Court-ordered recovery

(First published in the September 12, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Dawn Kennedy is the first graduate of Marathon County’s new drug court, part of a holistic local approach to the addiction crisis


Dawn Kennedy, front, is the first person to graduate from Marathon County’s new drug court. Behind her is Rachel Eifert, psychotherapist and AODA Counselor with Attic Correctional Services, and Kala Frueh, coordinator of the county drug court.

Dawn Kennedy was unusual among drug addicts. Typically, many afflicted with addiction have experienced some kind of trauma, such as an abusive childhood or anything in their past that sets them up for the need for relief.

Kennedy, 26, did not. She came from a good upbringing, two loving parents who are married and supportive of her. “The factors that usually play into addiction, I didn’t have any of those,” Kennedy told City Pages in an interview at the Marathon County Courthouse. “Nothing really bad every happened to me.”

Instead, Kennedy’s decent into addiction began with smoking marijuana with friends when she was 13-14 years old. That led to harder drugs, especially heroin, Kennedy said. “I did them all.”

She always believed that the notion of drug addiction as a disease was a cop out for people who just didn’t want to quit. She even had a friend who struggled with addiction, eventually cleaned up, is now a police officer, and can still have a drink on occasion.

It took Kennedy some time to figure out that she is not like that. Once she’s in, she’s in.

That predisposition isn’t helpful when it comes to drug addiction, but it’s great for someone committed to overcoming it. At the end of August, Kennedy because the very first graduate of Marathon County’s new drug court.

The program pulls candidates from the court system to enter an intensive recovery program, employing rehabilitation centers for initial detox such as North Central Health Care’s Medically Monitored Treatment Center, day treatment, and other services including support groups and transitional housing. The participants call in daily as they work their way through the program. They go to counseling and do community service if they’re not working, says Rachel Eifert, psychotherapist and AODA Counselor with Attic Correctional Services.

The drug court has 25 people in its program, the maximum right now, according to coordinator Kala Frueh. It will likely soon have a waiting list to get in. Eligible offenders can’t have violent crimes in their background, or have dealt large amount of drugs. Some, like Kennedy, did sell some drugs in order to feed their own habit.

Kennedy is the first to graduate because, as we said, once she is in, she’s in. She even sobered up a few months prior to starting drug court — a good step but only one piece of recovery, Eifert says. Now Kennedy is putting that effort into her job at a local group home. “She really submersed herself in recovery,” Eifert says. “It was a living program of recovery, and everything fell into place because of that.”

A wake-up call

Drug court wasn’t the first time Kennedy tried to clean up. She’d tried a few times throughout the course of her drug use. Kennedy had a few minor drug charges, and a felony charge in 2018 that led to her entry into drug court. That one served as a wake-up call. Kennedy says her then boyfriend got her attention when he pointed out she had shown up in the news. It was a surprise because the offense had happened more than a year prior, but she was finally charged. “My boyfriend at the time said ‘you’re on the felony gallery,’” Kennedy says. “I was freaking out.”

Kennedy’s attorney told her about this new program called drug court—it had started only a month prior, in January 2018 (the charges were filed in February 2018), and she would be eligible. She stayed clean for the more than two months it took to be sentenced to drug court. She went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and set herself up with a sponsor.

The first few months of the program were a challenge. Kennedy had a full-time job in Stevens Point and lived in Mosinee, so getting to Wausau for reporting was a challenge. (Drug court candidates have to call in every day but randomly get chosen to report in person on some days.) “Before that I didn’t have much responsibility — doing odd jobs here and there, and whatever I wanted the rest of the time,” Kennedy says. “It was a lot of feeling overwhelmed with everything.”

Kennedy had a leg up by kicking her habit before entering drug court, but there were still plenty of challenges. Breaking off from old friends because of their drug habits, and regaining the trust of her family all took some doing.

Nerves occasionally grabbed her attention. Would that graduation date ever arrive? But eventually, the day grew near.

A court for effectiveness

Starting the drug court has been a goal in Marathon County for years, says the county’s Justice Coordinator Laura Yarie. “It is an evidenced based program with a ton of research behind it,” Yarie says.

According to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s website, there are 37 adult drug court programs in Wisconsin, and another 14 hybrid drug and OWI courts. Marathon County has had an OWI court for a number of years, but drug courts involve more resources because the underlying issues of drug offenders tend to be more complex, Eifert says.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, there are more than 2,500 drug courts nationwide, and roughly 47% of counties have them. A review of meta-analyses by the office says that drug courts reduce crime by 8% to 26%, and well-administered courts can reduce crime by up to 35%. A more current report released by President Obama’s administration puts the number of drug courts at 3,100 nationwide.

It’s important to note that Marathon County’s drug court is addressing a specific drug-using population. Plenty of drug users don’t fit into the program’s current criteria because their offenses and background are more complex. The county would need a much more intense court program for those challenging cases that involve people with potentially violent criminal histories, or who have a history of heavy dealing.

That means higher care, and thus more expense and resources, says Chad Billeb, Marathon County Sheriff Chief Deputy. Marathon County isn’t equipped with enough judicial, attorney and therapy support to handle a court of that level right now.

But Billeb joins others in his optimism for the drug court, especially in the wake of its first graduate. It joins programs such as the specially trained officers of  the newly created Crisis Assessment Response Team, and adding a social worker to the jail. All of these efforts have the higher goal of housing fewer inmates in jail.

Taken as a whole, Billeb agrees with local journalist Peter Weinschenk’s observation that these programs have helped reduce the jail population. Around this time last year, the over-flowing jail typically housed 100 inmates out of county. Now, about 40 to 70 fewer inmates are housed out of county, Billeb says. (That’s adjusting for the jail’s current construction repairs that require about half the inmates be housed in other jails until the work is complete.) “Everyone (in the criminal justice system) is moving as best we can to positively impact the cost of housing inmates out of county.”

Graduation day

On a Wednesday afternoon, Kennedy read an essay she wrote about her past and her graduation through the drug court program. The room was filled with the other participants in the drug court program, many who likely took hope from her story. 

“I can tell you a lot of people in that room look to you as an inspiration,” Eifert told Kennedy during our interview. Eifert said one of the newest people in the program told her she looked at Kennedy and said her graduation gave her hope she could complete the program too.

“We’re so proud of Dawn,” Eifert says. “She’s our first graduate, and is paving the way for this program.” Another student is expected to graduate this month, Eifert says.

Kennedy now works at a group home for teen girls who are living in out-of-home placement. She worked a couple of different jobs before landing on that one. She told the group home operator during her interview about her participation in drug court and her journey through recovery. Turns out, that experience put Kennedy in the perfect position to be compassionate for others in the group home. The group home operator not only hired Kennedy, but came to her graduation from drug court. “I love it,” Kennedy says of the job. 

Kennedy also is enrolled at Northcentral Technical College, with the aspiration of one day being a case manager.

“I would say if you want to have a better life, it’s there,” Kennedy says. “You have to do the work, but it’s worth it.”