Working with communities to end addiction | University of Minnesota Twin Cities
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Working with communities to end addiction

Researcher Kerry Michael is partnering with communities in Minnesota’s eighth judicial district to fight addiction.

A map of Minnesota with 11 counties shaded in gold, with the University of Minnesota logo on the shaded portion

The Eighth Judicial District consists of the counties of Big Stone, Chippewa, Grant, Kandiyohi, Lac Qui Parle, Meeker, Pope, Renville, Stevens, Swift, Traverse, Wilkin, and Yellow Medicine.

Today, more than 130 University of Minnesota researchers are working to address the opioid crisis in Minnesota and around the nation, uncovering solutions ranging from the development of non-addictive pain treatments to understanding how brain circuits malfunction in addiction. But an area that gets less attention is simply stopping to ask, what is working now, and how can we do it better?

That’s the question that has been put to the University of Minnesota Morris Center for Small Towns and Morris researcher and assistant professor of psychology Kerry Michael.

Michael, along with Twin Cities doctoral candidate Doug Moon, who will collect and manage the project’s data, is a lead investigator on a grant from the US Department of Justice to evaluate the treatment court (sometimes called drug court) program in Minnesota’s Eighth Judicial District, consisting of 13 counties in western Minnesota.

A proven solution

Treatment courts have proven to be a cost-effective tool for reducing recidivism and improving outcomes for the thousands of Minnesotans who enter the court system every year struggling with addiction.

The courts target nonviolent criminal offenders who suffer from addiction, with treatment strategies including regular appearances before a judge.

Kerry Michael in front of Stevens County Courthouse, Morris, MN

University of Minnesota Morris researcher and assistant professor of psychology Kerry Michael in front of Stevens County Courthouse, Morris, MN.

“At every meeting of treatment court, they call your name, you come up to the front, and the judge asks, ‘How many days do you have sober?’ says Michael. “And whether it’s 2 or 200, everybody claps. Doing all the work it takes to succeed is hard, but the people I’ve talked with, they’re glad to be there.”

And while the program has not yet reached it fifth anniversary (it began in July 2014), it seems to be working.

How treatment court works

Person referred to treatment court

Accepts or declines

Enters treatment court

Gets oversight and accountability, including drug screens

Caseworker provides supportive resources

Graduation from court (can take two or more years)

Michael seeks to understand what happens before step 1, and after step 2: Why (and how) is a person referred to treatment court, and what are the reasons they choose to enter or reject the process.

In fact, while nationally an estimated 80-90 percent of people recovering from addiction relapse within a year, so far among graduates of Minnesota’s Eighth Judicial District treatment court, 52 percent have no known relapses, says Karon White, Eighth Judicial District treatment court coordinator. White recruited professor Michael to evaluate the program through the Center for Small Towns, which gives rural communities access to the talent and resources at the Morris campus.

“Most of the area that is covered by the eighth district is rural,” says White. “The issues [and] resources differ from that of an urban community. I needed an organization that understood that, and the Center for Small Towns does, and Kerry’s experience ... offers a necessary insight into the program.”

Getting the most out of the system

Because the program has been so effective, it pays to involve all offenders who could benefit from it.

That’s why Michael is examining who gets referred into, and who enters, the program.

“Our expertise, what we’re lending from the University is the question: 'Is everyone who is eligible ending up in the program, and if not, why?'” says Michael.

While Moon will interview people who refer potential participants (attorneys, judges, social services, etc.), Michael will identify themes—from the influences of family and friends, to transportation availability, and more—to evaluate why a person may or may not enter the program.

“Right now we are finding whether the pipeline is leaky, and if it is—how do we fix that, so that people who might be helped by the program aren’t falling through the cracks,” says Michael.

Denise Riffey

Getting personal with addiction at Morris

Morris student Denise Riffey is assisting assistant professor Kerry Michael in analyzing and collecting data for Minnesota's Eighth Judicial District treatment court.

Riffey got involved with the project through Michael's Drugs and Human Behavior course, where students work on a prevention or harm-reduction project, applying what they learn in class to create a program that serves the community.

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Michael is also a member of the University's Opioid Advisory Task Force, which leverages University of Minnesota expertise—from neuroscience to psychology to law—for the benefit of Minnesota communities affected by opioid addiction. She says that while Morris doesn’t have the medical capabilities of the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses, “what we do have is a campus that is truly dedicated to the community; we have a lot of ties with rural and Native American communities, and a lot of community-involved research.”

“So we’ve really taken the point less on the biological and medical and more on the public health side—going to the community and asking them what we can do for them, rather than parachuting in and saying ‘we’re here to save you,’” says Michael.

Michael says that many factors determine whether a person starts to drink or use drugs, why they continue to do so, whether they quit, and what can help them stay sober.

“Hopelessness—it all comes back to that,” says Michael. “If there is no motivation to be sober, no belief that it is even possible, then it doesn’t happen.”

Treatment court gives them that motivation—it’s just a matter of reaching as many people as possible.

Meet the Researcher

Kerry Michael
University of Minnesota Morris researcher and assistant professor of psychology
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities