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Rural Drug Courts Struggle, Succeed During COVID-19

Pamela D'Angelo

Rural communities have struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their health care districts are underfunded and understaffed. Limited broadband and cell phone communication caused missed vaccine notifications.

And, it’s been especially hard on those enrolled in substance abuse treatment.

In a small courtroom in Virginia's Northern Neck, a court clerk called the next case:  "Judge, the first matter on the court’s docket is going to be a graduation ceremony. This is the first graduation we have from our Drug Court Program and it would be Michael Hall."

Seventeen months ago, Michael Hall was given a second chance. A substance abuser since he was 15, at one point he was homeless, living in the woods and in his car. At 34, he was arrested for drug distribution. He and a small group of substance abusers were eligible for the newly established Northern Neck & Essex Adult Drug Treatment Court. The vigorous program includes three, 3-hour treatment sessions a week, along with drug tests and group counseling.

Auriel Walker who coordinates the program said the pandemic made it even more demanding.  "It was tough," Walker admitted. "So, from March to May we were just checking in by phone. We didn’t do any in-person contact. Treatment was through Zoom. We weren’t drug screening. And then when we did come back to face-to-face contact almost everybody, I think, had semi-relapsed. And they admitted that services, it just wasn’t the same not having that face-to-face contact. So they did struggle during quarantine."

Changes were made to accommodate the intensive hours of virtual treatments and counseling each week. Participants are allowed to turn off their cameras and communicate with counselors by voice only.

Credit Pamela D'Angelo
Kelly Shifflett, substance abuse counselor

Kelly Shifflett is a substance abuse counselor with the program.  "There’s some clients we have that I don’t even know what they look like."

Another setback for drug court participants came from COVID restrictions allowing only one of them in the courtroom one at a time. Julia Sichol is Westmoreland County Commonwealth's Attorney.  "By seeing what happens to other participants I think that’s really helpful for the participants that are in the audience. So, when they’re not seeing why things are being done or hearing the judge saying why things are being done, I think that makes it more difficult."

Following COVID protocols, court is back in session, drug testing has resumed, there are some in-person group sessions but the three hour-treatment sessions remain virtual. Michael Hall said going back to in-person group sessions, even with physical distancing was important for him.  "Everything was closed down and everybody was stuck inside. It was definitely stressful. A lot of people, it didn’t go well," Hall noted. "I tried my best and I did my best and I did stay sober.”

Hall’s efforts will earn him a dismissal of his felony drug case. Other participants are not far behind him. "In rural communities there is just simply a huge lack of resources for individuals who have substance abuse problems," prosecutor Sichol said. "When Auriel and I talked about starting the program I said, ‘if it helps one person then it’s worth it.’ And he is our first person."

After Hall's graduation, other participants checked in with Circuit Court Judge Michael McKenney, who oversees drug court. A few had setbacks, many advanced to the next phase. All, like the rest of us, were drained by life during a pandemic. Endless rainy days delaying outdoor painting and carpentry jobs, health issues, family struggles and the adjustment to Daylight Saving Time.

There were a few tears met by words of encouragement from the judge. "I’m tired," one participant told him. She had just completed a job helping a hoarder clear their house. Judge McKenny told her, “If you can get through that you can get through anything.”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.