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Here's how prosecution of drug charges is treated differently in Orange County

District Judge Samantha Cabe talks to a participant in the North Carolina Recovery Courts at the Chapel Hill Courthouse on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. The Recovery Courts were implemented to help previous offenders with their drug and alcohol-related treatment plans.

Less than a quarter of North Carolina counties have drug treatment courts, and Orange County is one of them.

Drug treatment courts in Orange County work actively with people who have substance use disorders to turn their lives around and give them the tools they need to succeed.

Orange County has two drug treatment courts — Recovery Court and Family Treatment Court. 

Caitlin Fenhagen, director of the Criminal Justice Resource Department in Orange County, said both courts offer alternative opportunities for those who otherwise could face jail time or not receive the treatment they need to recover. 

“It’s not just a substance-use issue,” Fenhagen said. “We’re providing a lot of different services to try and ensure that not only are they in recovery at the time of graduation, but that they’ve otherwise stabilized things in their lives.”

Fenhagen said Recovery Court works within criminal court and focuses on treatment for someone who is facing a minimum 120-day jail sentence for a crime thats underlying cause is a drug use disorder. 

Family Treatment Court focuses on helping parents or guardians who have a drug-use disorder receive treatment in order to improve the custody situation with their children. While Recovery Court works within the criminal court system, Family Treatment Court works with the Department of Social Services court to provide a solution for people at risk of losing custody of their children.

Andrea McSwain is the Family Treatment Court case manager, and went through Family Treatment Court as a participant prior to working for the court. She said participants in the program may be able to keep custody if they meet all the requirements of the program and go through treatment.

“I know exactly what the participants are going through when they say that they are overwhelmed,” McSwain said. “I think my experience gives them a little bit of security, knowing that I didn’t just learn what I’m telling them because I went to school to do so, but knowing that I’ve actually had to go through these things.”

Drug treatment courts give participants the stability and accountability they need to succeed, McSwain said. 

“I don’t think you can sentence addiction away,” she said.

These courts offer comprehensive care, including therapy, detoxification, mentoring and resource identification. Participants in these programs receive medical treatment from other organizations that work with the treatment courts, such as Freedom House Recovery Center, UNC Horizons and UNC Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program. 

Keith Haynie, the Freedom House Recovery Center treatment liaison for both courts, said Freedom House does a wide range of services for the community. Freedom House offers residential inpatient and outpatient facilities, crisis centers, in-home and mobile care, as well as school counseling for children, Haynie said.

Freedom House works with the Orange County treatment courts to provide care and recommendations for participants in the program, Haynie said. He said treatment in Recovery Court is mandatory, which helps to hold participants accountable and monitor their progress.

“We consider that to be the first course of action to have any opportunity or chance to turn their situations around,” he said.

But Haynie said while the program has been successful with many people, the hurdles of drug use disorders are too high to overcome for others.

"Unfortunately, sometimes it doesn’t, because substance use is a battle, and it’s a victory that’s not always won," he said. "But, I am able to see the ones that are willing to put in the work have success and have their situations turned around."

Recovery Court began in Orange County in 2002, and Family Treatment Court began in 2005. The state stopped funding these courts in 2011, and the county then absorbed the costs in order to keep them going. The courts are now a part of the Criminal Justice Resource Department.

Though a majority of counties in North Carolina do not have drug treatment courts, Sean O’Hare, the drug treatment coordinator, said there is going to be a larger push to get these courts in more places. 

He said the cost savings involved in using these alternatives to incarceration are a big motivator for counties to adopt a court like Orange County’s treatment courts. 

The courts also provide people the opportunity to find a passion in helping others. O’Hare said some graduates from these programs decide to get certified in helping others with substance use disorders or other issues.

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“They have the ability to address their substance use disorder, their alcoholism, and take that step toward working with others,” O’Hare said.


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