Treatment court in COVID: Daines, Lewis and Clark County talk lessons learned during pandemic

Treatment courts have seen success in Montana but faced significant struggles during the coronavirus pandemic, Lewis and Clark County officials told U.S. Sen. Steve Daines on Friday.

Daines joined a roundtable with treatment court staff, graduates and veterans’ advocates at American Legion Post 2 in Helena. The group came to discuss the value of treatment courts and the struggles they faced during COVID-19 when many of the face-to-face interactions the programs are based on became impossible.

“I think this is such a great investment in taxpayer dollars because we’re literally seeing men and women on paths to incarceration get into these treatment courts that are on a new path,” Daines said of treatment courts.

Treatment courts are voluntary programs and participants make regular court appearances before Judge James Reynolds to discuss progress and maintain accountability. Treatment includes a variety of different therapies and regular attendance at meetings. Staff also assists with education and skill-based assessment, along with providing referrals for vocational training, education and job placement.

“It does not work to send them to jail, it only works to treat them,” said Judge Reynolds, who presides over the 1st Judicial District Treatment Court. “I wish I could handle another 100 cases. We should have more diversion, more treatment programs.”

A pair of graduates told the panel about the impact the court had in their lives.

“I’ll be honest, without these people on this team I wouldn’t be where I’m at today,” Dawn Knowles, saying other programs had not worked for her.

Joseph Wolhers, another treatment court graduate and current pre-med student at Carroll College, echoed the effect the court had on his life.

“I can honestly say without the help of treatment court I would probably be dead right now,” he said. “I still apply what I learned to my everyday life.”

But as the COVID-19 pandemic led to shutdowns of many in-person meetings, the court faced significant challenges maintain communication with participants and found virtual session less effective.

“When court shut down people said OK, I’ll stay at home, but I think people forget where that ripple effect goes is much much larger,” said Evonne Hawe, addictions counselor with the court.

Participants faced isolation and the fallouts from increased substance abuse such as increased domestic violence and missing appointments for drug testing, she said. They often struggled with virtual court appearances and dropped out.

“We lost a lot of people with the technology piece,” Hawe said.

“Everything that happened by having to shut down created a huge – the social isolation, that’s the biggest trigger for almost anybody out there,” she said.

Retired Detective Dan O’Malley described the team feeling that was fostered in the court as participants would go from anger toward the judge and law enforcement to viewing them as advocates for sobriety.

“You see that transformation after about 2-3 months that they buy into this team mentality,” he said.

O’Malley agreed that isolation represents a huge challenge.

“When you get sober the biggest thing is to get around positive people,” he said.

Daines often appears or sends video messages to treatment court graduations. As a proponent, he says he’s concerned that if virtual meetings won’t work as well, how can treatment court staff learn and adapt during a pandemic.

Both treatment court staff and Daines said they hoped to learn from the struggles of COVID and apply those lessons in the case of another or a continued pandemic to better help participants.

“I want to capture these learnings so we can do much better next time. We haven’t had a pandemic for a hundred years really hit our shores, and we need to learn from it,” Daines said.

Reynolds plans to retire in October putting the future of the treatment court somewhat in question.

Treatment Court Coordinator Layla Eichler described his approach and ability to run the court with humanity that resonates with participants. While the team mentality is critical for the program, everyone is hopeful a future judge will be able to step in and successfully steer the program, she said.

While the treatment court does serve veterans, it is not a veteran-specific treatment court, which has seen success in other areas. Veteran treatment courts leverage the community of veterans with treatments geared toward them, and although officials believe Helena would be a good place for such a program, resources have not been available.