GOSHEN — It is Monday afternoon. One by one, the individuals assembled in the courtroom take their seat at the defendant’s table to have a several-minute weekly conversation with Elkhart Superior 4 Judge Gretchen Lund.
Her Honor greets each one with a sincere, disarming smile and asks the introductory question: “How are you doing today?”
She listens with an “I see you and you are important” attentiveness and her responses invariably carry the implicit but unmistakable message, “I believe in you.”
Welcome to Elkhart County Drug Court, an oasis of positivity in a judicial system too often marinated in anger, vengeance and adversarialism.
Drug Court Coordinator Tara Paiano sits at the table and reports each individual’s progress during the week, often lacing her assessments with words like “great” and “wonderful.” Each conversation ends with Lund asking, “Is there anything we could be doing for you or that you need from us?”
The terminology in this court differs from the norm. The defendants, who have already pled guilty, are referred to as “participants” and even the failures to comply with the program’s requirements, which land some participants in the county lockup, are nonjudgmentally called “hiccups,” with the court offering a second chance at redemption.
“We are often told if you really want to know what is going on in your community, go to the county courthouse,” said Lund. “A lot of times what is reported is negative. This is an attempt to take what is negative and turn it into something positive.
“So yes, go to the county courthouse. Though we are afflicted just like every other community, people will hopefully be pleasantly surprised how we are dealing with addictions issues.”
The court was certified Dec. 6, 2018, and held its first session Monday, Jan. 7, with three participants. About four are added each month, with 16 of the 30 slots currently filled. The prosecutor’s office screens applicants for eligibility.
The drug court team also consists of Patrick Grimmer, deputy prosecuting attorney; Betsy Bellin, public defender; and Jared Wiseman of the county’s probation department.
The team meets for 1 1/2 hours before each court session. “We discuss everyone’s progress and if there are setbacks, we are ready to address those,” said Lund. “We want to make sure we are addressing people’s needs.”
“We are offering a wholistic approach to the participant like nothing they have experienced in court before,” said Bellin, “to provide a different path so they can be clean and sober and productive in the community. That is why we do a collaborative approach.”
Participants work through four phases of the program, which lasts at least 18 months. Requirements include attending court and meeting with the case manager weekly; submitting to three drug tests a week; attending substance abuse, mental health and criminal thinking treatment up to five times a week; paying all fees; gaining and maintaining employment; and advancing one’s education.
The court works with several area treatment facilities, including Oaklawn, Life Treatment Center in South Bend, Center for Problem Resolution in Goshen, Addiction Recovery Center and the Upper Room residential facility in South Bend.
The team is always looking for new treatment providers. “The more people who can provide service, the better the community will be,” said Paiano.
For more information, call Paiano at (574) 535-6451.