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Brandon Burgess talks in his courthouse office. He has been the drug court coordinator for six weeks, saying he believe it’s how can best help the communityinthe opioid epidemic.
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Judge Paul Freed presides over a meeting of the drug court advisory board every Thursday before convening the court. Pictured, clockwise from bottom left, are Michelle Dudley, Fayette County Community Corrections executive director; Zac Jones, Fayette County Sheriff’s Dept. chief deputy; Jessica Burton (hidden), Meridian Health practice manager; Judge Freed; Orlan Foster, Fayette County Probation chief probation officer; Carol McQueen, chief, Connersville Police Dept.; David Butsch, defense attorney; Ken Faw, drug court prosecutor; and Brandon Burgess, drug court coordinator.

By BOB HANSEN - bhansen@newsexaminer.com

Thursday morning is drug court in Fayette County Superior Court. It is different than anything visitors would see during the rest of the week. 

After all, who would willingly come into a large room where a couple of dozen other people listen while details of their lives are picked over? Drug court is almost like family, where you know you are loved, blemishes and all.

This love is tough. For about 90 minutes, Judge Paul L. Freed goes over, one by one in front of everyone else, the private lives of 11 participants. Other court officials add their 2 cents. If the participants don’t do what they agree to, they are penalized and can lose their freedom.

There’s not a lot of legalistic mumbo-jumbo. Each person enrolled in the drug court program is called forward, one by one, and sits at a table with an attorney. Raising the right arm, they are sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. Then, from his raised seat in front of the courtroom, the judge talks with each.

It’s no-nonsense.

Freed looks directly at each participant. In one recent case, he told a man he had a critical employment issue that he’d better fix. Being late to work, the man had accumulated 7.5 points against him, and if he hit 9 points, he’d lose the job. Freed asked if the man knew what it would take to fix that so he didn’t get fired.

The man said he didn’t.

“You should know,” Freed said. “If you’re just one incident away from being fired, you should know what it takes to get off that.”

The second issue, Freed said, is why the man was late to work in the first place. The man said he had overslept.

“That’s no good,” Freed told him. “You can look for another job if you want, but it has to be constant employment to stay in this program. This is just basic adulting. No show, no call, is not acceptable.”

Holding a job is one requirement for participating in drug court.

Freed also warned the man about going places without letting the program administrator know beforehand. Participants wear ankle bracelets that monitor their location. This man’s travel record showed he’d gone to Batesville. After he got back, he had to explain why he’d gone there and it turned out he was trying to help someone else. But, Freed said, without having told the court beforehand, the first question that came up is, “Who’s your old drug pal in Batesville? We know what happened, but give us a call.”

Helping participants stay away from their old friends is one way of helping keep them away from drugs and alcohol.

Drug court started here last fall after Freed had worked for months getting it set up. It’s what the state of Indiana calls a problem-solving court and is funded by the same state grant that pays for Community Corrections, helps support the probation office and pays some for a program in the prosecutor’s office.

Two weeks ago, the Indiana Supreme Court proudly announced certification of the 100th problem-solving court in Indiana. Along with drug courts, there are special courts for other groups with distinct issues that can be addressed, such as mental health, veterans, family recovery and domestic violence.

Locally, it’s been successful, Freed says, and he wants to expand it. He came before the County Commissioners last month to tell them he is planning to apply for a grant nearly three times the size of the original $129,000 so that the court can have more of an effect in the community.

With only one dedicated employee, the program is limited, by national guidelines, to 30 participants. The judge believes the program will hit that limit this year. 

“I didn’t start this program as a dog and pony show,” Freed said. “I’m trying to scale it to the size of the problem, trying to have a noticeable effect on the problem. I don’t have a maximum number in mind if we have worthy applicants and funding holds out.”

The program lasts 18 to 24 months with very strict expectations of the men and women who participate. Participants often come from the jail and, once enrolled, start out in Community Corrections, meaning they are allowed to go to work and return to the Community Corrections building. From there, they progress to home detention and then, gradually, work through five levels of increasing responsibility and freedom, with the goal of returning to society as productive individuals.

All of them have been charged with a crime that involved illegal drugs. They have agreed to a sentence for the crime and the court has agreed to defer the sentence, said Brandon Burgess, drug court coordinator. If they successfully complete the drug court program, the sentence is dropped.

If, for some reason, they are not successful, they serve the sentence.

So far, no one has had what is called an “ejectable offense.” There have been a few close calls, Freed said, and the employment situation is one. Another man came close because one of his urine tests showed evidence of drug use in the prior week. When he subsequently tested clean, he stayed in the program. Participants are required to be tested three times a week.

All come to court every Thursday morning for a stern talking-to by the judge. Just as often as he rakes them over the coals, he finds something praiseworthy and encourages them to continue in that direction.

This past Thursday, Freed spoke with a man who now has a factory job, working six 12-hour shifts a week, making the best money he’s ever earned. Freed praised the man for also completing service hours that Freed had prescribed earlier as a sanction for a rules violation.

Freed also checked to be sure the man is keeping in touch with his sponsor in a 12-step recovery program.

“I talk to him every week; he’s a good buddy,” the man said.

Freed praised the man’s progress and encouraged him to continue, but also said he and his drug court advisory board are concerned that working so much leaves the man little time for the required substance abuse treatment. “You need to remain committed to your rehab program.”

Freed also noted the man had built up a considerable debt to the court from fees and fines in previous cases. Now is the time to pay those down, the judge said.

Keeping up with the drug court participants is the full-time job of Burgess, a 31-year Connersville native who worked as a sheriff’s deputy in Colorado before moving back here with his family. He’s the second drug court coordinator and has been working in that job for six weeks. 

He’s the court administrative officer as well as case manager for all 11 participants.

Burgess is on call 24/7. Drug court participants have his cell number and it’s nothing for them to call him in the evening about where they’re going or to speak with him about issues they’re having. He has frequent visits from the participants in his office, across the hall from Superior Court on the second floor of the county courthouse. Every participant must meet weekly with Burgess to review progress on the court’s prescribed five-stage program.

Among his duties is coordinating with other members of an advisory board that meets with Freed every Thursday for about an hour before the open court session. Burgess provides a written report to the group on every participant. The group discusses each one. The board includes representatives of the Community Corrections, probation office, prosecutor, a defense attorney, Connersville Police, Fayette County Sheriff and a mental health practice. Each can make recommendations to the judge about the participant’s behavior and progress.

Burgess also is working to develop community support. Specifically, he wants to have a pool of employers that are sympathetic to the program’s goals and would be willing to provide help by considering participants for a job. He also wants the community to understand how this program can help turn around lives. He has set up a county fund to receive donations.

A graduate of Connersville High School, he moved his family here because he wants them to have the good small-town experiences he did. But, with the opioid epidemic, “This isn’t the town I grew up in.” The drug court position “just fell in my lap and I feel this is how I can help.”

Freed said Burgess’s job is “a full-service program. “We’re not in the business of ‘Not my job’ response. 

“We make sure they get the medical care they need. (Because of substance abuse) many of these people have a lot of physical ailments,” he said, speaking of liver and vascular problems and “really obscure things. “We’re not going to ignore it.”

Family counseling is part of it. A married couple are participants – they were estranged when the couple started the program and have gotten back together.

Burgess talks about fathers who are re-learning how to be dads after not having seen their children for months or years after the children were removed by the state from their homes.

The judge continues, saying the drug court is also an employment office, helping participants find jobs and making sure they keep them. One participant proudly said on Thursday that he’s been in the program six months and has had a job for five months – his longest employed stretch ever. 

Participant Garrett Goodroe said he is learning how to live as a productive person. When his urine tested positive for alcohol, the judge told him to complete 20 hours of community service. He picked up trash at the parks and cleaned the jail.

“I’ve been thinking about going to school,” he said, perhaps becoming an athletic trainer. 

At 19, he’s the youngest in the drug court program and sees other participants whose lives and families have been affected far longer by substance abuse.

“I don’t want to live the same life as these others. Some of these others have been in jail their whole life. I don’t want to do that.”

In the courtroom, lives come before officials hoping to make change.

Defense attorney David Butsch and deputy prosecutor Ken Faw talk about another man, who has been having real trouble finding a job. The judge told the participant to make personal appearances at potential employers rather than relying on phone calls  

Still, Butsch said, other than the job, the man has “made great progress.” Faw agreed, “I think (he) is doing very well but employment’s tough. Show up every day and bug’em.” 

Basic adulting, the judge calls it.