FERGUSON, Mo. — “I may be leaving this program with graduation, but this program will never leave me.”
Jim G’s words flashed on the screen behind him as he stepped up to receive his graduation certificate from the St. Louis County Treatment Court. Last week, 21 county residents who had completed the program were recognized by court and medical officials, friends and family. The ceremony was held in the Jury Assembly Room of St. Louis County Courthouse in Clayton.
With their quotes and first and last name initial on screen, graduates humbly approached the stage to be honored. A few offered words of gratitude. The entire event was both supportive and motivational and not just for the graduates.
“I know that God’s plan for me is to be sober today, tomorrow and in the future. My future is brighter than ever,” said Michael A.
Drug addiction can lead to crimes such as vagrancy, robbery, rape, possession and trafficking and much worse. The treatment court was formed to find alternative approaches for first time nonviolent offenders charged with a felony who had a substance abuse problem. The program involves months of intensive treatment that include counseling, drug testing and frequent check-ins with the court.
“This has been a very emotional journey…I am crying but not out of sadness…I cry in hope for the person I am meant to be…happy, healthy, grateful and sober,” graduate Beth D shared.
During the ceremony, Judge Margaret McCarthy acknowledged prosecutors, defense attorneys, treatment providers, probation and parole officers and others who monitor, supervise or help nonviolent offenders reform their troubled lives.
According to data from the Treatment Courts, since 1999, more than 1,300 individuals “from all walks of life” have graduated from the intensive program with most going on to lead drug and alcohol-free lifestyles. The courts say its program has led to “reduced incarceration costs, police overtime, court time and other social welfare and associated costs.”
Derek P. said, “I am thankful for this opportunity to have a normal life and a second chance to change my way of living before I ended up dead or in prison.”
In courtrooms, it’s customary for a bailiff to shout “All Rise” when a judge enters the chambers. Judge McCarthy, however, delivered a twist to the declaration by reading a poem that brought the audience to their feet with thunderous applause.
McCarthy ended her reading with these words: “Today, in honor of our graduates, their families and friends who have loved, supported and carried them…and to all that have made the Treatment Courts mission possible, Let’s All Rise!”
“My family life has gotten better. I’m saving money and can look forward to a better life,” said John J.
Perhaps the most poignant and informative speech delivered was that of Cassondra Burries, a specialist with BJC Behavioral Health. The health agency offers a litany of services including screening and assessments, individual and family counseling, medication for behavioral health disorders and rehabilitation services.
The life story Burries shared, gave those gathered a glimpse into drug-addiction. She grew up in a housing project in East St. Louis.
Burries detailed how crime and drugs entered a once “nice” community. At the age of five, a stranger tried to abduct her, but she escaped. Four years later, at the age of nine, she was abducted and raped in an elevator while at vacation Bible school. She received no counseling after the incidents.
“I just sucked it up and decided to deal with it,” Burries confessed.
Even though she made the decision not to let the incidents dictate her life, trauma remained. At the age of 15, Burries said she tried to commit suicide. It was then that she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Although she was diagnosed, she was never treated for the maladies.
Burries said she became a teen mom having two children at the ages of 15 and 17. She married a man who was 10 years her senior, she described as “very abusive.” She recounted how her husband introduced her to crack cocaine. They both “found Christ,” Burries added that helped them kick their addictions.
After about15 years of marriage, Burries and her husband broke up. It was then that the feelings of anxiety and depression returned with a vengeance.
“I knew some things about addiction, but I knew nothing about mental illness,” Burries told the crowd. “I just knew I was feeling a certain way. Then I started hearing voices and hallucinating. I just thought my life was over.”
Unarmed with the professional help needed, Burries said she started “self-medicating” which led to a devastating downward spiral in her life.
“I lost everything. I became homeless, I slept on the streets, I ate out of trash cans.”
Her “turn-around,” Burries said, was her involvement with BJC Behavioral Health. Through its “social rehabilitation” services, she went through counseling, medical treatments. Eventually, she confessed, she began the process of “rewriting” her life.
Burries started volunteering with BJC and is now celebrating ten years of sobriety.
“Once I surrendered, I discovered my opponent was never the courts or the law-it was me.”-Andrew H.
Near the end of her presentation, Burries, who is in her 7th year of employment with BJC spoke directly to the 21 graduates.
“You get to make the choices you want to make. I get to work with people and help them change their lives. I have purpose,” she continued. “By helping you, I help myself and that’s more rewarding than anything I have ever done in life.”
Before exiting the stage, Burries encouraged the graduates to follow her example.
“You’ve done the hard part. Now it’s up to you to rewrite your life.”
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