Program helps Greenwood residents reclaim lives from addiction

Heroin had taken almost everything from her.

Valentina Dennison had her children taken away from her. Her husband had died of an overdose. She was homeless and had nowhere to go. She only had the dirty clothes on her back.

Now, she is sober and taking back her life with the help of Greenwood Recovery Court.

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The recovery court is an intensive program for adults with substance abuse disorders who have had incidents with the police related to drugs or alcohol. More than 400 people have graduated from the program since it was created. On Thursday, six more people joined that group in a special ceremony at the Greenwood City Center.

The recovery court is designed to help participants recover and rebuild their lives, while also strengthening their families.

The program has had that effect on Dennison.

Addiction overwhelmed her life for five years. At the age of 14, Dennison realized she was dependent on prescription pills, she said. When she was 23, she turned to heroin.

In March of 2017, Dennison was arrested on a charge of dealing drugs and was released on bond.

Eight days later, she was arrested again on multiple drug possession charges. She had been arrested many times before, however, this time was different. For the first time, she wasn’t bonded out of jail. That moment in the holding cell was the moment she realized that she needed to get sober, she said.

“I have learned how to be honest with myself and be honest with others. I have learned how to live honestly. I have learned how fruitful life cam be,” Dennison said. “I don’t know the person that I was in 2017. I have no idea who she is. I know the pain and all the hurt and I know exactly what she was doing up until that moment, but I don’t know who that person is anymore.”

Dennison was sentenced to the Greenwood Recovery Court as a part of a condition of bond.

In order to take part in the recovery court, a participant must have two contacts with law enforcement within the last five years and have no convictions for violent crimes, including sex offenses. Those contacts can be anything from a police report noting they were under the influence to drug-related criminal charges. Generally, they do not accept those with drug dealing convictions, according to the program’s guidelines. Each participant must have a full-time job, be enrolled in school full-time or perform 40 hours of unpaid community service work each week.

Judge Lewis Gregory started the program in 1999 when he said recognized the need for rehabilitation, rather than criminalization for those with struggling with substance abuse. On average, the program accepts three to four new participants each month and graduates two.

“Instead of putting people with drug and alcohol problems in jail, we try to help them to do something about correcting the problem, getting their lives back on track,” Gregory said. “The hardest thing that a judge does is put a person in jail. It brings me no pleasure to do it and I don’t judge that it does give pleasure to put somebody in there. It’s just a dirty part of the job that you have to do from time to time.”

The program’s success is measured by the recidivism rate of its graduates. An Indiana University study of the program found that 85 percent of recovery court graduates did not have any further contact with law enforcement.

There are four phases that each participant must complete before they can graduate. For the first 90 days, participants are required to drug screen a minimum of twice a week, check in for a breathalyzer at the city court center at 7:30 a.m. and meet with their case manager and a judge once a week. They also have to attend up to five self-help programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

Throughout the course of the program, the requirements are gradually reduced. After each phase, participants have to be drug screened or see a judge fewer times.

“It is the most intense structured anything I’ve ever done in my life,” Dennison said. “But, this program has saved my life in so many ways.”

Dennison said the program helped her learn how to be on time, how to budget and how to take advantage of the tools that she is given. She was able to get her driver’s license back after not having it for 11 years. Dennison was promoted to the final phase of the program on Thursday.

Another participant spoke Thursday about his interest in starting a mentorship program within the Greenwood Recovery Court.

Being the youngest of four siblings, Jake Clawson said he developed feelings of inferiority, which led to pent-up anger. That anger motivated him to manipulate people around him, steal and engage in other bad behaviors. Clawson said he views his anger as his first personal change, and essentially his first high. He began hanging out with people who behaved the same way.

His addiction took off when he was prescribed hydrocodone after a concussion from football, he said. In less than two years, Clawson was addicted to heroin. He was 17.

After he dropped out of high school, Clawson said he stayed in the criminal justice system, cycling through charges and going to jail over and over again. Eventually, his charges turned to felonies.

“They’d give me a chance on probation, I’d mess up probation. I’d go to community corrections work release, I escaped and caught an escape charge from there because of my addiction,” Clawson said. “My mind was totally lost, I had no concept as to what was right and what was wrong and it was worth it to me to catch a new felony charge and to be in a terrible situation. So, I’d go get another high.”

After escaping, Clawson spent 1 ½ years out of Indiana, hiding in recovery homes, staying secluded because of health privacy laws. When he missed his family, he came back and was arrested within a few days.

Clawson went to prison for a little over a year, but shortly after his release, he fell back into the cycle of addiction.

“Going to prison, I came out of it and I did okay for a little while. Got some experience under my belt how to stay sober, but wasn’t involved enough, wasn’t connected enough and I threw it away because I got bored one day, that’s pretty much what it came down to,” Clawson said. “Full throttle addiction once again, its progressive. It always picks right back up where it left off. And it did for me especially.”

Clawson has been in the Greenwood Recovery Court program for 11 months and is in his final phase. He graduates next month. During his time in the program, he’s become engaged, bought a home, received large promotions at his job and became involved with football again.

“There’s all these things, but the biggest gift I think it has given me, is, with the connections,” Clawson said. “I’m present. I’m present for my family, for myself, for the ones around me, for the staff, for individuals I just met, I can be there if somebody needs help, I can help and be good at it.”

He hopes to bring the connection that he was missing to those in the program and those who have graduated. He plans to start an alumni group for graduates to socialize at least once a month.

“The biggest thing [with recovery] is getting to know yourself and finding out what you have to do to stay sober and who can help you do that. That’s really what the mentor program is trying to offer,” Clawson said.