Pinellas Drug Court Focuses on Women by Emily Nipps

Posted: April 8, 2010 in News and politics

Pinellas Drug Court Focuses on Women

CLEARWATER | Judge Dee Anna Farnell paced the courtroom floor, wearing running shoes beneath her black robe.

Her eyebrows furrowed as one woman talked about a bad boyfriend. She hugged a young woman who stayed clean for more than a year. She prompted applause from courtroom spectators over a defendant’s good news. She cooed over pretty outfits and new babies.

Tuesdays are a little different in Pinellas County drug court.

Dubbed "Ladies Day," it is for women only. It focuses on why so many women are showing up with serious drug problems, especially with prescription drugs. Farnell, 56, is more like Oprah than Judge Judy.

A few years ago, drug court was nearly 80 percent men. Now almost half the 1,400 defendants are women, said Pinellas drug court manager Shannon Loveday.

first in the country

A year ago, Farnell and her drug court team were awarded a $900,000 federal grant to treat female substance abusers. They will seek a new one next year. It is the first drug court in the country to have such a program devoted to women.

In the beginning, her team members were not prepared for what they saw. One after another, women arrived slurring and sunken-eyed. Some nodded off at the podium. Some couldn’t even make it to the podium.

Farnell feared for their lives.

"Before, we would just see a sprinkling of them throughout the week, but this was like a tsunami," she said.

Now, the first Ladies Day defendants are about to graduate. Five women who say they feel better, look better and are ready to live drug-free will finally be released from the court’s supervision on Tuesday. More are scheduled for release in coming months.

"I feel like I really accomplished something," said Norma Lanthier, a 56-year-old recovering alcoholic who was arrested for driving under the influence and possession of oxycodone. "Judge Farnell is going to be so proud that she never has to see me again."

Successes and failures

But for every success Farnell sees, she sees quite a few failures, some of them fatal.

Farnell typically opens each drug court session telling her courtroom a chilling tale. It might be a drunken driving death in the news or an obituary of a young person who overdosed.

On one recent Tuesday morning, Farnell talked about one of the three female drug court defendants she lost to fatal pill overdoses in January. She read the police report, which detailed a boyfriend’s account of the girl sleeping in his bed for nearly 48 hours before he thought to check on her. He didn’t think it was odd, Farnell told the room of women, because she always slept a lot.

"Do you catch my drift?" Farnell said.

Farnell served as a judge in the juvenile and criminal divisions for 12 years before taking over drug court in 2007.

She said learning how to be effective has been a learning experience. Her approach is part coaching, part theatrics and part reading through people’s lies or weaknesses. She’s also persistent. Unlike in regular court, Farnell sometimes sees the same offenders every month for years before she’s finished with them.

Drug court is a voluntary alternative to regular court. Nonviolent offenders with drug charges can opt to waive a speedy trial and avoid jail time or convictions on their record. But it also means they must undergo counseling, take drug tests and go through 12-step programs that can take years to complete. Relapses are common. Almost every offender walks in with some degree of denial.

When Farnell and her team of mostly female legal advisers and counselors began noticing the increase of women in drug court, they felt a shift in the way they handled them.

When Cajoling Doesn’t Work

Women seemed defensive, tight-lipped and unresponsive when men were around. But around mostly women, they were more open about trauma, abuse issues, family problems or parenting stress. They seemed less humiliated and more humble. They opened up more.

"With men, it’s always like, ‘Yeah, you can do it!’ " Farnell said. "But with women, it takes more cajoling."

When cajoling doesn’t work, Farnell often lets them sit in jail to think about it.

Amanda Clark, a 29-year-old former stripper, took a while to come around to the idea of change. Arrested in 2008 for possession of cocaine, she spent months behind bars before agreeing to the terms of Farnell’s drug court and rehab.

She is set to graduate from drug court in May and hopes to leave the state to see her children.

"I had a lot of character defects to work on," Clark said after a recent Tuesday court appearance. "Now, I feel tremendous. I’ve never been more proud of myself."

Farnell tells the Ladies Day women to stay away from bad influences. "Drop the boy," she said of one troubling boyfriend.

Sometimes that suggestion turns into a formal court order not to have contact with "the boy." A woman might nod and say it’s over. Then the boy shows up at her next court date with her.

It’s not the drug addiction that’s the problem, Farnell likes to tell her courtroom. It’s all the things that led to it, and a stint in prison won’t fix it, so she fights to get her women to agree to outpatient counseling or rehab.

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