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Treatment court offers way out of addiction

Phil Wright

East Oregonian

Published on September 3, 2018 6:48PM

Last changed on September 3, 2018 6:49PM

Judge Heidi Van Kirk speaks with a candidate in treatment court, not photographed, on Friday in Hermiston.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Judge Heidi Van Kirk speaks with a candidate in treatment court, not photographed, on Friday in Hermiston.

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Alaska Star Koski, 27, sits in a park on the grounds of her girlhood church in Mission where she says she feels at peace. Koski says she feels happy and excited to be on her recovery journey.

Staff photo by Kathy Aney

Alaska Star Koski, 27, sits in a park on the grounds of her girlhood church in Mission where she says she feels at peace. Koski says she feels happy and excited to be on her recovery journey.

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Alaska Koski liked what she saw Friday in Umatilla County’s new drug treatment court.

“I think it looked really supportive,” she said. “No one claps for you in regular court.”

Koski is 27. She said she tried marijuana when she as 11, alcohol at 15 and got into hard drugs at 19.

“I was 20 when I started shooting up,” she said.

She used methamphetamine and heroin. Police arrested her in early 2016 for meth possession. She said she came to a recent point where enough was enough and she wanted help. She said she has been sober since May 8.

“I like feeling all my feelings,” she said. “I’m tired of numbing out.”

Koski said she tried getting clean three times but they never took. Her probation officer recommended she apply for the revamped treatment court.

“This is really like a second chance for me,” Koski said. “I come from a long road of addiction.”

And treatment court offers her some real hope.

Staff from state courts, Umatilla County Community Justice Department and Community Counseling Solutions, the court’s treatment provider, teamed up to launch the court this summer after a lack of funding last year ended the local drug court program. Funding comes from a chunk of the $917,000 the county receives from the state’s Justice Reinvestment Act to divert offenders from state prisons. The new version of drug court has been running a few weeks with two clients. Koski and two others are new admissions.

Dale Primmer, director of Community Justice, said the court is on the front edge of taking referrals for offenders, and that’s a process. Court staff and others conduct background checks and make sure the person is a good fit for the program.

“We don’t work with low-risk people,” he said. Rather, the court provides structure and treatment for higher risk individuals.

That structure includes attending counseling sessions and writing weekly progress reports, and every Friday morning the clients have to be in court in Hermiston. Koski said that’s the kind of structure she needs so she can’t get into her “comfort zone” and give in to using.

The structure also presents challenges. Some of the clients don’t have vehicles or can’t drive. Primmer said Thursday afternoons mean a hectic series of calls to make sure someone can bring the clients to court.

Those clients are criminal defendants who pleaded guilty to drug charges to get into treatment court, but this is not your usual criminal proceeding.

The treatment team of counselors and court staff sits in the jury box, and rather than weigh guilt or innocence, the team gives thumps up and applause when clients meet a goal, such as submitting a personal essay about how drugs affected their lives.

That may seem corny, Primmer said, but it encourages the clients to keep working and the team to look for the successes.

Roy Blaine said witnessing those personal successes is what he likes about the court. Blaine is the trial coordinator for the circuit courts of Umatilla and Morrow counties. He said the court is open to defendants from both counties, but so far they are only from Umatilla County.

Attorney Heidi Van Kirk of Pendleton serves as the treatment court judge. She said the program’s multi-discipline approach to treatment attracted her to the oversee the court because addiction is often multi-layered. She spent most of Friday’s proceeding asking the clients how their week went and what stresses they were dealing with.

One woman said she was scared about the health of her unborn child, and an ultrasound appointment earlier in the week assuaged some of those fears. She said the doctor called her baby “beefy” but healthy.

“We’re all looking forward to meeting Mr. Beefy when he’s born,” Van Kirk replied.

That drew chuckles in the courtroom. Not many courtrooms are OK with humor.

Treatment court also offers a big carrot for the defendants who complete the 18-month program: Wiping off their drug conviction from the court record.

Koski said just watching from the front row Friday made her feel positive, “like I have a whole crew of people behind my back.”

She has another boost to help her complete the 18-month treatment court — one of the other clients is an old friend. Koski also said she wants others to know the benefits of treatment court, she wants to inspire others to get clean. And she said she liked how her friend described their circumstances:

They are pioneers on this new treatment path to recovery.



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