The courtroom exudes formality. An ornate chandelier looms in the space over Bella Dally. Above it is the intricately detailed ceiling of Judge John Larson’s court.
For Dally, this intimidating room with its gold columns and rich wood is a place where she feels welcomed and respected.
Larson presides over the family drug court he established in Missoula close to ten years ago. His was the first drug treatment court in Montana.
This is a place Dally once dreamed of standing, but as an attorney not a defendant.
Her long dark hair was pulled back into a bun, and her make-up free face was relaxed as she talked with Larson and her attorney.
“We’ve seen lots of progress here, we’re real proud of it, and we want it to continue. As you’ve seen, we’re going to hold you accountable as we need to until we fine tune that relapse plan,” Larson said.
This was in August of 2016.
Several years earlier, she had graduated from St. Ignatius High School and headed to Missoula to study law. But when she became pregnant after her freshman year in college, she moved home.
“I did what was easy,” she said. “Just being scared as a first-time single mom. Just feeling like I failed and I had a lot of high expectations of myself and that didn't go as planned.”
That’s when she got hooked on meth, but not as a user. As a single parent in St. Ignatius, she needed to find a way to make a living and soon began selling methamphetamine.
She eventually tried her own product.
"It was horrible. I didn't enjoy it at all. It was scary. But then I just decided to do it again. It was convenient and it was there — and I was hurting,” she said.
“It was horrible. I didn't enjoy it at all. It was scary. But then I just decided to do it again. It was convenient and it was there — and I was hurting.
Soon she was using regularly. She left her oldest son with her parents at 14 months old. He’s been there ever since.
She would disappear for weeks at a time, became pregnant again and kept using. The baby was born with the drug in his system.
Child and Family Services workers arrived at the hospital just hours after her new son.
CFS informed her the state had taken custody of her newborn.
Things got even worse.
Dally and the baby’s father fought in the neo-natal intensive care unit. She was thrown in jail for a week. That first night separated from her new son was the lowest moment of her life, she said.
It was also what landed her a second chance.
Child and Family Services introduced Dally to the Family Drug Treatment Court. She started the program in early December of 2014.
It was not an instant success. For eight months, she struggled with relapses and fears of failing as a mom, but finally committed to treatment court.
The court she entered was 20 years in the making. According to the presiding Judge John Larson, the Family Drug Treatment court tries to operate in a very different way than the traditional criminal setting.
“There is this relationship that develops between the judge and the client that is unusual. Usually its confrontational, usually its negative, usually its punative,” he said.
At the core of this unconventional relationship stands Laurie Hunt, case manager for the Family Drug Treatment Court Coordinator and Intensive Court Case Manager.
Hunt has been with the court since its inception ten years ago. She cares for her clients with a firm hand. She has a daily text going with all of her clients.
She was the human connection that helped Dally embrace the treatment court, saying she “absolutely fell in love with her as a person.”
Clients often share family photos and personal challenges with Hunt, but if they break the rules, however, she is quick to become official.
“If we are not [in a positive place], we are sanctioning them with some jail time, up to 72 hours, sometimes they need a little longer to keep their heads clear,” Hunt said.
These short-term lockups are, ironically, part of the court’s work to keep the court members out of jail.
“We think most of their felonies are related to their addictions, and the outcome of their addictions, rather than the other way around,” Hunt said.
But the court does not rely solely on jail time. Much of its work is done through frequent drug testing.
Dally was introduced to the patch when she entered the court.
Photo by Cal Reynolds | Jodine Tarbert and Joe Sickles (CMS)
Located on her upper left arm, it would absorb sweat for two weeks and they it would be removed and tested. If she had consumed any prohibited substances, they would show up in the testing process.
Hunt said the devices the court uses to monitor drug use help clients develop self-discipline. The relationship the recovering addicts have with the people who administer the tests become another part of their support system.
Compliance Monitoring Systems is a Missoula-based company that contracts with the Missoula drug courts, as well as courts in 46 counties statewide. Owner Jodine Tarburt has seen how their role in the process can help an addict stay on the path to recovery.
“I always talk about it as a game of golf – as long as the ball continues to go toward the hole, no matter if you’re in a sand-trap or whatever else, as long as you are working to get it towards that hole, I think that’s success,” Tarburt said.
The ball is closely tracked, according to Joe Sickles, the lab manager at CMS. Jones said results are delivered in real time to Judge Larson to gauge a client’s progress.
“The whole point of drug testing isn’t like, ‘ah-ha, I caught you,’ a big part of it is knowing where they are in their recovery and being able to provide them the tools and address that use if it’s positive or negative, to gain further in their sobriety,” Sickles said.
The high-tech equipment the company uses gives judges peace of mind, Tarburt said, knowing that the drug offenders who are staying in the community are under near-constant surveillance.
But it’s not perfect.
Child and Family Services reunited Dally with her second baby after several months clean. Her anxiety went through the roof and soon she was removing her patch to use.
Dally did not come home for two weeks. After several weeks taking off patches to use, saying she lost them and then getting a new one to try and game the system, she was kicked out of the treatment court for non-compliance.
She disappeared for three months.
Her second son was placed into the custody of her parents.
As behavioral problems began to emerge with the baby due to Dally’s drug use while pregnant, her parents decided to put him into the foster care system, where he would live with another family for six months.
As her home life fell further apart, her methamphetamine use intensified. Her parents told her she was not welcome in their home any longer.
“It was a super hard battle knowing that not only was I disappointing these two little boys who needed their mom, but my parents also, who at that point lost their daughter,” she said.
As her spiral continued downward Dally discovered she was pregnant with her third baby.
That’s when she went back to the place where she had last found people who believed in her ability to overcome her substance use disorder.
Laurie Hunt answered her phone call.
In August of 2015, she re-entered the treatment court.
“I do not think children are safe being parented by individuals that are using methamphetamine,” Hunt said.
Despite these strong views, Hunt works to keep families together by pushing the parents to get sober and stay that way. So far, Dally’s never lost custody of her newest baby and her second child has been returned to her.
But it takes a team of people.
That group meets just before her hearings before Judge Larson to prepare to give him the latest information about every aspect of her life — sobriety, relationships with her children’s father, progress in therapy.
Court Appointed Special Advocates, who represent the interest of the children, discuss her childcare options as representatives from the Salish and Kootenai tribe, where Dally is enrolled, delve into personal observations about the clients and children.
“[This work] looks at the family as a unit, a biological unit, human beings, and looks beyond the issue of the laws that are broken, to the issues that are impacting the families,” Hunt said.
The essence of the treatment court process lays every element of Bella’s life bare for this team to seek the best interest of her family, principally the children.
“All of my cases seem to be a complex blend of felony, divorce, and child dependency and neglect,” she said.
Hunt added the court addresses the complexity of each client through neuro-psych evaluations they each take throughout the case process.
The evaluations examine everything from social capabilities, trauma backgrounds, adverse childhood experience, to educational background.
That work, Dally said, was one of the most helpful things the court has given her, helping her understand how she relates to others, and deals with her anxiety.
Larson’s effort to treat parents and keep kids out of foster care revolves on their ability to manage the grueling requirements and stay sober. If they relapse, the criminal justice system takes over.
It is treatment with a threat. But it is also a way for communities struggling with the heavy toll meth has taken on the social and judicial system.
Jail-based treatment programs are unable to keep up with demand and courts lack the judges and public defenders to respond to the caseload they face.
Treatment court offers an opportunity to keep addicts out of jail while monitoring treatment and keeps kids out of the foster care system.
The National Association of Drug Court Professionals reports that the drug treatment court model nationwide increases treatment program graduation rates by nearly 80%.
For parents in the Family Drug court, family re-unification rates are 50% higher.
This is significant considering that children forced into the foster care system at least in part due to meth use in the home has surged more than 400 percent.
The men’s Nexxus treatment program in Lewistown has 85 beds available for its 270-day program, followed by nine months in a pre-release center. The Elkhorn program in Boulder for women has 35 beds, and a similar set-up.
“Any other term for that would be an epidemic, a plague, it is not just increased use, it is an assault on our whole public health,” Larson said.
In seeking sobriety from both methamphetamine and THC, Dally has stood before Larson many times throughout nearly three years spent enrolled in the family drug court.
“We’ve got enough cases to pick from, we don’t take easy ones, I don’t think anyone would say this was easy,” he said. “We’re happy to have a challenge, and demonstrate, perhaps to others, they can make progress too.”
He said methamphetamine cases were only occasional when he started, working part-time at a federal court 28 years ago. Now they have inundated the system.
“It operates in a nest or a hive situation, where whole families and relatives and friends are all in this dilemma together with meth, continuing to use and having no way out,” he said.
Treatment court, for those who make it, end with a graduation.
Once a client satisfies Judge Larson’s requirements, or their Child and Family Services case closes, they are released.
Hunt said Judge Larson reserves the graduation celebration for clients who have earned it, an event that involves cake or ice cream served to the entire courtroom.
The official milestone might not be what Dally needs, however.
“I’m convinced you have to go away having made some sort of internal shift, and learned something, and Dally is someone who loves to learn. She stayed in Aftercare longer than most anybody I’ve known, for the one-on-one therapy and to work on co-dependency issues,” Hunt said.
Dally has now been working at the same job for almost a year, and has an apartment in Missoula where she has two sons in her care.
“I maybe drive two miles between the daycare…and work right there. It’s been really nice, these past couple of months,” Dally said.
She is seeking custody of her third son.
In mid-April, Dally stood before Larson again, now having spent close to three years in the treatment court, and is over two years sober from methamphetamine.
Dally is quick to point out having to face herself, and emotions that had been numbed by methamphetamine, was one of the hardest parts.
“It literally grasps onto every aspect, every cell in your body and it literally takes…I wouldn’t necessarily say rock-bottom, because rock-bottom has a basement, where you think you have finally had enough, and you have to handle some more to realize that, if you can handle that rock-bottom’s basement, you can handle being sober, and the addiction side of it never goes away,” she said. ■
Augusta McDonnell is a multimedia journalist, who reports on issues close to the heart of Montana.