Summit County woman overcomes her drug addiction
The 3rd District Courtroom of Summit County was filled with elected leaders and family members of Katie Lee on Monday afternoon. It was easy to distinguish Lee’s family from the other members of the community. They occupied an entire row in the back of the courtroom, some carrying flowers and others beaming with obvious pride.
Lee, 32, of Summit County, sat in the front row, surrounded by several of the people who had helped support her 19-month journey from a self-described drug addict to a person in recovery. She successfully completed an intense rehabilitation program through Summit County’s Drug Court and celebrated 602 days sober on Monday.
The audience was filled with Summit County Council members, law enforcement, staff from Valley Behavioral Health and the Summit County Attorney’s Office, and Supreme Court Justice Paige Petersen, who oversaw Drug Court and met Lee when she was a district court judge in Summit County.
Dressed in a white blouse and long gray skirt, the brunette appeared eager for the graduation ceremony to begin and even more eager for it to end, marking her accomplishment.
“When I first started Drug Court, I was mad at the world,” Lee said to the audience. “When I felt sadness, anger or depression, I would deal with those emotions by using.
“The advice I would give to my fellow peers in Drug Court never let anyone label you,” she added. “Don’t be ashamed of your past. Use it to help others. Inspire yourself and the people around you. My true test starts now and I am very proud of everything I have accomplished.”
Kicking and screaming
Lee was arrested on April 26, 2016. At the time of her arrest, she was in possession of cocaine, heroin, and drug paraphernalia, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
As a non-violent offender, Lee was offered the choice of participating in Drug Court, an intense 18-month program that includes random weekly drug testing, group therapy treatment and frequent visits before a district court judge.
The court ensured Lee her charges would be dropped upon successful completion of the program.
“It was really hard at first and then something just clicked,” Lee said. “At first I was doing it because I had to, and then I was here because I wanted to be here.”
Roy Parker recalled Lee’s resistance to the program, but praised her decision to become sober. Parker is a member of the Drug Court program’s peer support and is a former addict. He is also director of the Summit County Recovery Foundation, which financially supports participants in the Drug Court program.
“Katie is a hero,” he said. “She looked in the mirror and said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ She kicked and screamed and then she realized I need to do it.”
Program’s successes praised
In 2006, Summit County public defender Paul Quinlan, former 3rd District Court Judge Todd Shaughnessy, and 3rd District Court Judge Matt Bates, who was chief prosecutor at the time, created a de facto Drug Court program.
Parker said the three men had recognized that people who were suffering from substance abuse were frequently in court and it became a “revolving door.”
“With Drug Court, we have people who graduate and stay sober and that in of itself breaks the cycle,” he said. “Is the program successful? Absolutely because people graduate. They stay sober and don’t go back to jail.”
In 2011, the Sheriff’s Office took over the program after the state of Utah passed the Justice Reform Initiative, intended to reform the criminal justice system. Similar Drug Courts operate in various counties across the state.
Sheriff Justin Martinez said the program supports his holistic approach to law enforcement. He said it allows law enforcement to look beyond the crimes the participants have committed. “It ultimately helps reduce recidivism and keeps them out of the correctional facility,” he said.
Martinez said the program is, in part, successful because of the community partners involved, such as the Attorney’s Office, Valley Behavioral Health, and private partners who help offer employment and housing.
“We can’t really quantify it, but we do see the successes that come out of it and it is amazing to see,” he said. “Those that were lost go through this program and come out willing to help new people now that they see the value in it.”
Summit County Council member Glenn Wright offered his full support for the program and suggested an effort to reach criminal offenders who suffer from mental health issues as well.
“To see what it is doing for her life and how it’s making her a productive citizen, it’s great,” he said.
County Attorney Margaret Olson said Drug Court is something that she, personally, wanted to become involved with.
“Getting into recovery is a process and a real struggle,” she said. “Just having a group of people that are truly rooting for you and wanting you to succeed, and understanding the path has rocks and bumps, is important. In my personal career over 25 years, I have seen so many people benefit from this.”
Since Detective Jon Evans became the law enforcement liaison and coordinator of the program nearly two years ago, he said Drug Court has doubled in size. When he started, the program had 11 participants. Now there are 21.
Evans, along with Felicia Sotelo, with the Sheriff’s Office, make themselves available for participants day and night.
“Every week we have people who are interested in becoming a part of the program,” he said. “In that time, we have had 11 people complete the program successfully. We have had two that have relapsed. But, the two reached out to me and others and we have helped get them back on track.”
‘She’s not the same person’
When Evans first met Lee, he said she “literally hated me.” He said she would scream at him over the phone and resisted every step of the way. But, he recognized it was a part of the process.
“They are at rock bottom,” he said. “She was not a happy camper. But I told her, ‘In 18 months you are going to thank me.’”
Evans said Lee is one of the few participants that did not relapse throughout the duration of the program and credited her sobriety to the work she put into the program.
“Apples to oranges you can’t compare who she was then to who she is now,” he said. “She did the work. We just pushed her along for the first little bit. The best thing for me, is to see Katie today.”
After several members of Lee’s recovery team spoke in her honor, Judge Kent Holmberg dismissed her charges and recognized her as a graduate of the program.
Lee hugged her family members outside of the courtroom, including her mother and three children, as she basked in her accomplishment.
What’s next for the graduate? Lee said she wants to receive her peer support license and continue to help others who are in a similar position to where she once was.
“I wanted to change my life,” she said. “Having my charges dropped is a huge bonus, but that’s not why I stayed clean. Now I want to be able to help other suffering addicts.”
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19 Summit County schools have dedicated hours with an on-site therapist following a county contract changeover Sept. 1.