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Treatment court celebrates success in Douglas County

The Douglas County Treatment Court began in 2008 under then-Judge Michael Lucci. Funded through state Treatment and Diversion grants for the past six years, the program can serve as many as a dozen participants at a time.

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Douglas County Circuit Court Judge Kelly Thimm, left, poses with treatment court graduate Sherry Whitehill in his courtroom on Thursday, Nov. 10.
Contributed / Jessy Prokosch
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SUPERIOR — The crowd milling outside Douglas County Circuit Court Judge Kelly Thimm’s courtroom for treatment court Nov. 10 was filled with connections. There were handshakes, hugs and a buzz of conversation. Many were there to support program graduate Sherry Whitehill.

Whitehill earned her first round of applause for being sober 577 days. She’s been participating in the Douglas County Treatment Court, a diversion program for nonviolent offenders, since May 2021. It wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“You started off the program awesome, and then we had some issues,” Thimm told her. “And then this last phase started out a little shaky, but I’m telling you: I’m very proud of you and what you accomplished. I’m proud of the fact that not only have you completed treatment and stayed sober, but the fact that you’re employed, you’re looking to turn it into a career. You have the trust of your employer, you got the keys to the place. This is a pretty big deal. And the one thing you could say is never sell yourself short.”

Whitehill said her biggest takeaway from the program was to believe in herself.

“I know that there’s no obstacle that I can’t overcome,” she said.

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The tears started when her son, Noah, walked up to speak.

“Mom, you never needed congratulations from me. I believed in you from the start. You told me as we grew up you can do anything as long as you put your mind to it. I love you,” he said.

Whitehill’s past — including a criminal background, a six month jail term and prior evictions — had been holding her back. When she got picked up on a charge and sat in jail 30 days, missing both her son's birthday and a cousin’s death, it gave her the impetus to change.

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Douglas County Circuit Court Judge Kelly Thimm, left, stands with treatment court graduate Sherry Whitehill in his courtroom on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. The Douglas County Treatment Court is a diversion program for high-risk, high-need offenders that has proven successful.
Contributed / Jessy Prokosch

“I took a long look at my life and this was just a great opportunity,” said Whitehill, a mother of three.

The program offered her a chance to go through treatment and move forward in a positive way.

“I wanted to change my life and this program just helps,” Whitehill said. “I made a big mistake for messing up my life and this program helped me get back on track.”

She now works for Cost Cutters and is starting school in January to get her cosmetology license.

“I don’t think I would be sober today if I wasn’t in this program. Not because I didn’t want it," she said.

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Her biggest setback prior to entering treatment court was finding someplace to live.

“So this program helps you deal with housing and helps you find a job,” Whitehill said. “Bless my boss. She stuck her neck out for me, didn’t even know me, and Sarah pulled for me to get my job. And now I’m just accelerating. Love it.”

Seeing success

Jessy Prokosch, case manager for the Douglas County Treatment Court, said the graduation sent a message: Treatment courts work.

“Statistics show that treatment courts in the United States are the number one intervention for leading people with substance use disorders and mental health disorders out of the criminal justice system and into lives of recovery,” Prokosch said.

It’s a team approach that relies on volunteers from the court, the police department, the sheriff’s office, the district attorney’s office and more.

“Instead of viewing addiction as a moral failing, they view it as a disease. Instead of punishment, they offer treatment. Instead of indifference, they show compassion,” Prokosch said.

The Douglas County Treatment Court began in 2008 under then-Judge Michael Lucci. Funded through state Treatment and Diversion grants for the past six years, the program can serve as many as a dozen participants at a time.

“One of the things that the TAD grant really helped us with is getting housing, getting the consistent drug testing, alcohol monitoring,” Thimm said.

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Whitehill was one of nine current participants who sat down with the judge Nov. 10 to check their progress. One man was being terminated from the program; two participants were given sanctions for failing drug or alcohol tests. Others celebrated moving forward to the next phase of the program. They talked about their goals — getting a driver’s license, finding a job, earning a GED.

“Is there anything we can be doing to support you?” Thimm asked each of them.

The judge said being involved in treatment court has been a positive experience for him.

“This program has let me see success,” Thimm said. “These people are the high-risk, high-need. They are the people that would typically be on their way to prison. And I think we’re having an impact. Even the ones that don’t successfully complete it, we’re giving them the tools to be successful.”

Community support

Anyone can refer someone to treatment court — a family member, probation agent, attorney, even the person themselves. They must have a diagnosed substance use disorder and have no current, pending or prior convictions for a violent felony crime.

Prokosch said the community can help support participants as they work to reach their goals. The biggest needs?

“Hire them. House them,” Prokosch said.

The program could also use gift certificates for activities participants could do, like bowling. Contact Prokosch at 715-395-1247 or Jessy.Prokosch@douglascountywi.org for more information.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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