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HUNTINGTON - Throwing pottery is a messy task. The wet clay fuses to your hands and parts of the muddy substance might even fly all over your clothing as you slowly mold a clump of earth into a beautiful work of art.

In a similar vein, participants in the Cabell County Drug Court program, who recently started weekly pottery throwing classes at the Huntington Museum of Art, are trying to reshape their lives.

Like the clump of earth, the members started out in an ugly situation. Each has a past full of criminal offenses and drug abuse that has forced them into isolation, without a connection to the real world.

As the dozen court officials who volunteer for the program take hold of the members, the goal is to slowly shape these individuals into sober and productive members of society.

Luck might be credited as what got the participants to the drug court program, but it's their own devotion to creating a better life that will determine their success in breaking free from the grip of substance abuse.

The Cabell County Adult Drug Court first opened in 2009 as a 12-week-long program to target felony offenders whose nonviolent crimes are committed to fuel a drug addiction. Today, those in the program must meet at least a year-long commitment.

The program also has undergone other changes, and the most recent one was a new leader. Circuit Court Judge Greg Howard Jr. has taken over direction of the program from Family Court Judge Patricia Keller, who helped get the program off the ground.

The change in leadership, however, doesn't change the program's goal. It's not about dealing with drug dealers or violent offenders; instead, the program is built to rehabilitate members of the Cabell County community.

Intense undertaking

Drug court is a specially designed program for nonviolent offenders suffering drug dependency and has the goal of reducing recidivism and substance abuse. The program is intense, requiring weekly meetings, random drug screens, support group meetings and employment, as well as other demands.

"You have no idea how similar to parenting this is," drug court probation officer Matt Meadows said about the program.

In 2015 it was maxed out at 40 spots, but it was expanded in 2015 to include the Women's Empowerment and Addiction Recovery Program, an even more specialized program specifically for women engaging in sex work to support a drug habit.

According to Jennifer Bundy, public information officer for the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, there are currently 818 drug court participants in the state. Cabell County has the most with 77; Boone and Lincoln counties combined have 53; Kanawha, 47; Logan, 26; McDowell, 20; Mingo, 22; Putnam, 26; Wayne, 24; and Wyoming, eight.

Other statistics were not available.

In Cabell County, about 100 applications are processed yearly. While Cabell County has about four times as many felony indictments returned each year, Howard said most offenders would rather do their time in jail than face the controlled environment of drug court.

The successes in the Cabell County program are much due to its longtime leader, Keller, who was featured as one of three Huntington women making a difference in fighting the drug epidemic in Netflix's "Heroin(e)" documentary.

The release of "Heroin(e)" and other documentaries has filled the court with inquiries from media around the world, but the media won't see Keller at the helm of the program anymore.

Last month Howard took over the reins of the court to better align Cabell County's court with the rest of the state.

"I'm very proud of her. I am, and I think everyone on the treatment team and all the other judges are," Howard said. "She has taken the drug court to great heights. I don't view my position as replacing her in any way. Rather, I think my job now is to build upon what she has already started."

Individualized recovery required

Each drug court case has to be individualized, Howard quickly learned, and the program is not simple to explain.

First, a defendant must be charged with a felony offense that does not involve violence. A defense attorney will usually request a referral to the program and the prosecutor and judge must sign off.

Probation officers screen each potential participant, a process that tends to weed out those who really want to be there from those who might be attempting to avoid prison time, Howard said.

"Everyone who is there wants to be there," he said. "Whether they are capable of completing the program or not is another thing.

"They have to have the heart for it. Sure, people are going to slip up. Relapse is part of recovery, and I think we see that regularly in drug court, but our hope is most of those people who have that relapse come back in ready and willing to make an effort."

While some participants could be part of a rehabilitation program if they need more guidance or restrictions, the recovery is done within the community without lockdown status, Meadows said.

"Our folks are expected to live in the community, obtain employment in the community and learn how to function in a positive, pro-social manner in the community," he said.

Each time a Cabell circuit judge gets a new request for drug court, he warns applicants of the program's strenuous requirements. Those who return to the judge without succeeding in the program always say they didn't realize the seriousness of the program.

Meadows said it takes at least a year to move through three phases in the program, not including six months of aftercare, and after that many remain on probation for at least an additional year as sentenced by the court.

Each phase entails different levels of random drug testing, continual meetings with probation officers and the continuing attendance of hours of self-help meetings each week.

Participants sometimes enter the first phase, which helps create a routine and establish sobriety for the participants, with no possessions.

During drug court Nov. 27, some of the newer participants had obtained their own housing, but had nothing to fill it with. Backpacks and Brown Bags leader Necia Freeman, who was also featured in "Heroin(e)," jotted notes quickly for the needs of each individual, pulling them aside and setting up a delivery time to fill their house as the third "Heroin(e)," Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader, sat nearby.

Without employment, the participants are expected to complete at least 16 hours of community service weekly.

Phase two is the intensive treatment phase meant to stabilize the participant in their treatment while also pushing to develop participants' educational or vocational goals or obtain employment. To get to phase three, you must be 60 days sober.

Last week, one participant had found it difficult to follow a schedule, so daily morning meetings were set up with her lead probation officer to make sure she made appointments throughout the day and did not double-book herself.

Phase three is the reintegration phase meant to move the participant toward self-sufficiency and connect to the community. Participants are expected to maintain full-time employment or community service and have stable housing, among other things. Before graduation, you must be 120 days clean.

Amanda Gale Spence connected to her community through reconnecting to her music. She recorded her EP last week in conjunction with Gro Huntington and Murphy Media.

After graduation is the aftercare, which promotes the maintenance of the new, drug-free and stable lives.

Positive reinforcement is key

By the time of the weekly Monday drug court meeting, the participants have spent at least 30 hours the prior week working on specific drug court requirements, including group and individual meetings, therapy, volunteer work, paying jobs and drug screening tests combined. They are also given individualized goals.

"That's why people are opting not to do it," Howard said. "Because it is like a full-time job."

About a dozen of Cabell County's court officials gather at the Monday meetings to discuss how each member is progressing. They talk about their ups and downs, together deciding how the judge will handle each case that week.

If your mentors are impressed with you, you get an incentive. Praise and applause go a long way, but the members could also get gift cards, movie tickets or other items. The participants pay their own way through the program, and money for the incentives and classes like the pottery course come from the $700 fee.

Mathew Miracle picked a Starbucks card last week. He said he still has the cup he received when he ordered coffee because it just made him feel better about himself.

One could also be sanctioned for breaking even the slightest rule. Even if you are a few minutes late for a meeting, you could lose two weeks of the time you've put in. You could also be jailed for some offenses. There are chances to earn that time back, however.

Meadows said relapses are expected in the program and would not be an automatic dismissal.

"There aren't standard sanctions, but we will never kick someone out of drug court for being a drug addict," he said. "But you will be removed for not being honest, not being where we tell you to be and not doing what you're told to do."

It's how the participants react to the situation that leads to their sanction level, Meadows said. Often, it results in getting them into an inpatient treatment center.

"The goal of drug court is rehabilitation. It's not incarceration," he said. "So we are going to do whatever we can to get that person rehabilitated, within reason. When I get to that point with this person where I don't feel like they are putting a foot forward and I am doing more work than they are, I will go to the judge and tell him I think it's time to call it quits."

Representatives from the Cabell County probation, public defender and prosecutor's offices, along with those from the day report and community corrections centers and a therapist, case managers and others, are all part of the procedure.

At actual court about an hour later, the participants state what they did well that week, what they did poorly, and take their sanctions and praise decided in the earlier meeting. Good or bad, Howard always left the participants with positive reinforcement.

Noses wrinkled in disgust at the Nov. 27 hearing as Howard sanctioned some members with required community service hours at the animal shelter.

No two participants are the same

Each drug court participant had agreed to share their story this week, wanting to let the world know they are trying to change.

Miracle, 35, of Louisville, just completed his fourth week in the program. He had moved to Huntington with the hopes of escaping drugs in his hometown before a burglary charge landed him in jail.

His addiction started with pills about 17 years ago, and although he has never overdosed, he quickly went downhill when he switched to heroin.

"It's just powerful," he said. "It took me three months for heroin to do what it did to me versus 15 years on pills."

While he still has months to go in the program, he said drug court has given him connections he would not have elsewhere.

"Louisville has a drug court program also, but it's nothing like here," he said. "There is no way I would be able to have a personal communication with each and every person. If I'm just having a bad day, I know there are people here that I can call that are glad to talk to me and tell me positive stuff."

Miracle has hopes to achieve a mechanical contractor's license and be a productive person by the end of his time with the program.

Fadra Smith, 32, started drinking and smoking marijuana when she was 15. At 18 she started using heroin for two years before she started dating a meth cook. She used meth for 12 years before she started drug court in Lincoln County and was transferred to Cabell County for better resources.

"It keeps you really busy. Of course you have to be accountable for yourself and take screens. It helps you be swayed to the right thing," she said. "But mostly for me, drug court introduced me to Alcoholics Anonymous, and AA is what keeps me sober."

Smith's mentors were impressed by her progress last week, as told through a story about one of her children hiding money. The girl asked her mother if she could buy herself fake fingernails, but Smith did not think she had money and was lying.

A family member had given the girl money months ago, but she hid the money in case of a relapse so her mother couldn't steal it and she wouldn't go hungry.

"It's crazy, but my initial reaction was I understand," Smith said. "I have made a big emphasis to not say I promise, because when I was using I always promised them the world and never gave it to them. I just reassured her I wouldn't take her money, but if she felt she needed to hide it so she felt safe, she could go hide it again."

The girl decided to hide the money again, and Smith hasn't gone searching for the money since.

"When she did that, it made me realize that's not who I am today," she said. "I'm not stealing my child's money and not making her go hungry so I can have drugs. I'm a better person today."

Changes like that are what make the job worth it, Meadows said.

Building on ground Keller built

Howard was elected judge in 2016 and had run with the hopes of starting a juvenile drug court. Before he took office in January 2017, he attended two weeks-long programs to set up the best possible program for the county. The Supreme Court did not approve his application, however, he said.

"I have not given up on the goal of the juvenile drug court because I believe now more than ever we need it," he said. "I have a pretty heavy caseload of juvenile cases on my docket I believe that could benefit from it."

A second application has been submitted this year and he hopes he will hear the results soon. While Howard plans to stay with the adult drug court, he said other judges have already offered to oversee the juvenile court if it is approved.

As he begins his tenure with the drug court, Howard also hopes to have more community involvement activities like the pottery class, which is just a five-week course.

"A lot of these folks have never had that type of positive experience," he said. "There's a whole group of drug court participants who are doing something they never engaged in, and I think they really enjoyed that."

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

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