BY MELANIE WADE –
For many, beginning a new year comes with resolutions to become a better person, to lose weight, to be more financially sound, but for two Polk County women, starting 2018 means the beginning of a new lease on life – a life without the use and addiction of drugs.
Keena Relaford and Sunya Dominguez, both of Mena, are more than proud to say that 2018 is beginning with a great start having completed and graduated the Polk County Drug Court Program in December 2017. And though the pair’s paths equally led them to graduate together and they each know much about the other’s struggles, their stories are much different – different from each other and different from what the general public believes about the histories of drug addicts.
As with almost anything, there is a general misconception by most about the reasons people become addicted to drugs. Many believe child abuse, addicted family members, and low income situations are the main factors in a person becoming addicted themselves; however, with Relaford and Dominguez, neither of their addictions stemmed from those factors, proving that drug addiction can impact anyone, without discrimination.
For Relaford, her drug of choice was methamphetamine, or ‘meth’, as it is commonly known. She admits that she came from a good family, a good home. “I was a single mother, going to school, working, and I just didn’t have the energy to clean my house.” A ‘friend’ saw her struggle and introduced her to methamphetamine. The drug gave Relaford the energy she needed, but what she didn’t expect was the grip it would gain on her and the fight it would take to get away from it.
In 2013, at just 21 years of age, she found herself arrested on drug charges and facing jail time. As is the case with many, she was offered drug court from the start. “When you’re facing jail time or drug court, you take the drug court,” said Relaford.
Dominiguez’s story differs a bit. Married with children, she and her husband were raising their family together and for several years, no one knew she had a problem – a problem that began with legally prescribed opioid medications. “The problem didn’t start until 2010 and I got diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and was on pain meds for five years,” she explained. “In 2010 I wound up on probation and from there, it escalated.”
In 2015, Dominiguez found herself with a choice – go to prison or take drug court. “You’d rather take drug court than go to prison, which everyone does.”
According to the Arkansas Judiciary Council, there are now 39 drug court programs functioning throughout the state of Arkansas. Some are pre-adjudication venues while others are post-adjudication; some are a combination of both. Drug court programs are an interdisciplinary, non-adversarial judicial process for diverting an offender who has a demonstrated dependence on alcohol or an illicit drug, into a strenuous treatment program that includes frequent drug testing, required employment, treatment and counseling and regular court appearances to monitor program compliance. Drug courts are typically staffed by a team consisting of the judge and court staff, a prosecutor, a public defender or private attorney representing the offender, a probation or parole officer and drug counselor. Treatment services are provided through community providers and most treatment programs last an average of eighteen months.
That’s where Relaford and Dominiguez’s stories cross, neither was able to complete the program in the normal eighteen month period. Instead, Relaford took five years to complete the program and Dominiguez took four years, but both persisted and both attribute much of their success to the support system they have through the program.
Both woman were sent to prison during the program, which is what happens when you fail drug screenings or other program criteria. Relaford lost custody of her son during the process and Dominiguez gave birth to her son while in prison. “I got sent off because I was just trying to beat the system,” Dominguez explained. “I found out I was pregnant before I got sent off. It was scary for me, my kids, my husband.” It was scary having a baby in prison and you spend a couple of hours with him and he gets taken away,” she said through tears. “I wasn’t there for him the first three months of his life, my in-laws were there for him… that whole experience took a toll on us all.”
Some may ask why the pair were given so many chances during the program – why they were allowed to take four to five years to complete. The answer is simple: success rate. And many, such as drug counselor, Steven Free, believe that putting forth the effort for as long as it takes to bring success is the only way to combat the addiction. That is what the drug court provides, a system of support made up of caring, compassionate counselors, law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges.
In Polk County, Judge Jerry Ryan presides over the program. He too, shows care and compassion for the members of drug court. They each appear before him once a month for a review. During that time, Judge Ryan genuinely asks each one how they are doing or if they need more help, whether finding a job, finding a ride to counseling, and he praises them when they do good. For each person that ‘phases up’ to the next level of the program during review, he congratulates them with a big smile and a gift. For graduates, it’s a celebration. When both Relaford and Dominguez graduated, everyone in the program, from the offenders to the law enforcement, clapped, gave high praise, and were truly happy for them. It’s a step in the right direction.
The program works on one step at a time instead of making too many demands and causing a person to feel as if they are drowning from the beginning. During a recent court review day, Prosecuting Attorney Andy Riner spoke of one person currently in the beginning stages of the program. “The girl has never had a driver’s license or a job. If she gets both of those and keeps a job six months, I consider that a success.” And all the while, each person is learning to become clean, sober, and a productive member of society. Riner also gave high praise of the counseling team and Judge Ryan. “They speak to them like they are normal people.”
Following graduation, and elated Sunya tried to give others encouragement to stick with the program, even if they are facing jail time. “I’m just grateful for getting sent off. I didn’t want to, but I needed it. I’m back working and I’m back in the community; that feels good,” she smiled. Judge Ryan told her, “Your joy seems to be contagious.”
Relaford is also back in the community. She also works full time and is glad to have some normalcy back in her life. After her second stint in prison during her time in drug court, Relaford was stunned to come back to Polk County and find that there were no longer any Narcotics Anonymous groups available. Her counselor, Steven Free, said she was instrumental in re-launching a new NA group. They meet at the old bus barn next to the Crossing Church.
Upon her graduation, Relaford also addressed the rest of the program attendees, “For those of you that are still here… don’t give up. We all deserve more than we put ourselves and our families through.”
Judge Ryan also stated that this year has been a good year for those in drug court. “This is probably the best group yet. We’ve had the most promotions this year. You folks are an inspiration.”