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Native American Drug Court aims to ‘retrain brains’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If anybody needed a drink, it was Maria.

Or so she thought.

She had seen so much, lost so much. She was born to a Navajo mother and a Mexican father whose volatile relationship was measured out in screams and bruises in front of her and her younger brother until her dad took a knife and stabbed her mother in the neck.

DOMINGUEZ: Runs Native American Drug Court

DOMINGUEZ: Runs Native American Drug Court

Her dad went to prison, then was deported; her mother moved her children from To’hajiilee to Albuquerque, then to hell.

“After my dad tried to kill her, let’s just say she came into her own,” said Maria, 35. “She started partying and drinking a lot. She’d tell my brother and me, ‘You kids are old enough to take care of yourself. I’m going to go out and do me.’ ”

The family floated from motel to motel along East Central. At times, they had no motel room at all. Maria started drinking like her mother. It was the only way she knew how to cope, how to be, how to blot out the world.

“I had no guidance, no one to tell me when to go to school, when to go home,” she said. “I had the wrong crowd and 40s (40-ounce bottles) of beer.”

At 16, she looked for that guidance. She found a guardian, enrolled in the Job Corps, met a boy, obtained her GED at 17, had a baby at 18, got married, had two more babies.

She was 18 when her mother, still in her 30s, died of a heroin overdose. Her first DWI came when she was 21. Seven years later, her husband also succumbed to a drug overdose.

The drinking continued. She got her second DWI when she was 28; her third when she was 34.

“I was grieving, and I was grieving in the wrong way,” she said. “I would put the kids to bed, and I would drink. On some nights, I would drink until I couldn’t remember.”

If anybody needed sobriety, it was Maria.

Guidance, again, eluded her.

But in June 2014, after her third DWI, it found her in the guise of the DWI/Drug Court, one of the specialty courts at the Metro Court in Albuquerque that use intensive treatment and supervision rather than incarceration.

Last spring, Maria transferred from DWI/Drug Court to the Urban Native American Drug Court, a newly revitalized program that incorporates cultural sensitivities, traditions and a healing approach favored by many tribal “healing to wellness” courts.

The program had run from 2004 to 2009, then faded away and was restarted in March under Metro Court Judge Maria Dominguez. It is the only such program run by a state court in the country.

“The concept is bringing the participant to ‘wellbriety’ – not just being sober but being well,” Dominguez said. “This isn’t just about wanting them not to re-offend. This isn’t just probation. This is about changing lives, families, the community.”

Participants – as of Thursday, there are 17 – must be Native American and charged with two to three DWIs. The program lasts from nine months to 18 months and includes four phases involving Native American-centered therapy sessions, meditation, talking circles, regular court appearances before Dominguez, victim impact panels, community service or full-time work or schooling, Alcoholic Anonymous or similar meetings, random drug and alcohol screening and frequent reporting to probation officer Karen Watson.

“It’s challenging,” Maria said. “You have to decide if you are doing it just to stay out of jail or if you are willing to change.”

(Because one of the more recent tragedies in her life involves a sexual assault and because Alcoholics Anonymous requires anonymity of its participants, we are just calling her Maria.)

The rigorous requirements are necessary because participants need the support, Dominguez said.

“These are high-risk, high-needs individuals,” she said. “We need to retrain their brains. They need to trust us, to know we are there to help them.”

At the core of the program are Native American principles of family, harmony, accountability to community and a redirecting away from the crime to the cause of it.

“What is unique is that the program honors tradition, cultural strength and community,” said Daniel Blackwood, executive director at The Evolution Group, which provides the therapeutic component of the program. “That’s what imparts the healing.”

The program also encourages participants to reconnect with the traditions of their own pueblos or tribes, and Dominguez liberally makes allowances for the participants to leave the jurisdiction to go back to their pueblos and reservations for feast days, blessings, healing ceremonies and dances, as well as to perform their required community service there.

The program is funded through grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is, program officials say, extremely cost-effective. Consider that the tab per participant per day is $14.23, compared with a daily cost of $108.93 to incarcerate someone at the Metropolitan Detention Center. The recidivism rate is a remarkable 5.5 percent, court officials said.

Since Dominguez assumed the program, she has lost only two participants. On Thursday, she lost two more but to the successful graduation from the program.

One of those graduates was Maria.

She is 14 months sober.

“This was something I had to do for me, for my kids and I hope eventually will help others,” she said. “But I know I’m still a work in progress.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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