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A new foundation: Support key to sobriety for recent drug court graduates

Patricia Halder wipes tears from her eyes while talking about fellow drug court graduate Megan Schnepel's journey at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth in February. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Megan Schnepel smiles during drug court graduation at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth in February. "I'm so grateful for this program," she told the courtroom packed full of friends and family of five program graduates. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Judge Jill Eichenwald commended graduates for doing the work it took to quit drugs, find work and stick with it. She took over the Duluth-based drug court last year and said to several graduates that their successful selves are the only ones she's known. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 6
Patricia Halder hugs her parole officer during drug court graduation at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth in February. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Megan Schnepel talks to her family and friends during drug court graduation at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth recently. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Patricia Halder laughs as someone shares a story during drug court graduation at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth in February. She was one of five graduates from the program, who credited the support they received with their sustained sober streaks. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com6 / 6

Editor's note: This is part of an ongoing series on opioid overdoses in the Northland.

To read the first story, go here.

With friends and family packing the courtroom, five people went before a judge on a February afternoon in Duluth and were told they had really done it this time. They had made it.

"I see these God-awful comments on newspaper articles about people who 'should just get locked up, they're just never going to stop,' and all the negative things about people who suffer from addiction," Judge Jill Eichenwald said. "And then I see someone like you. You did it. You changed. You stopped using. And I think it's incredible."

Each of the five drug court graduates were commended for passing the biggest test of their lives, one they'll continue facing every day in sobriety.

For 18 years, the St. Louis County Courthouse has witnessed this transformation under the restorative approach of its drug court, an intensive program for those who won't benefit from more time in jail or prison.

Patricia Halder credited the "extra eyes" the court put on her to keep the heroin out of her veins.

Megan Schnepel said it was the ability to fail and get back up again, and again, that keeps the cap on the needles.

In the end, it was about the desire to change, to stand and fight, made possible by the support that had not existed before.

In the beginning, it was more about the desire to get away.

Running

Schnepel was smuggling vodka to school in Sunny D bottles at 13 and taking meth in high school, but she still managed to graduate near the top of her class.

Then her grandmother died, and she took up heroin, and heroin took her.

"For a long time I'd basically given up," she said. "I would wake up in the morning and pray that I'd overdose that day."

She fell into a years-long cycle of using and finding a way to use again. At one point her 5-foot-10-inch frame was reduced to 110 pounds. She could barely stand.

"I think I dragged my feet on rock bottom; I hit multiple rock bottoms and every time it got worse and worse," she said. "I kept going to treatment, getting out and using. For so long I wanted to want to get sober, but I didn't truly want it."

It's hard to explain to those who haven't experienced addiction firsthand why someone would repeatedly bring themselves to the edge of death. It's often even harder to describe what it is that finally flips the switch to stop.

For Schnepel, it started when she stole a cab in 2016 and was offered a spot in drug court after being arrested. Later, on a ride back to Duluth in a transport between the Hennepin and St. Louis county jails — she had run again — the change happened.

"There was no other way to explain it than this light came into me, a spiritual awakening," she said. "I actually felt in touch with something bigger than myself. I just knew things would be different this time."

Now 27, employed and with more than 18 months of sobriety to her name, Schnepel is certain drug court saved her life. Like all the graduates who celebrated Feb. 8 told the judge, court staff, probation and others, she is forever grateful for those who picked her up when she fell.

Fighting

Six months after her kids were taken away in 2014, Patricia Halder turned to heroin for solace. It had other plans for her.

"In May 2015, when I became a homeless heroin addict, I started to do whatever I could to get more money to get more drugs," she said in an interview.

Like Schnepel — someone she would use with from time to time — Halder's first few stays in treatment didn't stick, and things only got worse. Her use-at-all-costs mindset — she called it tunnel vision — seemed set in stone when she was arrested for check forgery and eventually put in drug court late in 2015.

"The only reason I agreed to it was because I knew I'd get out of jail that same day," she said. "I wasn't doing good. I couldn't be trusted."

Halder consistently brushed away the program's helping hands and often begged just to go to prison, to get it over with.

That was not the person who showed up to drug court graduation all these years later.

Twenty months sober, working and back in all of her kids' lives, Halder, now 29, had triumphed not by sheer will but through support and accountability.

"Before, I wasn't treated like a human being, and I wasn't acting like one either," she said. "It just takes a little bit of compassion and someone to understand how you feel."

It helps, too, that her partner, the father of her youngest child, had a similar path.

"We've had our slips but have always been there to remind each other what it's like to be sober and not miserable," she said. "It's nice to have someone who understands and won't let you fall all the way back down."

Succeeding

The federal Department of Justice says drug courts have led to fewer relapses, lower crime rates, lower costs and generally better quality of life for those who make it through the program.

That all sounds about right to Jared Hendler.

"It's a public health issue," said Hendler, the drug court coordinator in St. Louis County. "We're trying to change prison from being the 'normal' response."

The court, which began operating locally in 2002, has handled upward of 60 participants at a time, as any more stretches available resources thin. Hendler said those at high risk of re-offending or not finding success in less intensive treatment options are offered a spot in the program — in line with National Association of Drug Court Professionals best practices applied around the country.

But a National Institute of Justice study found that "nearly all categories of offenders benefit comparably from the drug court intervention, suggesting that widespread drug court policies to restrict eligibility to a narrow subpopulation may be counterproductive."

Hendler said the court is in the process of changing its eligibility standards to include those who have committed more serious crimes — burglary, robbery and other crimes driven by addiction.

"We try not to turn anyone away if we don't have to, but you have to target your resources," he said. "We should be taking people committing significant crimes in the community."

Research shows targeting such folks is the most effective use of drug court resources.

Hendler acknowledges that critics would prefer violent offenders stay behind bars for the sake of community safety. But in the long-term, he says it's paramount to help those people fight the root causes of those crimes through intensive supervision and treatment.

Help — for any treatment court graduate — is the key verb.

"They did the real work that it took, and we just kept them to it," Hendler said. "It wasn't drug court that made them better in the end, it was them."

Nearly two months after graduating, Halder and Schnepel are still happily sober and in control of their lives. Both have a desire to help others find their way out of addiction.

"You just gotta find something within yourself," Schnepel said. "It has to get to the point where using isn't an option. Emotions suck, they do, but you can't go through life not feeling."

The essence of drug court, Halder said, is to "work on yourself and find out who you are without drugs and alcohol."

"I think I have a pretty big foundation I'm going to keep building on."

The long sober stretch is just beginning.

For treatment resources, go here.

For a story about the psychology of addiction, go here.

To view an interactive map of public overdoses, go here.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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