ELKTON — Allison Shepard stood in the middle of the courtroom Tuesday, moments before receiving her Cecil County Adult Drug Court diploma, and she matter-of-factly conveyed her gratitude toward the program and the people who work within it.

“I’m a 30-year addict,” Shepard emphasized, as tears flooded her eyes.

Then she declared in a quivering voice, “This saved my life.”

Shepard, 44, of Elkton, is one of four CCADC participants who received their diplomas Tuesday during a small-scale graduation ceremony in which Cecil County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Keith A. Baynes presided.

Also recognized during the commencement for their successful completion of the demanding CCADC program are graduates Samantha Barrow, 30; Ashley Parkhill, 24; and Robin Spicer, 31, all of whom are Elkton residents, too.

Another common thread: Shepard and her three fellow graduates had been arrested, convicted and faced incarceration, before they were rerouted into the CCADC program – a positive turning point for all them.

“At the time, it was one of the worst things that ever happened to me,” Shepard told the Cecil Whig on Thursday, referring to her October 2018 arrest, marking her first and only brush with the law.

Shepard continued, “But now I see it as a good thing that happened, one of the best things, because it changed my path and led me to where I am now. I’ve been clean now for 15 months. Before this, I’d never been clean that long.”

In March 2019, five months after her arrest, Shepard pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, an offense relating to Shepard selling the drug solely to finance her coke addiction, not to make a profit.

Shepard received a suspended one-year sentence during that March 2019 hearing and was placed on three years of supervised probation, as part of a plea agreement in which, instead of serving her time, Shepard was placed in the CCADC program.

How the CCADC operates

The CCADC is a program aimed at treating qualified defendants who have been convicted of “non-violent, drug-motivated” crimes and, as a result, are facing more than one year in jail.

It is a voluntary program for offenders whose primary diagnosis is substance abuse. It is a post-plea program for defendants who reside in Cecil County. It can take a CCADC defendant up to two years to successfully complete the program, though some have needed more time.

In addition to subjecting themselves to random and scheduled drug testing and frequent courtroom sessions, which are staggered to accommodate the approximately 80 people currently in the program, drug court defendants must undergo counseling and treatment through the Cecil County Health Department and meet specified goals, such as earning their GED and securing employment.

A drug court defendant can face penalties, including weekend stays in jail or longer, for the presence of drugs in a tested urine sample, failure to attend a meeting or courtroom session and other violations.

“It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. It is a tough program. It is time-consuming. There are a lot of things they have to do, before they can graduate,” Baynes told the Cecil Whig during a May interview.

During the graduation ceremony earlier this week, Baynes reiterated from the bench, “When a lot of them get into the program, they don’t know what they’re getting into.”

Should a defendant continually fail to comply with the rules of the CCADC, they would be dismissed from the program and likely would face a portion or even all of the suspended sentences that were imposed after their original criminal cases were adjudicated by way of guilty plea.

Also during Tuesday’s graduation ceremony, Baynes opined that a CCADC commencement is one of the rare happy events that occur in a courtroom.

“This is the second best thing we do. The first is an adoption. People are coming in happy and they are leaving happy. It marks a new beginning,” Baynes said, adding, “This (a CCADC graduation) is like an adoption because it also marks a new beginning.”

A new beginning

Shepard clearly recognizes and embraces the “new beginning” concept, as do Barrow, Parkhill and Spicer, all of whom successfully completed a drug rehabilitation program at Ashley Addiction Treatment in Elkton while participating in the CCADC.

At age 13, some 31 years ago, Shepard started using cocaine – in sharp contrast with her stable upbringing, one in which her abstinent mother was a successful professional in the medical field.

“I was hanging out with older kids, and I had older boyfriends,” Shepard said, surmising why she had been exposed to the hard drug of cocaine at such a young age.

When the subject of alcohol, marijuana and other “gateway drugs” was broached, Shepard acknowledged that they typically are the ones consumed at the start of an addict’s downward spiral and then remarked, “But it was always uppers for me.”

In the years that followed, Shepard’s youthful dabbling turned into a full-blown cocaine addiction.

“It was all I knew – the daily use of cocaine – and it became my life,” Shepard recalled.

Although her cocaine addiction resulted in a spotty employment record and unreached or postponed milestones, Shepard managed to keep a roof over her head, she said. Shepard also managed to stay clean for a nine-month stretch some two decades ago, she added.

“I stopped using the entire time I was pregnant with my son,” Shepard said, noting that her son turns 19 on Friday.

Shepard sold drugs to support her cocaine habit, which, during the last three or four years, turned into a methamphetamine addiction, too.

The vicious-cycle lifestyle of generating enough cash to buy and use coke and meth daily had taken a physical and mental toll on Shepard, by the time she was arrested in October 2018.

“I was tired,” Shepard said, before identifying what she believes is the first crucial step toward sobriety, “You have to want to get clean. That’s the most important thing.”

Standing in the courtroom on Tuesday and holding her CCADC diploma, Shepard basked in her accomplishments while going through the program, including securing her present job as a retail store manager.

Ashley Petruno, a CCADC case manager, listed other milestones for Shepard during the graduation ceremony.

“Allison got her first new car. She got a job. Her family was brought back together,” Petruno said, before commenting, “And I know that life has so much more left to offer her.”

Another new beginning

Petruno reminded Baynes that Shepard experienced two minor hiccups shortly after starting the CCADC program in March 2019, before excelling during the 14-plus months that followed.

“She had two positive tests (for the presence of illegal drugs) in the first two weeks – but then negative tests ever since,” Petruno outlined.

Baynes responded from the bench, “If this were school, she’d get all A’s. She was a ‘clap-and-spin’ participant.”

The judge used that same “clap-and-spin” term to describe Spicer, who also started the CCADC in March 2019. Spicer distinguished herself with an unblemished drug-testing record.

“She zipped through the program,” Baynes commented.

Spicer did so after nearly 15 years of addiction. She started using drugs when she was 14, which led to numerous brushes with the law. “Until recently, I’d been on probation since I was 14,” Spicer told the Cecil Whig.

As for her CCADC performance, Spicer’s accomplishments include successfully completing a GED program, gaining employment and regaining full custody of her children, according to Petruno and Sheri Lazarus, the CCADC coordinator.

In addition, Petruno complimented Spicer for proactively – instead of reactively – addressing outstanding criminal charges against her in Delaware, ultimately clearing that case from her record.

“This has helped me a lot, getting my children back, getting a job – straightening my life out,” Spicer said, addressing the court after receiving her CCADC diploma.

Two more new beginnings

As for the other two graduates – Barrow and Parkhill – they traveled a much bumpier and longer road through the CCADC program, not to diminish the accomplishments of Shepard and Spicer.

“Some went quicker through the program than others, but they all crossed the finish line. Everyone is different,” Baynes said, explaining that infractions during the four-phase CCADC can result in sanctions and even setbacks.

Barrow started experimenting with drugs when she was 20, roughly a decade ago, after her stepbrother, with whom she was very close, committed suicide. That led to a heroin addiction.

In 2015, some five years into her addiction, Barrow entered the CCADC program and “struggled quite a bit” in the early stages, with scheduled and random drug tests revealing relapses, according to Petruno.

But then Barrow strenuously committed herself to her sobriety, after learning that she was pregnant with her first child about three years ago.

“That was a big eye-opener for me,” Barrow said.

Barrow managed to navigate through a rough patch in her life without using drugs, Petruno said, explaining that such stressful situations can cause people in recovery to relapse.

“She suffered a significant loss, but she remained clean through all of it,” Petruno reviewed.

Addressing those in the courtroom before receiving her diploma, Barrow admitted, “I did not think I’d graduate. I felt like I was not a good candidate in the beginning.”

But Barrow proved herself wrong by successfully completing the CCADC program, Lazurus pointed out during the graduation ceremony, commenting, “Sam has grown so much. It’s phenomenal.”

Parkhill also experienced a turbulent start in the CCADC program, which she entered in March 2017. She racked up positive drug tests and other infractions – and even clashed with the judge and other CCADC workers – before gaining her footing to sobriety.

“There were times we had heated conversations right in this courtroom,” Baynes reminded Parkhill, grinning as he marveled over how much progress Parkhill has made since then.

The program helped Parkhill maintain her sobriety for the past two years and counting, after nearly a decade of battling an opiate addiction, having started with prescription painkillers when she was 13 before switching to heroin at 16.

Parkhill expressed her thanks to Baynes, Petruno, Lazarus and Elkton-based lawyer John Downs, who serves as a court-appointed defense lawyer for CCADC defendants.

Her thanks also reached several other people who work in the CCADC program, their faces seen on a courtroom TV monitor as they watched the graduation remotely to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

“I’m just really grateful. This program has changed my life,” Parkhill said.

A wave of emotion washed over Parkhill as she stood in the middle of the courtroom and thanked everyone, prompting her to say, “I could just cry.”

And then Parkhill did just that.

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