Four graduate from Treatment Court after a long, tough journey

By Neal A. Johnson, UD Editor
Posted 10/7/21

Four individuals graduated from the Osage County Treatment Court program on Tuesday, Sept. 28, after a long, tough journey that challenged them to not only live a sober life but to be productive …

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Four graduate from Treatment Court after a long, tough journey

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Four individuals graduated from the Osage County Treatment Court program on Tuesday, Sept. 28, after a long, tough journey that challenged them to not only live a sober life but to be productive members of society.

“The very first page of the Treatment Court Handbook says, ‘THIS IS NOT AN EASY PROGRAM’ and it definitely is not,” said Judge Sonya Brandt. “The participants work very hard, and the graduates can be proud of what they have accomplished. I have enjoyed getting to know all four of our graduates and I am also very proud of them.”

Two of the graduates have committed to being officeholders in the alumni program, including Georgie Wilbers, who will be president of that group now that she’s graduated.

“We are thrilled about that,” said Brandt on behalf of Judge Joseph Purschke of Franklin County, who was with graduates earlier in their program time, and program alumni and professionals. “I am hopeful that all of our graduates stay active in the alumni program.”  

Osage County saw its first graduates in 2010, and since that time, the message has been the same: hard work, sobriety, accountability, and commitment have been expected of each individual, and reaching graduation has been a highlight for those who have struggled with addiction.

The first drug treatment court was organized in Miami, Dade County, Fla., while the first of its kind in Missouri was established in 1993 in Jackson County.

A significant difference between Treatment Court and regular criminal court is that in Treatment Court, there is no question as to the defendant’s guilt. The defendant has already admitted to the commission of one or more crimes and in addition, has admitted to having a drug problem that is a primary reason for the criminal activity, which must not be violent in nature.

When a first-time offender commits a crime in which drug abuse plays a significant role, they can be offered to join a drug court program. It is the most effective way to help them become a productive citizen and combat recidivism. In fact, the program is so effective that up to 95% of participants do not return to drugs and crime once they completed the program. The offender has to plead guilty before or after being admitted to the drug court program. If they complete the program successfully, they can withdraw the guilty plea and the charges against them will be dropped. 

In another significant break from a traditional court, those who violate a Treatment Court rule — testing dirty for drugs, for example — might be sent to jail for a few days or weeks without any further hearing. Those who do satisfactory work might be commended, while those who excel may receive a round of applause from the judge and everyone else in the courtroom.

There was plenty of applause at Tuesday’s ceremony as Treatment Court graduates were joined by about 50 people, including participants, family, friends, and employers.

One theme among graduates is the belief that treatment court saved their lives.

“It helped,” Wilbers said. “It saved my life, and I owe my success to my mom and my friend, Stephen McGhghy.”

Wilbers has worked hard for 18 months to graduate from the program, which she entered after multiple felonies in several counties throughout Missouri. “I was on the verge of being ordered to leave the state,” Wilbers said. “I haven’t been to prison but I spent 11 months in jail.”

Wilbers grew up in Chamois. “There was nothing to do and I didn’t fit in anywhere,” she said. “I didn’t belong with the smart kids or the good kids. I tried band but didn’t like it. I wound up migrating to the outcasts.”

First, she began drinking alcohol and that, Wilbers said, led to marijuana. From there, she graduated to methamphetamine — at the age of 13.

“From then until four days after my 22nd birthday, I spent my time chasing drugs,” said Wilbers. “I just never stopped. I was defiant, I kept running away and didn’t want to be at school.”

Wilbers was expelled during her senior year for drug use on campus after limping her way along. “My parents tried everything,” she added.

Not long after being kicked out of school, Wilbers went to Jefferson City, where she found herself in legal trouble of a potentially devastating sort.

“I was facing a long prison term in a gun case but I was found not guilty,” said Wilbers. “I went to rehab but when I got out, I went right back to the lifestyle. I lost myself in drugs. I don’t feel like I had a true teenage experience because I hung out with older people.”

At the age of 21, Wilbers was running from outstanding warrants. “I wasn’t accepted back home,” she said.

That’s how she found herself in a LaSalle County, Texas, jail after being arrested by Border Patrol. “I was on the run from Osage County,” said Wilbers, who was brought back to Missouri, where she spent seven months in jail before being offered an opportunity to participate in Treatment Court.

Kacee Bonnot, a 2018 DWI Court graduate, is no stranger to addiction but after a long, hard-fought battle, she has kept her sights on winning the war and told graduates to be fearless and to prove wrong those who claim it’s impossible to break an addiction.

“We are not forever broken or a lost cause,” said Bonnot. “Every day, I just try to keep the gift I have by giving it away and doing what God has put me here to do, which is help others who suffer from the same disease as me. To every alcoholic/addict that still suffers, I say, it is okay, all is not lost.”

There was a time, however, when Bonnot did not possess such convictions. Her backstory is the same as most alcoholics/addicts. 

“I started drinking at 14 and continued to party all through high school,” she said. “I started working at a factory straight out of high school and got injured by a conveyor belt, prompting me to have to go through a series of surgeries. During the six months after my accident, I was prescribed painkillers and that was my first encounter with my second addiction, drugs.”

By the age of 22, she had two DWIs on her record, and the downhill slide had begun. “The next six or so years was an endless cycle of bad relationships, custody battles, and legal entanglements,” said Bonnot, who picked up her third DWI by the age of 30.

She was offered DWI Court, which she instantly turned down, opting instead for jail time or probation. “I was not willing to give up my addiction and would go to any lengths to keep it,” Bonnot explained.

Another graduate last Tuesday, Erica Smith, 30, had the same reservations the first time she was offered the alternative program.

“I faced several drug charges in several counties,” Smith explained. “After the first charge, I had a chance to go into Treatment Court but I wasn’t ready. After about the fourth charge, I was finally ready. I had been to prison but it didn’t help. I needed something more strict.”

However, Smith said she had no support at home, where several of her six siblings had or were at the time battling addiction.

“I have an older brother who graduated from treatment court in Franklin County and he’s been sober for about three years,” Smith said. “An older sister was in active addiction, and two other siblings were using so it was difficult.”

Once she was in the program, Smith began to find support from others. “They were just like me,” she said. “They understand how hard it is to remain sober when things get so rough.”

Smith said she was never a problem child. “I had only missed three days in high school until my senior year,” she added. “I was the first to graduate from high school in my family, so getting into drugs wasn’t something my mom expected. She didn’t think I would turn out like my siblings and she was disappointed.”

Smith’s addiction began at the age of 23 with painkillers but she moved on to heroin and then meth.

In her presentation to last week’s graduates, Bonnot said the year leading up to the date she got sober was another endless cycle, this time consisting of rehabs, and psych wards. “I was only allowed to see my children if supervised,” she said. “I was unemployed, homeless at times, and completely broken.”

At the end of 2015, Bonnot had been arrested on her fourth DWI and before even being formally charged for that crime, probation was revoked from her third DWI. 

“I was held in the Osage County Jail until being sentenced to prison with a recommendation of DWI Court after completing my sentence,” Bonnot said. “I remember being shackled in front of the judge, with tears streaming down my face and I heard (Osage County Prosecuting Attorney) Amanda Grellner recommend DWI Court. Inside I was thinking ‘you wench!!! have you no soul?’ Little did I know that she saved my life that day.”

Bonnot went to prison and served 120 days in the treatment program. “The program served one purpose, to break me down and give me no choice but to stay sober,” she said. “I met a lot of women who were serving time for DWI and met women who were serving time for taking someone’s life driving while drunk. Before going to prison, I viewed myself as a victim of the legal system, that cops were just out to get me, and I was being treated so unfairly. Prison opened my eyes to the reality that drinking and driving is a crime. It makes me sick to think of all the children, grandparents, mothers, and fathers’ lives I endangered by drinking and driving, without any regard for them.”

Bonnot likened drinking and driving to firing a gun into a crowd of people. “You might hit someone, you might not, but you still selfishly put other innocent people’s lives in danger,” she said.

Bonnot added that prison is not just full of murderers, people who beat up senior citizens, child abusers, and the like. “No, prison is full of people like me,” she said. “Most women in prison are addicts and alcoholics who made horrible life choices because of their addiction.”

Smith agreed. When she was ready to battle her addiction, Smith was committed but getting to Treatment Court meetings was a challenge as she had to rely on others for a ride. “I depended on people who were still using,” she said. “I kept using and that was a problem.”

Smith finally got serious about the program, at which time her mother became a believer.

“It’s been really hard on my mom,” said Smith. “Once she saw I was serious, she was serious about helping me.”

In Treatment Court, individuals have to earn graduation from one phase to the next.

“I had trouble phasing up because I couldn’t make payments to the court on time,” said Smith.

Each phase requires tremendous commitment, drug testing, 12-step meetings, treatment as recommended, and the payment of fines, among other things.

Smith had taken a job in Belle before moving to Scholastic in Jefferson City, where she’s worked for the last year.

“I started as a part-time employee, and it was tough to make ends meet but I had to do it that way to get to Treatment Court,” said Smith. “I have two kids and half my check was going to child support. I was trying to survive on $300 every two weeks. It was difficult but I knew it was for a greater purpose.”

It took a few months to phase up. “I made small payments when I could and I kept working and staying sober,” Smith said.

Now, she is a full-time employee with a chance for a promotion coming soon. “I love my job and everyone here has been very supportive,” said Smith, who graduated after 26 months.

Completion of the program is extremely important to Wilbers and like Bonnot, she acknowledges the challenge.

“It wasn’t easy, I’ll tell you that,” she said. “There’s no pot of gold. It’s not just gonna work out. There are a lot of ups and downs.”

Yet Wilbers found a way to keep herself grounded, getting a job at QCM in Linn, where she is now training to be a quality control officer. “I’m so grateful for the support my employer has given me,” said Wilbers.

At this time, she is studying to earn her General Equivalency Degree (GED) and has aspirations such as getting married and having children.

“A normal life seems possible now,” Wilbers.

Bonnot is also feeling fortunate. “I consider myself lucky to have been given the privilege of completing DWI Court instead of serving the remainder of my sentence in prison,” she said. “In prison, there is no opportunity to work on relationships with your family, your children, or your future. I wish more people had the opportunity to complete a treatment program instead of prison time since addiction is most certainly an epidemic in our country. Many more families would be mended, and lives would be saved. Addiction is a mental illness, a sickness that has been stigmatized. Treatment courts give recovering addicts the chance to prove that they are not what the world has labeled them. We are not the losers, low-lives, deadbeat parents, or hopeless cases we have been written off as.”

After being released from prison in mid-2016, Bonnot moved into a pop-up camper in her dad’s backyard. “Absolutely no one trusted me to live with them, and rightfully so,” she said. “I had no car, no license, and no job. I was only allowed to see my children if supervised and I desperately needed a job. I walked to the business nearest my dad’s, which happened to be a nursing home.”

Desperate for a chance to start over, Bonnot said the only job she was even the slightest bit hopeful to get was in housekeeping, scrubbing toilets. “I filled out my application and got a call back from the administrator for me to come in and talk to her,” said Bonnot, adding the administrator had run a background check and was quite skeptical about hiring her. “I reassured her that I would be quite skeptical also and begged her to give me the opportunity. So here I was, a grown woman, who once owned her own business, begging for a job to scrub toilets. Thankfully, she gave me the job and I soon was the happiest toilet cleaner you had ever met. It just felt good to actually be doing something that was worthwhile and productive.”

At the same time, Bonnot was working hard in DWI Court, attending AA/NA meetings, going to counseling, group therapy, drug-testing a few times a week, and keeping weekly court dates with Judge Robert Schollmeyer.  

“Let’s not get it twisted, DWI Court is no cakewalk,” said Bonnot. “A lot is expected of you. There are no excuses, no freebies, and no half-assed attempts at working the program are accepted. Being 20 minutes late to a group meeting can earn you a day in jail, not finding gainful employment can earn you time in jail, not completing community service hours can earn you time in jail, and so on. This might sound harsh, but it is the only thing that works. In active addiction, I did nothing but make excuses, I had no self-discipline, no structure, and everything had one purpose — to feed my addiction.”

In AA, there is a joke an old-timer (a person who has a lot of years sober) says when newcomers come into the program: “The only thing you have to change is EVERYTHING.”

Bonnot took that to heart and began to change everything about her life. “I worked hard and moved up from housekeeping at the nursing home to working a slightly higher-paying job in the Activities Department,” she said. “Then I started doing hair for the residents in the beauty shop.”

She completed DWI Court in 2018 and had been sober for two and a half years. After graduation, Bonnot applied for a cosmetology instructor position in Jefferson City.  

“The owners of the school, were very unsure about hiring me due to my background,” said Bonnot. “I again just asked for the chance to prove myself and promised they would not be disappointed. I got the job more than three years ago as the Clinic Floor Supervisor. I teach 30 students and I love every minute of it.”

Since graduating from DWI Court, Bonnot continues to attend meetings and sponsors women in the DWI and Treatment Court programs.

“Many in the program I meet are exactly what I was when I was in their shoes, broken and tired, sick of living a life of hell, and willing to do anything to be a mother again,” she said. “Treatment courts give you the opportunity to get your life together while serving your sentence.”

Judge Brandt added, “Kacee spoke about the importance of continuing to attend meetings and using the tools and support they have received here, and she knows firsthand how very important it is to actively work on sobriety after Treatment Court graduation, and throughout life.”

For those who are battling addiction, Wilbers offers advice.

“Using hard drugs will not lead to a good life,” Wilbers said. “I know it feels like no one will support you but there are a lot of people willing to help in NA and AA.”

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