Henderson County debuts Adult Recovery Court for substance use

BROTHERS IN ARMS: Certified peer support specialist Daniel Conway, right, graduated from the Buncombe County Veterans Treatment Court in 2021 under the guidance of director Kevin Rumley, left. Conway was recently hired as the Adult Recovery Court coordinator in Henderson County. Photo courtesy of Conway

Like all of North Carolina, Henderson County is experiencing the effects of the drug crisis. In 2022, 40 people in the county died from opioids, stimulants and other drugs, and 147 were brought to emergency departments for drug overdoses, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Opioid and Substance Use Data Dashboard.

But for numerous reasons, many people aren’t treated for substance use disorder. Some end up filtering into the criminal justice system, where their disorder is unaddressed or even exacerbated. Henderson County Adult Recovery Court, which began operating this year, gives them a new option.

ARC works with people who have substance or alcohol use problems and face criminal charges in Henderson County District Court; participants receive court-ordered treatment while being monitored by criminal justice and recovery professionals.

“This is a public health issue,” says Henderson County public defender Beth Stang, who helped establish the recovery court. “Substance use disorder touches all kinds of cases,” not only drug-related crimes like possession or manufacturing. She says many property crimes such as breaking and entering, stealing from family members and forgery are motivated by the need to support a substance use disorder.

“Traditional court is pretty limited in what it can really do to help people, even when all the players have the best intentions,” says Stang. “Generally, by the time [a case] gets to a judge … you’re going to get probation or you’re going to get jail time.”

Dr. Jessica McSurdy, a family medicine physician at Mountain Area Health Education Center who treats patients with opioid use disorder, says that historically “the treatment of addiction has been filled with stigma, bias and a distinct lack of evidence-based practices.” She believes that approach “has translated to patients struggling to find access to care and only perpetuating the cycle of addiction.”

McSurdy continues, “So often patients tell me that they feel misunderstood, isolated and judged when seeking care, so having programs aimed at rehabilitative instead of punitive treatments is absolutely a promising development.” (She is not involved in the Henderson County Treatment Court.)

‘Get their life on track’

The goals of a treatment court are to reduce recidivism by addressing underlying issues — substance misuse and, often, mental health challenges — and to rehabilitate.

Participants who are at least 18 years old and residents of Henderson County can be referred by their lawyer to the ARC, which screens candidates for the program. The court team includes Henderson County Behavioral Health Systems director Jodi Grabowski, ARC coordinator and certified peer support specialist Daniel Conway, Judge Kim Gasperson-Justice, Assistant District Attorney James Capps, probation officers and members of Hope Coalition, a Hendersonville-based recovery support nonprofit.

The team identifies individuals who are at high risk of reoffending and need a lot of support for substance use and co-occurring disorders, using the Risk and Needs Triage screening tool, Conway explains.

There have been numerous referrals to ARC, but Conway says no one has pleaded into it yet. To access the program, a participant must plead guilty to the charges and agree to participate in recovery court. After successful completion of the program, the charges can be expunged, Stang says.

Throughout the 18-month program, participants follow an individualized, evidence-based treatment plan that includes therapy, supportive services for housing and employment, and community service. Grabowski calls participant engagement “highly monitored … [and] very intensive. It gives people a lot of support to get their life on track.”

ARC conducts random drug testing and participants can be terminated by the judge for failing to follow guidelines such as honesty about substance use.

“What is important to know is doing a treatment court is way more challenging than going into prison,” says Buncombe County Veterans Treatment Court director Kevin Rumley. “It has way more accountability, daily touchpoints from the staff and supervisors. … Going and doing your time is easy because you just get three meals a day, watch TV, and you’re not really asked to change. You’re not asked to get to the underlying issues. But every single day, that’s what we’re focusing on.”

Conway, who has lived experience with substance use,  says he shares with potential participants his own story of success in Buncombe County’s VTC, from which he graduated in 2021. Conway served in the Marine Corps from 2006-12 and, after leaving the military, struggled with substance use and homelessness.

“I explain how treatment court saved my life,” Conway says. “If I can do it, anybody can do it.”

Opioid settlement funds

Establishing the ARC was one way Henderson County opted to use its opioid settlement funding. It will receive about $16 million over the next 18 years, according to Henderson County Behavioral Health. A report on strategic spending of opioid settlement funding identified a diversion program or treatment court as a need for the community.

Participants are required to live in the county where they attend the ARC. Therefore, establishing the program also necessitated transitional housing, which Henderson County did not have until recently. Now there are 10 beds for males and six for females in separate houses, Conway says. Another apartment complex that will house 28 people in recovery will be available soon, he says.

When researching the implementation of a recovery court in Henderson County, Grawbowski, Stang, Gasperson-Justice and some county commissioners visited treatment courts in Catawba, Haywood and Gaston counties. Grabowski says seeing a graduation at recovery court made an impression: “You can’t go to one of those and not cry — they’re so moving. ”

Opioid settlement money also covered sending court personnel to the RISE conference held by All Rise (formerly the National Association of Drug Court Professionals) to learn about best practices for operating a recovery court. Grabowski says buy-in from Henderson County Courthouse personnel makes an ARC possible. “When you create something like this, it’s creating a whole docket — a whole half day of work twice a month for the judge, for the prosecutor,” she says.

“They’re adding work to their workload without getting paid more money. They choose to do that because it’s the right thing to do.”

Holistic defense

Stang, the public defender, says programs like the ARC are a method of holistic defense. According to the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, “The key insight of holistic defense is that to be truly effective advocates for our clients, we as defenders must broaden the scope of our work to include both the collateral consequences of criminal justice involvement as well as the underlying issues, both legal and nonlegal, that have played a part in driving our clients into the criminal justice system in the first place.”

Addressing underlying substance misuse could stop the revolving door in the criminal justice system. “The reason that people are getting into trouble, committing crimes, being accused of crimes, isn’t just because they’re bad,” Stang explains. “That’s not what’s going on here.”

Adds Rumley, “The disease of addiction is so brutal. People find themselves interfacing with the justice system just because they’re trying to manage their addiction — the criminal behaviors that we end up doing just to provide for a daily habit, a daily fix. When we remove the addiction, then get to the underlying issues of suffering, trauma and mental health and actually focus on those, it’s profound.”

Rumley says he’s excited for Henderson County to start its first recovery court. “I have no doubt they’re going to be transforming lives and saving lives, too,” he says.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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