Craving the clean certificate from the Drug Treatment Court

Drug courts see a drop-out rate of two-thirds. In 13 years, just 51 offenders have graduated. It is a world of tragic lives where success is measured in shopping vouchers

Eamonn Geoghegan: “I was smoking cannabis all day every day, taking Valium, methadone, cocaine, heroin and other stuff, and drinking as well.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Eamonn Geoghegan: “I was smoking cannabis all day every day, taking Valium, methadone, cocaine, heroin and other stuff, and drinking as well.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne


In a noisy District Court number six on Dublin’s Chancery Street, Judge Gráinne O’Neill hands Patrick Lawlor a certificate of graduation from the Drug Treatment Court programme. “The charges on which you came to this court will be struck out,” she says solemnly.

Lawlor is beaming. He thanks his tearful father Tommy and his girlfriend Ciara “for being my rock” and the drug court team – the judge, nurse and education coordinator – for their support and encouragement over the previous 12 months.

From his temporary perch in the judge’s chair, watched by the presiding judge of the DTC, Judge Ann Ryan, and three other judges in court for the occasion, Lawlor addresses his 10 fellow participants who stayed on after their own hearings: “You’re in charge of your own recovery.”

“This is what you’re all aiming for,” Judge O’Neill tells them, before everyone heads over to the prefab in the car park for a celebration of tea and cake.

Patrick Lawlor is an exception in the Drug Treatment Court (DTC). A “cannabis-only client”, he is one of the few to graduate from the three-phase programme within a year. In fact, he is one of the few to have graduated at all during the court’s 13 years in existence.

Started as a pilot programme in 2001 and established in 2006, the DTC aims to reduce crime through rehabilitation. A 2012 review carried out by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform showed the annual cost in 2011 to have been €166,784, about €15,000 to place an offender on the programme due to costs to the probation services, the Garda and the Courts Service.

Offenders from the Dublin Metropolitan District who have previously pleaded guilty, or have been convicted by the District Court for minor, non-violent drug-related criminal charges, may be referred to the DTC by their defence counsel, the Probation Service or the presiding judge.

If accepted, they can look forward to three progressive phases: 1, bronze (stabilisation and orientation); 2, silver (continuation and progress); 3, gold (reintegration and self-management).


Urine sample

Since 2012, participants can graduate after phase two if they have ceased all drug use (apart from cannabis), maintained good health, stable home life, demonstrated pro-social and anti-criminal attitudes and behaviour, worked on a career plan, engaged in education or work, addressed life and addiction issues through counselling and established a personal process of practising new habits. If they don’t reoffend within 12 months, the original charges will be struck out.

The judge, in consultation with the rest of the team, monitors progress and operates a carrot-and-stick system, where points are awarded for positive behaviour, such as Fetac qualifications and punctuality at probation appointments. Points are withdrawn for “dirty” urine samples and being late to court. Racking up minus 70 points lands you in custody for a week; plus 70 points earns you a €30 voucher for Jervis Shopping Centre.

Despite the persistence of agencies and judges, however, few graduate.

Since 2001, 700 addicts have been referred to the DTC and 51 have “graduated”. Of the 700, about half were deemed capable of undertaking the programme. Of these, 232 – two-thirds – were discharged when they couldn’t complete, although some had become clean of their main drug and achieved Fetac awards.

Their excuses ranged from non-compliance to difficult family circumstances.

In total, 46 people have graduated from phase three and an additional five have graduated phase two. Why are so few successful? Part of the answer is revealed over a few hours in court.

The DTC is a full criminal court, the only difference being direct dialogue between judges and defendants, who are predominantly young males, from unstable families in the most deprived areas, who on average have left school at 14 and have been in and out of jail since their teens, usually with a string of previous failed treatments behind them. Some have histories of physical and sexual abuse.

Many are parents with children in care; children with grandparents; children waiting outside court with a sister or friend; children whose Communions they want to get clean for.


Three phases

The three phases of the programme – or different stages of addiction treatment – manifest themselves in court. The first phase can look like sleepiness and slurred speech, while phase three might look alert and healthy. When the judge calls up each participant to discuss progress, there is a balancing act between encouragement, support and sanctions while factoring in the participant’s efforts, vulnerabilities and circumstances.

“John” punches the air triumphantly and welcomes a round of applause for reaching phase two.

“Have a good week your honour, right?” he grins, before strutting out the door.

One man has had a “dirty” urine sample. The judge seems genuinely disappointed: “You were doing really well and you were looking a lot better. What happened?”

An 18-year-old, who breached his bail conditions by being in Dublin 2, is accompanied by a representative of Focus Ireland, who explains the youth was in the area because he attends the Eustace Street branch daily for food.

“Maria” is called before the judge. Dressed in a green tracksuit, she is fragile and childlike. She asks the court to consider “tragic family circumstances” and says she would prefer to be released from the programme.

The judge is hesitant about allowing her to leave and says so. A week later though, Maria is back in court, this time clutching a Penneys paper bag containing a towel, socks and underwear. She sits quietly behind the garda, folding and refolding items of clothing until she is called up and remanded in custody for a week.

She tells the judge she is worried about her dog and that she went to see her sister’s new baby boy – “he’s only this size, tiny”, she says, demonstrating with her hands. Leaving the court, she tells a friend she’ll see her back here next week.

Unlike the US, which has more than 2,200 drug courts, the Dublin DTC has no access to residential treatment facilities.

But a 2010 study on recidivism showed that participation alone had a positive effect, measured by each tiny step forward against a background of low educational participation, and often profoundly difficult social background.

“The majority of participants have never experienced any type of consistency or support with anything before,” said Fiona Carolan, education co-ordinator on the DTC team. “This is a process that takes time, care and patience.”


Eamonn’s story: ‘If you get one person out of 10 into detox who stays clean, that’s a success’

Eamonn Geoghegan (43) is described as “a huge success story” by the team at the Chrysalis Community Drug Project on Dublin’s Manor Street. They have seen him come full circle from chronic heroin addict to where he is now : completing an internship as a key worker as part of his 12-month Recovery Coach Programme at DCU.

“For someone who left primary school at 12, it’s not too bad,” Geoghegan says with a laugh.

The middle child in a family of five, from Sheriff Street in Dublin, he was nine when their mother left home, leaving his father as a lone parent.

By the age of 12, he was drinking and smoking hash. By 17 he was in prison for the first time, after years of “getting into fights, robbing cars and shops, breaking into factories . . . ”

He took his first ecstasy pill shortly after his third prison sentence, and was smoking heroin within weeks. By 26, he was using intravenously, feeding his habit by “robbing from everybody and anybody”.

Eventually, with the help of his sister and Passerose Mantoy from Chrysalis, he entered The Mews drugs treatment centre on the North Circular Road and a cycle began.

“I’d stay clean for a few months but always thought I could still go drinking or hang around with the same people and I’d relapse.”

Referred to court He was referred to the Drug Treatment Court, although he can’t remember how or when.

Then his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and his problem escalated.

“I was smoking cannabis all day every day, taking Valium, methadone, cocaine, heroin and other stuff, and drinking as well. I was even arrested going into the drug court one day with half an ounce of hash in my pocket. “

The DTC team stuck with him.

“I was taking days off from school [at the Parnell Learning Centre] and stuff like that and I wasn’t given out to or stood down or put into custody. They knew I was doing the best I could.”

Everything changed when his father died in 2009. Eleven months later, he graduated from the DTC after three years on the programme. “As a member of NA [Narcotics Anonymous], we have to practice principles and faith is one of them,” he says. “My dad is my higher power, he’s who I pray to, he’s who guides me.”

It has been a long road. Years of repeated detox, rehab, aftercare, counselling, day programmes and more rehab. Then back to Chrysalis as a volunteer working 20-30 hours a week, leading to the internship as a valued key worker.

“He’s so dependable and I just really respect the work he is doing with people,” says Tania Horgan, a project manager at Chrysalis.

Come December, he will be five years clean.

Now the young man who believed he would “die a junkie” shares that story at DTC graduations and NA meetings in prisons. “The last time I chaired a meeting at Mountjoy, I realised I’d been locked up with three of the lads at the meeting. It’s great to go in and carry the message, that there’s a way out and you don’t have to stay on drugs for the rest of your life.”

Very different outcome If he had continued in the prison cycle, “the outcome would have been very different”, he says. “The DTC programme gives you a kickstart . . . The team supports you – even if you don’t realise it at the time – and helps you put plans in place for the first time, from the school, to the nurse and the judge.

“There were loads of times she [the judge] could have put me in custody and she didn’t.”

But the situation for people trying get into detox is “really ridiculous”, he says. “How many HSE beds are there – 30?”

And how many thousands of euros does it cost to hold someone in prison, he asks? Or to feed them full of methadone?

The availability of newer drugs such as ketamine, ice, crystal meth and weed that is 30 to 40 times stronger than before, has started “a whole new ball game . . . These new drugs are leaving people psychotic and in lock-up wards”.

Can he understand the low graduation rates from the DTC? “A lot of people relapse because they can’t cope when they get first get clean. I’ve had that experience myself.

“But I really do believe if you get one person out of 10 into detox who stays clean, that’s a success”.

As for himself, he’s not there yet, he says. “There’s a lot of work to do, but I’m getting there.”

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