Last year, Kelli Ellison had no interest in being sober. At 15 years old, she’d been using marijuana for two years, and she kept getting into trouble with the law.
After three separate marijuana charges, she appeared in District Court before Judge Thomas Rumpke, who ordered her to join the Campbell County Juvenile and Family Drug Court.
“I didn’t want to come here at all,” she said. “I didn’t want to be sober.”
In late June, Ellison graduated from that program during a post-quarantine celebration. She was the only graduate, but six other participants earned a total of 11 medals for 30, 60, 90, 120, 180 and 270 days of sobriety.
Her advice for those still in the program was that they shouldn’t take this opportunity for granted.
“I told them that if they’re not taking the program seriously, that they’re just wasting resources that could be used for people that want to be sober,” she said.
Juvenile and Family Drug Court has two tracks. The first one, which started in 2002, serves juvenile offenders between the ages of 13-17 with substance abuse issues. The second track, the youth intervention track, was started in 2010 to address the needs of the underserved young adults ages 17-20 with substance abuse related disorders.
Participants must attend weekly court sessions, individual mental health counseling and group and individual substance abuse treatment. They’re on intensive supervised probation and must undergo frequent and random testing.
There are immediate sanctions for violations and incentives for successes.
Kim Hoff, the program’s magistrate, said that for a lot of participants, “the only exposure they have with the court is that grumpy person out there in the black robe.”
The program holds its proceedings in the commissioners’ chambers “so we’re all on the same level,” Hoff said.
“We’re there, invested in them being successful. It’s not about us coming in to punish them every time,” she said.
On Nov. 4, 2019, Ellison started the program. She had treatment four times a week, and counseling and drug court once a week each. Her grandmother, Janet Ellison, was with her nearly every step of the way.
“With her being so young, I had to do it with her. I had to drive her here, drive her there, it was hard,” Janet said. “She was frustrated, and angry. But she’s great now, and she doesn’t want to use, and that’s the best thing.”
Kelli is more than eight months sober now, and she can barely recognize the person she was before the program.
“That person disgusts me,” she said.
“She’s a totally different kid (now),” Janet said.
Kelli said that being in the program with other teenagers and young adults who were going through the same issues was inspiring and educational.
“It’s beautiful to watch. It’s amazing to see people grow,” she said.
She saw some people break the rules and get sent to jail.
“All that does is tell you what not to do. It helps you,” she said.
Before the program, Kelli had been on probation three times, but it didn’t help her at all with her drug problem.
“With probation, all you have to do is take UAs (urinalysis tests). They don’t help you,” Kelli said. “They just make sure you stay clean for the time being, but right when you get off, you go back to using.”
But when she was in Juvenile and Family Drug Court, she learned that being clean was how she wanted to live.
“After a while, I realized I enjoyed being sober,” she said. “It just got easier the more I wanted to do it.”