New London court program seeks to stop cycle through treatment

It was a horrible idea — Lynnette Martinez knew that. But the teacher, making less in Connecticut than she had in New York, needed cash for her bills, and fast.

A few years ago, she began selling drugs on the side, still reporting daily to her teaching gig. She never intended to start using them, too, but that’s what happened.

“I had a good life,” the 36-year-old said. “I graduated college. I was teaching. I ended up buying a house. … I let things get messed up.”

In December 2016, a statewide gang unit arrested Martinez — a first arrest that, for many who struggle with addiction, kicks off a cycle: arrest, jail, detoxification, repeat.

But thanks to an option called the Treatment Pathway Program, or TPP, that shouldn’t be the case for Martinez, who lives in Bridgeport. Martinez attended an outpatient treatment program three days a week as her case was pending. When the time came to rule on her case, a judge decided to suspend her 10-year sentence in part because of her perfect attendance.

“Without (TPP), I probably would still be using,” said Martinez, now almost nine months sober. “What I took from the program was the skills. I know how to keep my mind busy. And it kept me with a positive mindset.”

Since late fall, some of those coming through the courts in Torrington and New London have had the same opportunity as Martinez: to get the ball rolling on treatment almost immediately after they’re arraigned.

In each courthouse where the diversionary program operates, a licensed clinician screens people who could be a match. Sometimes they’re first-time offenders like Martinez. Other times their records are littered with sixth-degree larcenies and third-degree burglaries, low-level crimes indicative of stealing to fuel a drug habit. Two factors are a must: They can’t be violent offenders, and they must show a willingness to give treatment a serious go.

In Bridgeport, an organization called Recovery Network of Programs oversees TPP. In New London, the Southeastern Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence is at the helm.

SCADD, recipient of a one-year grant from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, supplies the in-court clinician, Lisa Cygan. DMHAS officials said the grant was for $100,000 and is set to last through April of this year.

According to Felix Martinez, a SCADD employee who works on the program, Cygan so far has screened just shy of 25 potential clients. Of them, 15 have met the criteria, agreed to participate and been given the nod from a judge to do so.

Because the clients have different needs in terms of their recovery, they’re sent to different places. Some go to detox or begin medication-assisted treatment with SCADD. Some are taken to the Madonna Place in Norwich or the Mother’s Retreat in Groton. Others end up at Stonington Institute or even Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. In all cases, Cygan either drives or walks the clients directly to their appointment from the court or ensures they get an appointment the next day. Cygan stays in touch with the clients throughout the process, too, to help ensure they stay active in treatment.

Mike Hines, director of adult services for the state Court Support Services Division, said the setup doesn’t ensure “100 percent success” but is better than assigning treatment days or weeks later.

“Once clients get engaged, and we know we at least got the evaluation done and treatment started, our belief was that we would have much better success,” Hines said. “I can tell you that’s exactly what happened in Bridgeport.”

In Bridgeport, the program’s participants have appeared in court more and been re-arrested less than is typical of offenders who are struggling with substance abuse.

In New London and Torrington, once the initial grant funding has expired, the state Department of Public Health will have to license an interview room in each courthouse so their respective clinicians can begin billing Medicaid. That’s how it works in Bridgeport, which is why the program has been self-sustaining.

Hines and others involved in the program pointed out that, while Medicaid is publicly funded, so too is the cost of imprisoning someone, and the latter tends to be more expensive.

“These individuals are not robbery convicts,” Hines said. “These are individuals that have been stumbling through life unable to kick their addictions.”

As for Lynnette Martinez, she said she never thought she would have sold, let alone used heroin.

“My best friend of 20 years, she was surprised,” Martinez said. “She was like, ‘What the hell happened to you?’”

Martinez only used for a few years, compared to decades for some. Still, she said it was an incredibly hard habit to kick. It hasn’t been a cakewalk, either — her felony means teaching jobs are almost impossible to come by, even as what she wants the most is to get back to work.

“What I’ve been through doesn’t define who I am,” Martinez said. “I’m still the same person.”


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