Tulalip Wellness Court will provide addicts new path to community

North County Outlook: Tulalip Wellness Court will provide addicts new path to community
By Christopher Andersson

The Tulalip Tribes hope their new Tulalip Wellness Court will help drug addicts in the legal system find community support to lead a sober and healthy life.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen came to visit the Tulalip Tribes and learn about their upcoming program on Oct. 18.

Tulalip Tribal Chairman Mel Sheldon Jr. notes that the issue of addiction has weighed heavily lately for the tribe.

"We went through a period of a lot of suicides due to addiction and it just really put our community on its knees. It was just hard to deal with finding the right words to help everyone heal," said Mel Sheldon Jr. "We want [this court] to show there is a place to go, another road," he said.

The Tulalip Wellness Court is planned to be a voluntary option for those going through Tulalip courts with drug offenses meant to help individuals connect with community and support options rather than go through traditional punitive measures.

Court officials are currently building the program and hope to begin taking clients early next year.

"The goal is for people to come in and feel like they're going to get well," said Hilary Sotomish, who will be the Wellness Court Coordinator.

"It's about behavior change and addressing the underlying problems that lead to criminality," said Brian Kilgore, a prosecutor at Tulalip's Tribal Court.

Traditional punishments for drug offenses is frequently ineffective at helping those struggling with addiction move forward, said Kilgore.

"This team has put a lot of time and energy into creating a turnaround program that will help our members," said Mel Sheldon Jr.

"Whatever it is that's missing, we hope we can provide that to help them get on the good path," he said.

The difference between a traditional drug court and a Wellness Court is the increasing focus on community.

The 18 to 24 month program provides a variety of options that participants can choose from to help re-connect with the Tulalip community and find a support network.

"You find a program that's going to work with them, for them," said Rose Iukes, assistant Wellness Court planner.

Many addiction problems stem from trauma that have been passed down through families, said Theresa Sheldon, a Tulalip Tribal Council Member.

"You can literally map it back to the boarding school era of the traumas that are passed down in family," she said. "As a child you can't control your house, if you have healthy parents or not."

"Sometimes we make an underlying assumption that all families are healthy, but in reality there are some that don't always make good decisions. So how do you treat the family?" said Mel Sheldon Jr.

The Wellness Court is meant to provide a better environment for those struggling with addiction.

"Depending on how they've grown up, they've been punished whether they've done good or bad so the incentive for their behavior is totally out of whack with what they need," said Kilgore.

"One of the biggest things wellness court does is try and fix that," he said.

The new Wellness Court will focus on the high-risk, high-need clients first, said Sotomish, but may be expanded out eventually.

"We have to work on something from the tribe for those who aren't in the legal system as well," said Iukes.

The program has multiple levels that participants will get through before graduating, and they have to be clean and sober for a certain amount of time in each stage to continue.

Sotomish said that those living with addiction are highly likely to relapse and that court officials don't want to kick someone out for merely relapsing, as long as they're open and honest about it.

Only in the case of multiple relapses with no progress will they consider removing someone from the program, she said.

The program is currently funded partially through grants and partially through the tribe.

"This tribe is prepared to fund it's own way through this, noting too that when we fund it ourselves it gives us more flexibility while when we get grants they might have qualifications," said Mel Sheldon Jr.

More information about the Wellness Court is available at tulaliptribes-nsn.gov or by calling 360-716-4773.