Niagara Falls City Court Judge James Faso is on a mission: “I wanted to do this for one reason – to help people who – at this point in life can’t help themselves. I’m just trying to save their life 24 hours at a time.”
Judge Faso hopes the new Opioid Court in Niagara Falls will do just that – save lives.
The court, modeled after Buffalo’s drug court, opened its doors at the beginning of the year. “The first opioid court started in Buffalo in May 2017 due to the staggering amount of opioid overdose deaths,” explains Faso, “It was the first in the entire country. A few have opened since and we believe Niagara Falls is the second fully certified court of its kind in the state.”
In Buffalo, there have been 400 participants so far; 2 have died of fatal overdoses.
Buffalo’s Opioid Court was made possible by a $300,000 federal grant, money designed to jump start the program. Those dollars will run out in about a year and a half, at which point individual courts will absorb the costs. It will be the same case for the Falls court.
Addiction is a monster.
A brutal, relentless beast that does not discriminate.
The Opioid Crisis is ravaging communities, destroying families and shattering a generation.
Opioids are destructive, but addiction is nothing new.
Tracy Diina knows all too well. “I got arrested at 24 and it saved my life. I was addicted to drugs, specifically cocaine,” recalls Diina, “While it started with snorting here and there, eventually I was freebasing (smoking) coke all day, every day. I lived in a sleazy motel with my drug dealing boyfriend who was a creepy guy in his 40s. I got kicked out of grad school and was unemployable. Thank God I got arrested!”
She explains what happened next.
“My parents brought me back to Buffalo and helped me get clean. It was really hard but I turned my life around. I got super involved with a 12 step program, Narcotics Anonymous (NA), stayed clean and life was amazing. I finished grad school, worked at all kinds of great jobs, then got married and had 2 daughters. I was clean for 13 years. Unfortunately I had stopped going to NA meetings after I got married and had about 9 years clean. I thought I was cured!”
Unfortunately, like is often the case, she relapsed. “After my second c-section—with my daughter Olivia–in 2007, I was given painkillers and I fell in love with them. I already had an almost 3 year old (Ava) and Livvy was a crier—she had reflux and it seemed like she cried all the time. I was overwhelmed and the pills made me feel good. I figured if I just did it “sometimes” I would be okay. Well, it’s impossible for an addict to do that! Before long I was using every day and it was horrible.”
It went on for a year and a half, even got worse. It was a roller coaster of detox and relapse. “I was an absolute mess. My husband was going to leave me with the girls. By spring 2009, I had lost almost everything so I threw myself back into NA meetings and stayed clean for 5 years, had a slip in 2014 (very small, one day) and am coming up on 5 years again in August.”
Now, she works to help others and often uses her experiences to show addicts that sobriety is possible. Diina says this new Niagara Falls court is a really good start, “Great idea—so many crimes are as a result of addiction. Address the addiction and crime drops. I wish this were available back in the 90s. Many people suffered with arrests during the crack era. I, myself, was convicted of a felony in 1994—drug possession.”
The program will not be available to defendants accused in violent felony cases. It will take referrals from every court in Niagara County, including village and town courts and the city courts in Lockport and North Tonawanda.
According to Judge Faso, the court is unique for several reasons:
- “The speed at which we work. It’s immediate. No waiting for medication such as suboxone or methadone which are medications prescribed to combat the withdrawal symptoms of the opioids. We have a van outside the courthouse everyday at 11 a.m. The van is a medical van equipped to treat them and get them immediate medication.”
- The criminal case is really not a concern. The concern is to get them physically healthy and stabilized then when that’s done, their case gets returned to the criminal court where it originated. We accept transfers from North Tonawanda City Court, Lockport City Court, and all 13 town and village courts in the county. Once we get them stabilized and healthy, we send them back to the original court. Unlike traditional drug courts there is no deal made up front about their case. I’m trying to keep them alive.
- This court is open to the entire community. Even if there are no charges pending. They can walk into my court and get immediate help and I will monitor them for the 90 days and get them healthy.”
There were 44 overdose deaths in Niagara County last year. Hopefully, this program will help reduce the numbers. Not all participants will need inpatient treatment, most will be treated on an outpatient basis. The federal government has acknowledged this is a crisis and will be funding a large portion of it.
Diina says it is a great start and hopes more can and will be done.
“There is more to be done, much more, but no will to do it. People are going to use drugs, it is a given. Let’s make it as safe as possible. I support legalization of all drugs. The countries that have done this (Portugal is a good example) have seen huge decreases in addiction. I think we should have Safe Consumption sites too, where people can safely use drugs, with counselors on hand to encourage treatment. Canada does this and it works! Narcan needs to be given out on the streets like they do in Baltimore (I think it’s their County Dept. of Health). Testing strips (to see if there’s fentanyl) should also be given out on the streets. As far as prevention, I have read about some countries that test children to determine who has tendencies toward addiction—and then acts accordingly. We should do this!”
But this court certainly is a start. It will hopefully get help to those who need it. It will provide a lifeline for those struggling. Judge Faso says he will personally watch over each and every participant – getting them help – even if it’s one day at a time.
“I will see each participant everyday and I’m just trying to keep them alive until I see them the next day.”
A judge – brand new to the bench – and already helping to make a difference in the community he serves.
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