One of Burke Substance Abuse Network’s mottos is “Save the place where you live, work, play and pray,” Kim James, Burke Recovery executive director, said. That is exactly what a team of agencies and local officials are aiming to do locally through the Burke County Recovery Court Program.

Lisa Moore, Burke County Health Education supervisor, said the program is a collaborative effort through the Sheriff’s Office, the 25th Judicial District Court Judges, Burke County Clerk of Court, the District Attorney’s Office, Catawba Valley Behavioral Health, NC Division of Community Corrections, Burke County Public Health, Burke County Public Health, Burke County’s Public Defender’s Office/Defense Attorneys and Judge Ervin, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge.

The program, which meets every two weeks, serves high-risk, high-need adult non-violent offenders convicted of DWI Level 1 and 2 with a felony or misdemeanor drug conviction, or a felony or misdemeanor conviction where alcohol or drugs were a contributing factor in the crime, Moore said.

Participants attend either the intensive outpatient program, which meets three days a week for three hours at a time, or the comprehensive outpatient program, which meets five days a week for four hours at a time. They are subjected to periodic drug tests and must provide paperwork verifying their attendance at class and group sessions, according to Brandi Greer, Drug Free Communities coordinator at Burke Recovery.

Right now, all 11 clients are in the first phase of the program, which is designed to be a 1-2 year program. James says each participant’s treatment plan is unique, and success must be measured individually.

The idea for a recovery court program originated from the 2016 Community Health Needs Assessment, which collected primary data from 1,392 community surveys, according to the Burke County website. The CHNA found substance use disorder was identified as one of the county’s top three priorities, according to the surveys.

Burke County received a four-year $500,000 Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) grant that started in January. The first court session was on May 28, said Randi Huizenga, Burke County Recovery Court coordinator.

Huizenga said that it took a while to set up the team, and they had to receive certified recognition as a court through the state.

She said the BJA grant is considered an implementation grant and the team will apply for an enhancement grant in the future.

Huizenga said the county is taking a meaningful step to combat substance use disorder with recovery court.

“The idea is, if we treat their substance use problem, then they’re not going to break the law anymore, and it’s going to make the community safer, and we’re getting a little bit more to the roots of the problem,” Huizenga said.

“For recovery court, these are individuals that have already been on probation, for the most part, and have not been able to comply with it because of their substance use,” she said. “All these people today have suspended sentences that, without this recovery court, the only other option would be to activate their sentences. They’ve all agreed and signed a contract that they’re going to go to treatment.”

Huizenga spoke of the holistic approach Burke Recovery and Cognitive Connection, which administer the program, take in the services provided to the clients.

“Cognitive Connection provides transportation through Exodus (Homes), where people can be picked up from their home and brought to group if they need,” she said. “The case management side of the program helps them work toward self-sufficiency.

“They’re getting significant help to target all of their barriers toward treatment,” Huizenga said. “We’re really meeting them where they’re at, and helping them address whatever problems are getting in their way, how we can fix it, and the court system allows the accountability that can provide them an extra motivation to become compliant.”

Those who are not compliant face a number of consequences, including 48 hours of incarceration, a weekend-long incarceration, or visits to DART Cherry – a drug rehab program – in Black Mountain, according to Greer.

Greer, along with peer support specialists Tyler Chapman of Cognitive Connection, were on hand Tuesday to speak to the court.

As part of International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31, Chapman presented a “fact versus myth” analysis of Narcan, which can help reverse an opioid overdose.

Greer shared her story with the court, one of overcoming addiction, despite losing 15 friends and family members, including her father, younger brother and best friend to overdose death in 11 years.

Greer spent 15 years in active addiction, but she decided to change for her daughter, who she calls “the most awesome gift that she was ever given.”

“Social Services told me when my daughter was around 3 years old, ‘We’re going to take her unless you make some serious changes in your life and start giving us some clean drug screens,’” Greer said. “I wasn’t about to lose the opportunity to give (my daughter) a better life than what I had.”

It was the support of officials that helped her get the help she needed to get clean, and now, to help others do the same.

“I knew I was in a bad place, I just didn’t know how to get out of it. But, through social services, and some really mean police officers, who I ran into more than one time, I was provided resources,” Greer joked. “To find that kind of forgiveness with people gave me the encouragement to try and pursue it with other folks,” she said. “So, that’s what I’m doing.”

Greer is currently working towards her bachelor’s degree in psychology and human services at Montreat. She will celebrate 15 years of sobriety in October.

The local police officers have been extremely supportive of the recovery court program.

Huizenga, Moore and James lauded Whisenant for his efforts to mitigate substance use disorder for county residents.

Huizenga said he even accompanied Cognitive Connection workers to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals conference in Natural Harbor, Md.

Moore called Whisenant a “champion for working against substance use.”

“He sees the families and the parents of those who have either passed away from overdose or who have been in that revolving door with law enforcement,” Moore said. “He’s prayed with them, cried with them and tried to figure out ways to help them. He’s been on the frontline of all of this and he wants something done about it. He’s been a very big advocate, too. Whatever we wanted to try, he said, ‘I’m on board, let’s try it.’”

Law enforcement as a whole has been extremely supportive of the county-wide initiative to fight substance use disorder, according to James.

“We have law enforcement at every community coalition meeting, we have law enforcement represented on the leadership committee, and on half of the committees. We can always pick up the phone and call them,” James said. “Burke County has a real community sense of solving a community problem, and I think there’s a huge value to it,” she said. “This kind of partnership doesn’t exist in other counties and other states.”

Huizenga, James and Moore said when the group went to the NADCP conference, they were surprised to see a lack of teamwork in other counties and states.

“There were places where the judge would not even speak to the drug court coordinator, and the teams don’t work together,” Moore said. “You can’t throw money at the problem, but you throw money at the support system that helps them. So if you boost that up, that helps them fill their needs.”

With Burke Recovery Court, the county is working together to address a glaring problem. Whisenant estimated that 99 percent of county-wide property crime is related to drug use.

Though the program is still in its first year, Moore and Huizenga agree that it has been hugely successful.

“It almost feels like with the collaboration (in BCRC), it doesn’t necessarily matter who your employer is, we’re all here to help people with substance use problems, and we all work together,” Huizenga said.

Johnny Casey is a staff writer and can be reached at jcasey@morganton.com or 828-432-8907.

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