EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part Solutions Journalism series on combating drug addiction. Part II will publish on Nov. 24.
MANSFIELD -- Tom Pendergast was just a teenager, but he carried a weight of responsibility as the man of the house.
“Growing up, my mom worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. My stepdad was never home. So I was raising myself and my sister," Pendergast said. "I had to get me and my sister off to school. I had to cook the meals, I had to put my sister to bed and everything. I was the dad and I was still a teenager then."
It was during those tough early years that addiction first took root in Pendergast’s life.
“I just wanted to find something to help me get away from it all. The drugs is what did that,” he said. “The drugs took me out of that place and put me in a temporary happy place. But at the same point in time, it just made my life that much worse.”
In the decades that followed, Pendergast continued to struggle with addiction, criminality and even homelessness. He managed to give up drinking for awhile, but after his mother died, he relapsed.
“My mom was my support,” he said. “When mom died I started drinking again. That's always how I coped with things. When I start drinking, I can't control myself. I get mean, I get violent and I go out looking for fights.
"Everybody kept telling me, 'Tommy, you need help. You got a problem.' I just never really saw it, until I actually came here," said Pendergast, who is finishing up treatment at the Richland County Community Alternative Center.
Pendergast was sent to the RCCAC a year after pleading guilty to aggravated possession of crystal meth.
"At first I was judgmental about the place. I didn't know if I was gonna be able to get what I wanted or needed," he recalled. "But since I've been here, I've learned so much stuff about how to deal with my addiction and how to help other people deal with their addiction and help them cope and help myself cope with it.”
Now 43 years old, he finally sees addiction for what it is. More importantly, he sees a different kind of life for himself -- one full of hope.
"This place has helped me realize that there's so much more to life."
The Richland County Community Alternative Center (RCCAC) was founded 15 years ago in response to high demand at the former county jail.
“There were like 5,000 to 6,000 people waiting to do jail time. Some people had been waiting months or even years to complete three-day jail sentences,” said Tom Trittschuh, director at RCCAC.
“Four judges approached me and wanted to know if I wanted to start some kind of a jail alternative program to help alleviate that backlog.”
Nowadays, most of the residents are there not because of a backlog, but because of the CAC’s unique status as a court-referred, state-certified drug and alcohol treatment facility. Clients who come for treatment are referred and paid for by municipal and common pleas courts across the state as an alternative to sentencing.
“This is a very unique program. There's not too many that are run by courts anywhere in the United States,” said Trittschuh, who has worked 48 years in the criminal justice field. “(The patients) have all been in the system before, they've all been on probation, they've all been in jail, some have been in prison.”
According to Dave Myers, the administrative supervisor for Richland County Court Services, treatment at CAC is often used as a substitute for a 6- to 12-month sentence.
Myers stated that inmates often don’t have access to addiction treatment inside prison unless their sentence is longer than one year.
“It positively impacts people by allowing them to get treatment versus simply sitting out their jail time. It’s bettering our community because of the treatment that they’re receiving, it’s helpful to reduce recidivism,” Myers said. “Ninety days of treatment isn’t the end-all, be-all, but it might give them a tool to not relapse.”
Jason Hoover, drug court coordinator for the Richland County Adult Probation Department, said CAC provides another avenue for treatment and saves taxpayer dollars.
“It’s just another tool in the toolbox, giving somebody that's struggling with addiction another avenue for treatment,” Hoover said. “It gives them the understanding just knowing there's people out there that do want to help them.”
Clients who come for treatment typically stay for 60, 90 or 120 days. They rarely leave the facility, except to receive medical care.
The 80-bed facility accepts both male and female clients, who are housed on separate floors. The groups don’t intermingle, but both have access to addiction services, counseling and other resources like therapy and group treatment.
There are also classes on work readiness, life skills and parenting. Clients can attend Bible studies and religious services. Every Friday afternoon, retired art teacher Jayne Stahlke gives art therapy classes for both the men and women.
Ron Tuttle, a treatment client, said he benefited from the program’s structure and support.
“I’ve never admitted myself to a treatment center that did long-term,” Tuttle said. “I've been to several different rehabs and whatnot, but most of it's like a three-day stay and that's not beneficial to somebody that's been using drugs for 10 years.”
Prior to entering treatment, Tuttle had been using heroin for a decade after an $18,000 back surgery.
“This place really opened my eyes to the damage that (drug abuse) does,” Tuttle said. “I'm very grateful for the program. I think it's a very good thing for people in this community.”
While not the case for everyone, people who struggle with substance abuse and criminal activity often have unresolved trauma in their past. That’s why having the right staff on board is crucial to the success of CAC.
“When I hire a counselor, I don't look for just a typical counselor … The clients we get here, not only do they have an addiction, they've got criminal issues, too. So I try to find treatment counselors that know the criminal-justice system,” Trittschuh said.
RCCAC has three licensed chemical dependency counselors on staff, plus a case manager who meets with every client and helps prepare them for reentering society after their stay.
“We don't want them to land out there without any housing, without any employment, so we try and have a plan for them when they get out of here,” Trittschuh explained.
“They might need a social security card, maybe they need to seek employment, maybe they need to find housing when they get out of here. Maybe they need to get hooked up with Medicaid.”
Case Manager Meagan Petty does whatever she can to help the clients at CAC have a better life after their stay -- whether it’s hunting jobs or showing up to work with an armful of free winter coats.
Petty’s passion for the job comes from her own experience with addiction -- one that landed her in court a decade ago.
“Richland County sent me to prison in 2010,” said Petty, who is also in recovery. “I’ve been homeless. I’ve been released from facilities and didn't have anywhere to go.”
After getting sober, Petty got her Chemical Dependency Counselor Assistant certification from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Board. Now, she supports clients at the CAC in their sobriety, gently encouraging them to dig in, work through the trauma of the past and take responsibility for the future.
She also sees right through a lie and refuses to candy coat.
“She keeps it 100, and we respect her for it,” Pendergast said.
In addition to helping clients find jobs and housing, Petty and the counseling staff also strive to give clients the tools they need to live healthy, sober lives.
One skill that’s essential for re-entry is the ability to take responsibility for one's mistakes and make amends. Both Pendergast and Tuttle hope to restore their relationships with their families once they leave.
“You've got to accept responsibility for your actions and then make amends. You're not going to be able to change or do anything for anybody else until you fix yourself. Then, when you're ready for that, people will start to accept that you've done different,” Tuttle said.
Pendergast and Tuttle both have a radically different outlook from the time they entered CAC, but change doesn’t happen overnight.
While short-term residential programs prevent patients from using, it often takes more than detoxing to change mindsets and behaviors.
“It takes 30 or 45 days just to get the drugs out of their system,” Trittschuh said. “It takes that amount of time -- 60, 90, 120 days -- to really clear their head.”
As with any treatment center, success isn’t guaranteed. The services CAC provides are only effective if clients choose to embrace them.
“We've had a lot of success stories, maybe not as large as theirs,” Trittschuh said. “We provide a lot of positive stuff while they're here. Some of them are going to catch it. Some of them are not gonna get it -- their addiction is just what they want to do for now.”
“You get out what you put in,” Tuttle explained. “I'm grateful to all these people here now that they've stuck their neck out and bent over backwards for us.”
Petty and the other staff at CAC recently connected Tuttle and Pendergast with EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, a Cleveland non-profit that provides the formerly incarcerated with housing and training in the culinary and hospitality industry.
Both men will start the six month training program on Dec. 7.