Barrera said.
There is help, she added.
“It’s not easy, but it’s never too late to be what you might have been,” she said. “I truly believe that. Our clients are some of the most artistic, talented, intelligent people, and they just have never been given the opportunity to let that shine because. For whatever reason – whether it’s how they lived their whole life or due to trauma they were trying to numb – [those abilities] never grew. And I want people to know that no matter what has happened with their family, it can be put back together. There is not damage that can’t be undone once you’re well.”
Elena Cawley can be reached by email at email@example.com.