YANKTON, S.D. (AP) — As a drug addict for nine years, Keri Curtis chose to keep away from her children rather than have them see how far she had fallen.
She lived on the streets, moving from place to place. She became trapped in abusive relationships and toxic people, describing herself as being toxic, as well.
And she chose drugs over her children.
“I stayed away from my kids during my addiction. I didn’t want them to see me on drugs,” she told the Press & Dakotan. “I knew they were disappointed in me, but I didn’t want them to see me and become even more disappointed.”
But last month, Curtis stood before her children and others during her graduation from Yankton County Drug Court. She didn’t wear a cap and gown, and there was no playing “Pomp and Circumstance.”
But she felt a joy that had been missing in her life, including the ability to face her children and hug them deeply. She also received support from others at the courtroom ceremony, including a judge, police officer, her counselor and the Drug Court Team that worked with her long journey, the Yankton Press and Dakotan reported.
“I never thought I could be happy,” she said while shedding tears. “But today, I feel more than happy. I don’t know what the word for it is. This day is definitely important. After being an addict for nine years, I’ve been sober for 534 days. It’s a huge accomplishment.”
Curtis has shown tremendous perseverance already, according to Commander Todd Brandt with the Yankton Police Department and a member of the Yankton County Drug Court Team.
“She has marked 500-plus days of sobriety for something where others may not go a couple of hours,” he told the Press & Dakotan. “I have seen the transformation, from seeing her at the worst time when I was a young officer and then seeing where she has come today, as a productive member of society and a fantastic mother. It’s why I come up every Wednesday for Drug Court and see what it does for these people.”
But the graduation was also a time for Curtis to share her painful story.
“In 2018, I was at my worst. I had done meth for two years, and I had done K2 during the two years before that,” she said. “I was so lost. I was homeless and away from my kids. A lot of times, I didn’t want to be alive anymore.”
She was arrested in 2018, sentenced to 30 days in jail. “I had never gone longer than 30 days without using (drugs),” she said.
The court ordered her into drug treatment at Lewis and Clark Behavioral Health Services (LCBHS) in Yankton. There, she met mental health and substance abuse counselor Abbey Peltier, herself a recovering addict.
Curtis was admitted to the Drug Court program and worked with Drug Court Defense Attorney Luci Youngberg. “I wanted my kids to be proud of me again. This was my last chance to get it right,” Curtis said.
Yankton County Drug Court Judge Kasey Sorensen, who presided at graduation, commended Curtis for her achievement.
“You’re an inspiration to everyone in this room,” the judge said. “These graduations bring me to tears.”
Drug Court typically represents the last option before prison, Sorensen told the Press & Dakotan. State statute excludes sex offenders and others deemed not eligible for the program.
“It’s a minimum 17 months long, and this is hard work. They have to put in the effort to completely change their lives,” the judge said. “This is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Some offenders say, ‘Just send me to prison. I would rather just serve my time and get out rather than go through the program.’”
As a police officer, Brandt said he has also seen offenders who would take prison over Drug Court.
Curtis acknowledged the long, painful process. She had been using drugs and alcohol to cover long, deep pain that she had never faced. One of the biggest steps was opening up with Peltier during counseling and then telling her story to a group.
Drug Court provides both accountability and support with new friends and sponsors, Peltier told the Press & Dakotan. In addition, they develop good relationships with judges, the courts, attorneys and law enforcement.
Curtis acknowledged the entire Yankton County Drug Court Team.
“To the Drug Court Team, thank you for believing in me before I could believe in myself,” Curtis said. “You have seen my worst, and now I’m so glad you’re here now and see me at my best.”
Susan Jacobs, a former associate warden at Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield, has worked with cases in the Yankton, Vermillion and Wagner areas. She teaches Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT) for drug courts through South Dakota Lutheran Social Services.
MRT is a treatment system, often used in substance abuse programs, designed to lead to enhanced moral reasoning, better decision making and more appropriate behavior.
“Yankton’s Drug Court is one of the best programs I have ever witnessed,” Jacobs said. “The Drug Court Team and their program have helped many adult offenders not only kick their addiction and become productive law abiding citizens, it literally has saved lives, plus has kept many from going to prison.”
Sorensen said she sees the transformation in the participants’ appearance and emotions. She supports the program’s focus on rehabilitation.
“They are off the substance, and they are engaged with their family and the community in so many positive ways,” the judge said. “The community as a whole is better off, not to mention the individuals themselves.”
The commencement also recognized Chris Pokorney’s phasing promotion in the program. He has completed the Drug Court program and is working with it at an additional level.
Brandt admitted he wasn’t sold on the Drug Court at first when Yankton County became one of the first in South Dakota to adopt it.
“To begin with, I had a lot of apprehension that drug courts would actually work. I went into the idea kicking and screaming,” he said. “But as I began to understand addiction, and I still don’t fully understand it, I realized the struggle and the pain that these people were going through. Now, I’m very impressed with the outcome, and taxpayer dollars are well spent.”
The Drug Court Team meets weekly, going over the participants’ achievements and failures to help them stay on track, Brandt said. He sees the YPD’s role as helping those struggling with addiction and not merely arresting offenders.
Peltier shared her own journey and praised Curtis for her achievements. Peltier encouraged others to take the first step and seek help.
“Don’t let what you did in your past dictate your future,” she said. “We’re here for you, but you have to open up and let us in.”
Curtis wants her message to serve as hope for both addicts and their loved ones.
“There is a chance at life. They can get through this,” she said. “They can find true happiness on the other side.”
The Yankton County Drug Court Team includes Sorensen; John Billings with the Yankton County State’s Attorney’s Office; Youngberg; Aamy Drotzmann as the Drug Court services officer; Nicole Peterson as the Drug Court coordinator; Sharon Kraft as the Drug Court program specialist; Peltier and Ashley Olivier with LCBHS; Brandt and Dean Larson with the Yankton Police Department; and Jacobs.