The coronavirus pandemic has reshaped virtually every aspect of community life, including how substance abuse treatment programs and the criminal justice system function.
The Charlottesville-Albemarle Adult Drug Treatment Court, an alternative justice program facilitated and run primarily by Offender Aid and Restoration, was faced with a difficult situation: how to hold its participants accountable while also keeping them at a safe social distance.
Jodi Jackson, the drug court coordinator, said the first two weeks after OAR closed its building on March 16 were particularly difficult. Staff scrambled to figure out how to transition to phone and digital contact, a major step for a program that relied so heavily on in-person meetings.
“We had become so reliant on face-to-face contact that a lot of our participants’ contact information was outdated,” she said. “With drug court, you’re seeing people every day, often even on the weekends, so this change was major.”
Jackson said OAR was able to keep track and contact about 95% of the participants in the program within those two weeks, most of whom were doing well and were happy to chat. However, some were less enthused and wanted to disappear, she said.
“It’s an incredibly difficult time, especially if you’re someone recovering from addiction, and so the staff and I did a lot of emotional regulation, trying to get people out of their trauma brain and into their rational, coping brain,” she said. “Many of our staff have lived-experience with our own recovery and know what that’s like, and that understanding and empathy is crucial.”
Though drug testing initially was halted due to safety concerns, Jackson said OAR has slowly resumed testing through various means, often conducting tests in the parking lot of its Charlottesville location. Similarly, in-person meetings have slowly resumed, with social distancing and other safety precautions being taken.
“The eye contact, the body language, how they smell, how they react — all of that stuff is so important to us as case managers. You lose so much of that when you can’t see someone in person,” she said. “You’re going through this same disaster as your clients but you’re not in the same situation and meeting in person can go a long way.”
However, while Jackson said the vast majority of participants have adapted to the new situation, others have fallen back into their addictions and a few have been taken in custody as a matter of public health.
The pandemic likely has much to do with this, according to Jackson, as well as a growing rate of unemployment among participants.
Prior to the pandemic, 86% of the participants were employed, a number that has now fallen to 47%, according to Jackson.
“Around half of our participants who were employed have lost their jobs, which, in addition to causing them to lose income, leaves them with idle times to fall back into bad habits,” she said.
Jackson, who has been in her role since July, said more participants than ever are currently in inpatient facilities, including through the Region Ten Community Services Board. However, despite the great need for treatment, Region Ten and other organizations have been affected by the pandemic’s economic downturn, furloughing their staffs and making other budgetary cuts.
New participants are still being referred, though not at the volume as prior to the pandemic due to a largely halted court docket, Jackson said.
Participants in the drug court program also are being recommended to other support groups in the area, such as On Our Own, a peer support network.
Erin L. Tucker, director of On Our Own, said they have transitioned online, as most organizations have. Moving online created its own set of challenges, however, and the organization has sought to help its members by providing some with internet access and cellphones needed to maintain contact.
“Our members have grown substantially, and most of our online Zoom meetings are well attended, in particular Creative Corner meetings every Monday,” Tucker said. “However, our Self-Management and Recovery Treatment meeting has had difficulty with attendance.”
As the pandemic grew, Tucker said the group’s anger and anxiety management classes also grew as fears of COVID-19 exacerbated underlying issues. However, participants have told her that the classes help and the overall transition has been smooth.
Though Jackson said she does not anticipate the Charlottesville-Albemarle Adult Drug Treatment Court will soon return to the same format as before, she said she has been heartened by the “overwhelming” community support.
“Our community has really stepped up and provided time and money and resources to help us and the participants out,” she said. “It’s good that our community is recognizing that there is a segment of our population that needs more help than others, an often unseen or [not-]thought-about population that has its own struggles.”