As Executive Director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, you are a passionate advocate for recovery. What does it mean to you to be celebrating 30 years in recovery?

To me, it means that I’ve lived half of my life in recovery. I turned 60 in the middle of July, and at the end of July, I celebrated 30 years of sobriety. So, it’s pretty amazing. It made me look back over my life and see how much better my life has gotten and how grateful I am for everything I’ve been through because it lets me be the person I am today.

I didn’t always celebrate my recovery anniversary because I got sober the same year my Dad died. It’s always been kind of bittersweet because I don’t remember a lot of his last year. So, I picked up my 10th-anniversary chip and tried to explain to a friend why I wasn’t celebrating. And she said, “It’s not for you. It’s for everybody else, so they know it’s possible.” So ever since then, I’ve said, “Look, you can do this. It’s not just me. You don’t have to be a special person. I’m just a regular old person, and I’ve done this for this many years.”

You are dedicated to increasing the peer recovery workforce and co-founded the Certified Addiction Recovery Empowerment Specialist (CARES) Academy. Why is the role of peers important in supporting substance use recovery among people with justice involvement?

I have a background in criminal justice. I started out as a police officer in Florida, and I worked in corrections for 25 years. What I saw is what we know now; that there’s a huge connection between substance use disorders and criminal justice involvement. And I always felt if you could get people help, you wouldn’t have so many in prison.

Georgia imprisons a lot of people, and we don’t have the most robust behavioral health system. However, Georgia is a leader in mental health peer support. When I saw how the mental health recovery community helped fill the system’s gaps, I felt like that was something we needed to do for people with substance use disorders.

Building a peer workforce through the CARES program is something I’m really proud of—742 people in the State of Georgia have gone through our CARES Academy, and most of them are still certified. Many of our peers have lived experience of successfully navigating the criminal justice system, and they can help others find recovery as returning citizens.

Hopefully, with a strong peer workforce, we’re ultimately keeping people from going into the justice system in the first place. We’ve been able to develop recovery community organizations (RCOs) all across the state. There’s 36 of them now, and they are peer-led, locally operated nonprofits that offer a variety of services and supports to people seeking or in recovery.

There are a couple of the 36 RCOs that go into jails on a regular basis. They go in and meet the men and women before they come out, so they know there is help for them in the community. One of our rural RCOs started training people on naloxone use in the jail. And when they come out, they get a packet that has a naloxone kit in it.

In addition, I have 34 staff, and many of them have a criminal history. So, not only do we help folks when they come out of prison, we advocate for those with a criminal history, and we hire them whenever we can.

In your role as a recovery advocate, you frequently go to jails and prisons and domestic violence and homeless shelters with a message of hope for recovery and services. Why is it important to engage people where they are?

Well, I think for too long, the treatment delivery system said, “If you come into this program, you’ve got to do it this way. And if you don’t, then it’s your fault.” We have these cookie-cutter approaches, and that doesn’t work for people. You’ve got to meet them where they are and offer supports that they define as important.

I went into the Fulton County Jail last Recovery Month (September 2019). They asked us to come in and conduct a listening session with men in a substance use disorder program. We went to their behavioral health unit, and there were 17 young African American men. They were all getting ready to be sentenced, and they were each looking at 8 to 10 years.

We asked them the question that we ask everyone, “What in your community supports your recovery?” And they said, “My grandma’s house. My momma’s house. My auntie’s house.” There were no formal structures in their neighborhoods that supported their recovery, and it shouldn’t be like that. People support what they help create, and we are asking these young men to help us create something in their neighborhood that will help.

So that’s the beauty of meeting people where they are. You find out what’s helped them come back from something difficult in their past, and you can use that strength to help them get out of the life of addiction. It’s not about shame or blame. It’s having hope, having someone listen to them. I think we miss that in a lot of treatment programs.

What does a recovery-positive legislative agenda look like, and how can people support that in their states?

I think everyone thinks first about recovery-positive budgets, and certainly, that’s important. When we were facing budget cuts with COVID-19, we mobilized and got most of our cuts restored. We were able to get $4 million appropriated in 2018 for RCOs. Right now, we would like to see an alcohol tax to pay for more treatment.

But think about anti-stigma work, as well. Thanks to our advocacy, you are now going to be able to buy a license plate that says, “Georgia Recovers” and “Recovery Is Real.” We helped pass the 911 Medical Amnesty and Expanded Naloxone Access Law in 2014 to protect people who seek medical assistance for someone experiencing a drug or alcohol-related overdose. We are looking at passing a law against patient brokering, which has been a problem in places such as Florida.

We also know that states with higher treatment rates have lower incarceration rates, so how do we make sure that more people have opportunities to get well? Every time they’re meeting about legislation, we should be at the table because the conversation is different when there’s someone in recovery in the room.

From your personal and professional experiences, what is one piece of advice you would give to those working with people who have substance use disorders in the criminal justice system?

Just recognize their humanity. I’ll say it again, many of my employees have done serious time. People who have been through the criminal justice or child welfare systems have such strengths that we don’t tap into enough. And I also think you have to remember that they have lives, they have families, and they have people who care about them.

While substance use disorder treatment during incarceration can be helpful to some, I think we should have a really good behavioral health system outside of prisons and jails that gives people what they need and gives them a chance to get better. Services and supports should be in the healthcare system, not the criminal justice system, and I just don’t think we’re there yet

Ultimately, remember we all deserve second, third, and fourth chances. Treating people with dignity and respect, having compassionate conversations, empowering people to own their recovery, and providing hope is what helps, and it’s how we approach our work. It’s the best work I’ve ever done.

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