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'Graduation' spotlights success of innovative drug treatment program

Written by Stephanie Weaver/The Reading Eagle | Jul 11, 2018 12:00 PM
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Newsrooms across the commonwealth have spent years documenting the opioid crisis in their own communities. But now, in the special project State of Emergency: Searching for Solutions to Pennsylvania's Opioids Crisis, we are marshalling resources to spotlight what Pennsylvanians are doing to try to reverse the soaring number of overdose deaths.

WITF is releasing more than 60 stories, videos and photos throughout July. This week, you will find stories about police intervention, courts and treatment.

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Nicole A. Ramsey is congratulated by Berks County Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt after receiving a diploma for completing the Berks County Drug Treatment Court program. (Susan L. Angstadt/Reading Eagle)

(Reading) -- Nicole A. Ramsey took a deep breath, basking in the new life she's found after addiction, and broke into a wide, dazzling smile.

Just two years ago, the former Reading woman was floored when she discovered a warrant for her arrest on theft charges from an April 2016 incident at a local bar. With a past marred with drug addiction and convictions, Ramsey knew the misdemeanor could easily send her back to state prison, where she had spent several years before being paroled in 2009.

Instead, Ramsey's public defender was able to get her a chance to join Berks County's Drug Treatment Court program. And while it certainly wasn't an easy process, Ramsey said it was the biggest blessing and gift ever given to her.

"It means living instead of just existing," Ramsey, 43, said. "I feel like air has been breathed into my lungs, like I have been reborn. It means everything. It's given me a new lease on life and finally, I'm free."

Ramsey and seven other drug treatment court participants were honored in May during the inaugural graduation ceremony for the program. Ramsey was the keynote speaker.

"I woke up this morning feeling positive, grateful and blessed," she declared to those gathered in the auditorium of the Berks County Services Center. "It's a beautiful day to be clean and sober, walking a path of recovery. Not just following that path but having a sense of direction and hope."

Ramsey stole the morning with a dynamic speech that poetically moved between her own story of sobriety and encouragement for others still in the program.

"Substance-use disorders do not need to win," she said. "We can and do recover."

Creating a community

Judge M. Theresa Johnson supervises the drug treatment court program and watched Ramsey's transformation from when she began the program in September 2016.

Johnson said Ramsey's story is just one of the success stories she and Judge Eleni Dimitriou Geishauser, who supervises the DUI treatment court, see through these alternative programs.

Johnson and Geishauser became involved with treatment court in January 2016 when they became full-time criminal court judges. Johnson said they decided to educate themselves about treatment court programs and attended a national conference and other trainings.

"We learned that it's really about the whole person, not just the whole addiction," Johnson said. "We thought what are these people interested in, their hobbies, what they like to do, so they can know how to get re-engaged."

The judges met monthly with their treatment court team of probation officers, public defenders and assistant district attorneys to brainstorm new ideas. They've already implemented several new programs, including exercise groups at the YMCA, a book club and a garden club, but they also wanted to create a greater sense of community for those who have completed these programs.

Johnson said it typically takes a participant about two years to complete the four-phase program that involves treatment, counseling, community service, frequent drug tests and active employment or schooling.

"This is a demand on their time," she said. "Probation officers are in their homes, they're in their business and we all know what's going on. So it's truly an accomplishment for them to be sitting here today."

'Committed to erasing addiction'

District Attorney John T. Adams and county Commissioners Kevin S. Barnhardt and Christian Y. Leinbach noted the success of the treatment court program.

"This court and getting people help means a lot to me," Adams said. "Treatment works, treatment saves money and treatment is good for our community."

Adams said that even though he's often associated with putting people in jail, he is committed to the program, as evidenced by a recent $100,000 drug forfeiture donation to a treatment court project with the YMCA.

"We're committed to erasing the addiction that plagues many from our community," he said. "We're committed to continue to help because the benefits are great."

Barnhardt said the county's treatment court is unique because of the strong support from Adams and the judges.

"We don't see that in other counties," he said. "Hopefully, we are a model."

Leinbach said statistics show its success also saves the county money. But he said the celebration was all about people.

"Our job is to be there to give a hand when you reach up for help," he said. "The real value of this program is not in the dollars. The real value is that you have a new life."

Chief Adult Probation and Parole Officer Robert Williams said the county had 121 successful graduates in its four treatment programs from January 2016 through December 2017, representing a roughly 60 percent success rate.

About four years ago, Williams said the county received a national grant for its treatment court and promised to get more people into the programs. He said there are currently 223 people in the programs, compared to 146 participants a year ago and 112 two years ago. 

"We've really tried to ramp it up and thrown a lot of resources, from additional probation officers and grant funding, to really make it work," he said. "The outcomes are great for those who successfully graduate. The trick is to get more to graduate because it's not easy."

Rewriting her legacy

After years of struggling with addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine, Ramsey had been clean for a few months when she was arrested in 2016. She went into the program with an open mind but said it was still difficult, with several growing pains.

"I always had an issue with superiors, of being told what to do," she said. "There were so many things to do, and they made sure you stayed busy."

There were the counseling sessions. The reports to probation officers. And the seemingly never-ending urine tests several times a week.

"I would get frustrated, like 'I'm clean, folks, come on,' but it was a means to an end and it served its purpose," she said. "Now I realize why all the rules are set in place."

Ramsey, who now lives in Philadelphia, just finished training to be a certified recovery specialist. Her ultimate goal is to go back to school to study psychology.

 "If I can give a million thanks a million times, it wouldn't be enough to show the measure of my gratitude," she said, her voice breaking. "Today I find comfort in knowing I have changed my destiny and rewritten my legacy."

She said the most important thing the program taught her was self-respect and self-worth at a time when she had none.

"Along the way, there were casualties of war, but we are the troops that made it home," she said to her fellow graduates. "We are the courageous ones that embraced change, stood our ground and refused to run. In living, we will continue to meet and face adversities. Just know that after every storm lies a beautiful rainbow, and in that rainbow are the colors of life and sobriety.

"No matter what, we do not have to use."

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