Trina Poland had been stuck in a cycle of addiction. The Lansing resident was shooting up with heroin and crack, and her parents were running out of options to help her.
“I was on my last leg,” she said. “I was knocking on death’s door. Drug court was really, essentially, what saved my life. Amy stuck with me, saw through all the muck, and eventually I started to turn it around and dive into recovery headfirst.”
Poland is speaking of Amy Iseler, Chief Probation Officer of the 54B District Court in East Lansing. Iseler, 46, helped bring the 54B drug treatment court into existence in 2016, less than one month into her job.
“I went into Chief Judge Andrea Larkin’s office and pitched this drug court program,” she said. “Looking back, that was more bold than I appreciated at the time. But I felt so compelled that we weren’t capturing all of the needs within our community.”
For her work with the drug treatment court, Iseler was recently honored by the Ingham County Bar Association with its Liberty Bell Award, the highest honor it bestows on non-lawyers.
The 54B District Court has three treatment courts: sobriety court, veterans court and drug court, which Iseler refers to as her professional life’s ambition. The drug treatment court works, according to its website, to help felony and misdemeanor drug offenders through “intensive supervision, individualized treatment, and personal accountability.”
The court is an alternative to traditional probation. While Iseler tries not to limit who can participate in the court, those with contributing factors like mental and physical health issues are most likely to be recommended for the specialty court.
This isn’t Iseler’s first experience with a treatment court. She worked for six years at the 55th District Court’s sobriety court in Mason. But there was something different about starting a new program.
“I was able to be there from the ground up, from conception to implementation, to watching what was an idea flourish,” Isler said. “Raising a program feels almost as personal as raising a child.”
Iseler explained the difference between treatment court and the more common, more traditional probation officer role.
“In a traditional probation experience, we’d see a client once a month and it is compliance based. So, are they working, are they going to meetings?” she said. “In our program, we bring the resources to the clients. We also follow the National Association of Drug Court Professionals’ best practices, which are grounded in evidence-based practices.”
These practices include the client – she does not refer to them as offenders – meeting with the judge once a week, meeting with their probation officer once a week, and assessing what specific needs each client has. These needs may include social, economic, health, transportation and housing.
“We need to be able to remove barriers to help our clients,” she said. “And this means getting to know our clients on a personal basis because everyone’s strengths and challenges are different. It requires a team approach because [clients] need to have a system built around them. Their level of need is such that it would be unrealistic and cruel to place responsibility on their shoulders when they’re already struggling with mental health, severe substance abuse disorder, and trauma.”
Poland was one of those clients. Each client spends a minimum of 18 months in drug court. Poland, however, was a client for 28 months.
“I was stubborn for the first 10 months, really untrusting of the system,” she said. “But Amy stuck with me because I really needed accountability. Those first 10 months, I was in and out of jail; I was violating. But they didn’t let me get away with anything. At one point I had to report daily to Amy.
Today Poland is five years sober and works as a Peer Recovery Coach at Community Mental Health in Lansing.
Daniel Maier of Williamston also credits Amy with giving him the help he needed to turn things around.
“I’ve been in trouble off and on for most of my life,” Maier said. “In the other stints of probation, it felt like you were just a number. Drug court was completely different. It’s all encompassing and takes into account our emotional and physical wellbeing. It puts you in the hands of amazing professionals figuring out the root causes of why you find yourself addicted.”
Maier, who is four years sober and working on a degree in social work from the University of Michigan Flint, found great value in the group dynamic.
“In other probations I’ve been in, you aren’t even allowed to interact with other folks on probation,” he said. “Here, we’re always supporting each other. We even have a graduate group that meets every other Thursday.”
Iseler is quick to offer praise of the clients and their support of one another.
“In July, the eighth graduate of the 54B District Court Drug Court married her best friend,” she said, speaking of Poland. “Trina’s journey in recovery has been remarkable. Judge Larkin officiated the ceremony. Our first drug court graduate and Trina’s sponsor, Christine, was a bridesmaid. The bridal party also included Trina’s mother, her PRC [peer recovery] coach, and me. It was a full circle moment for all of us.”
The drug treatment court in East Lansing was made possible in 2016 through a grant from the state of Michigan. Iseler is proud East Lansing residents pay nothing for the program and believes the program can be viewed as a success by anyone, no matter their political leanings.
“We have been incredibly fortunate that those in power see the value of our programs,” she said. “If someone is worried about the finances, we save money because we divert our clients from jails and prisons. If one is more concerned about ethical, socially responsible experiences, well, we are restoring people to a quality of life and changing our communities in positive ways. I could probably sell the treatment court concept to anyone no matter what their party affiliation is or what their agenda might be.”
The 54B District Court drug treatment court currently has 16 clients. To date, 33 participants have successfully completed the experience. The court will hold another graduation ceremony on Dec. 20.
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