JUDGE ANN MARIE WHEATCRAFT

JUDGE ANN MARIE WHEATCRAFT

WEST CHESTER — Imagine yourself dealing with the coronavirus outbreak if you are an addict, trying to recover, stay clean and sober, and put yourself back on track.

Already under a certain amount of stress, news of the COVID-19 outbreak might be enough to send you in a spiral, avoiding the thoughts of infection, perhaps death, a loss of positive social connections, fears about the future. A relapse might be unavoidable.

But among those addicts and drug and alcohol abusers who participate in the Chester County Drug Court, and the county’s other Treatment Courts, relapses and failings seem not to be the norm. Sobriety and continued dedication appear to have taken root.

“I don’t think we are seeing (stress-related relapses) necessarily,” said Common Pleas Judge Ann Marie Wheatcraft, the supervising judge for the four treatment courts — Drug Court, Recovery Court, Mental Health Court and Veterans Court. “People are still being held accountable, and we have had surprisingly few people with any issues.

“We use conference calls and video conferencing with participants who need pep talks and for our usual team meetings. People are continuing to progress through phases and graduations,” Wheatcraft said in a recent discussion of the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on Drug Court participants with those in the county Adult Probation Office who run the program.

“Some of the problems that we always encounter with people checking in have disappeared, like transportation issues. People can’t say they couldn’t get a ride to a meeting or the bus was late, because we’re doing things electronically,” she said. “We’ve also suspended some of the community service requirements that people might miss,” out of a realization that organizations might not be open, or ready to go about the normal pre-coronavirus routines. 

“We have had a few relapses,” said the judge. “But for the most part, none of them are due to the circumstances of the pandemic.”

Drug Court is a program for mostly non-violent first-offenders who come into the criminal justice system mostly because of their drug and alcohol problems, not a predilection to commit crimes. Those enrolled undergo strict supervision by probation officers, get randomly drug tested to see if they are staying sober, and meet regularly in court with Wheatcraft. Those who stray get sanctioned; those who are successful get to see their criminal records put behind them. 

It has proven successful in seeing its graduates not re-offend. The county’s Treatment Courts have a success rate of between 88 and 92 percent, according to figures supplied by the Probation Office.

Those involved with Drug Court, including Deputy Chief Probation Officer Chris Pawlowski and Drug Court Coordinator Rebecca Showers, said they had not relaxed their standards for the participants in the wake of the pandemic.

“Their check-ins remain the same — weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, it’s just done differently, by phone or Zoom,” said Showers. “We give them a ton of resources, everything from 12-step programs to yoga classes. And most of our clients have taken advantage of using them. 

“We miss having that (face-to-face) interaction with the clients, but we enjoy the positive feedback we’re getting,” Showers said. “We haven’t skipped a beat. We are still able to work them, and with the providers in the community, to get them where they need to be.”

Pawlowski and Wheatcraft credited the decision last year to begin outsourcing the random drug screening to a private drug testing firm located in West Chester, AverHealth. With the county Justice Center on a reduced service basis, and with many probation officers working from home instead of in the office, the ability to have drug tests still conducted on schedule has help participants know they are still be held accountable. 

“Other counties are telling us that they are as long as eight weeks behind on testing, where we have been able to keep going,” because of the relationship with AverHealth, said Pawlowski. “We never missed a week.”

“That is helping them,” said Wheatcraft. “Knowing they will still be tested is helping their sobriety.” 

The judge said she continues to be actively involved in the Drug Court meetings at which cases and participants are discussed, although she notes that no new cases have been added to the current 123 person caseload. She still congratulates those who have passed from step to another on the road to completion, and sends them graduation salutes when they finish — bemoaning the lack of face-to-face interaction.

“(Judge Wheatcraft) has been very good at reminding our clients that we are still here to help them,” Pawlowski said. “And people are very appreciative that the judge has been reaching out. They are impressed that people are still there to work with them. We have gotten quite a few personal responses to that.  People know we are invested in them. It is not just a process.”

To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.

To contact Staff Writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.

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