How to Support Recovery with Treatment Courts - Carlos Gonzales
During this interview from RISE23, hear from Carlos Gonzales, Statewide Program Manager, Alumni and Peer Initiatives, New Mexico.
During this interview, Mr. Gonzales speaks about how treatment courts impacted his recovery journey, providing him with a way to become accountable in and a part of his community. Mr. Gonzales also discusses the role that treatment court alumni can have in the treatment court process.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Well, why don't we start off by talking about what role did treatment courts play on your road to recovery?
CARLOS GONZALES: I have to be honest to say that treatment court was my road to recovery. I had spent many years going in and out of treatment centers, jail, and prisons. And what I found in treatment court was a path that was workable, and it was a way for me to become accountable in my community and become a part of my community.
And I think the biggest thing I was missing in my life was an accountability that said, "I was now part of a community, not the scourge on the community." And they supported me and helped me to learn what I needed to know to find my recovery path. Not a recovery path but my recovery path. And I think the biggest part of that role that the treatment court played was the judge and the treatment court coordinator. They constantly, constantly followed up on me and constantly praised me for the things I did well and made me feel like it really mattered to them that I was doing better. It was really important to me.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: That's awesome. I love that. As a—as a former drug court judge, I love to hear that. So now you mentioned alumni. So let's talk about alumni. What role do you think that treatment court alumni can have in the treatment court process?
CARLOS GONZALES: I think that alumni are the backbone of the continuum of care. Here's why that is: As people go through the program and they have access to an alumni that can help them to navigate the program—maybe some of the barriers they're reaching, maybe some of the things that they're not understanding well—an alumni can provide that message in a way that they can hear it, because the treatment court provider, the treatment court coordinator, the judge, they're going to hear them saying, "You have to do these things because we say you have to do these things as part of the program." An alumni can say, "If you do these things, here is the result. I'm the result. I can show you the lived experience that I have, and here's how I did it." And that's a big important part of alumni.
The second part of it is when someone's leaving the program and they've graduated the program, being connected with alumni is a place where they're not just left to go out and fend for themselves. They still have a support system. They still have a system of peers that have been through the same program that they went through, faced some of the same challenges, but also are there to support them, and now they support each other as peers. That's an important part.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Carlos, can you please differentiate for us between a alumni of treatment court and a peer recovery specialist?
CARLOS GONZALES: Absolutely.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Because they're not the same thing, right?
CARLOS GONZALES: They are not. They are not...
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Okay.
CARLOS GONZALES: ...the same thing, but they can be.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Right.
CARLOS GONZALES: So there's a lot of confusion sometimes about the roles. An alumni is someone who has graduated one of our treatment court programs. That—that's a role that is filled when they graduate. And they move on to become a certified peer recovery specialist or a certified peer support worker. Different states have different designations. They may become a peer recovery coach. They may become a peer mentor.
But there's a lot of confusion sometimes about that term “peer.” And so what we're finding as we educate people and educate ourselves is that a peer means equality. We have equality of purpose. So someone who's in recovery is a peer in recovery. And so alumni serve as a peer in recovery. And they serve participants in the program by providing lived experience, providing support as a “peer in recovery.” And they remove that barrier where you might see that a participant in a program may feel like the treatment provider is up here and so they never really feel is an equal. But an alumni is a peer. They bring the equality together. So it brings a different relationship and a different trust. But a lot of alumni are excited to become professionals in the field.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Right.
CARLOS GONZALES: And so that helps in the pathway. Being an alumni helps in the pathway to become either a certified peer support worker, a certified peer specialist, a peer recovery coach, or a therapist. That's what I did, right? So, so many people do that. But it's important to recognize that that term “peer” is really equality of purpose.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: I'd love to hear a little bit about the alumni's reaction to you trying to form this association. I know when I was out in New Mexico, I met a lot of the alumni and they were really excited. But it's—you know, if you think about it, right, for most people, they're trying to run away from court, right? It's like, "All right. My probation's over. I'm out of here," right? And now you're approaching these individuals to say, "Hey, we want you to still be involved in something that's court-related and something that, you know, that you've experienced that may not, at the beginning, have been the most pleasant experience," right? Now, you want to bring them back to that. So how does—how do they react to you when you suggest they become involved in the Alumni Association?
CARLOS GONZALES: They react as amazingly different than you would expect. First of all, most of the time, people coming out of any type of treatment facility or treatment program, you always have this innate want to give back and help somebody else but you don't really know how and how do you do that? But the big way that I get a positive reaction out of the alumni, at least in my state and other alumni I've worked with in other states, is this, "I want to know what you think an alumni role would look like. I want you to tell me what you think an alumni group would look like and how it should function for the court program." We, as a court program, are asking them to tell us what we should do. We're not telling them what to do.
So we switched the role, right? In drug—in treatment court or drug court, "Got to—here are the rules."
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Right, right, right.
CARLOS GONZALES: "Here's the things you have to do." But when you're getting out as an alumni and we ask you to start an alumni group, that alumni group is something they own. It's theirs. And it's their way. They design it to give back to participants and to each other. And the court program supports that. So that's how we get a really good reaction out of them.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Wow.
CARLOS GONZALES: Yeah.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: That's great. How do you feel that treatment courts help strengthen our justice system?
CARLOS GONZALES: That is a loaded question that I think we could talk here all day about. But I'm going to say to you the way I feel about that: The strength of the justice system is treatment courts, because we have proven over and over and over that not everything and everyone should result in punitive response. We have to assess people, meet them where they're at, and see what is it that they're missing that maybe we can help with to change the trajectory of their path. And treatment courts is that stop gap.
We hear it all the time: “Treatment courts work.” Yes, we do. But alumni and people in the programs and our professionals show us that it works. That's the foundation of the justice system, to find a way to create that—the recidivism rate so much higher by providing the services they need and providing the support they need to change their lives.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Amazing. What's one thing that you wish that everyone knew about treatment courts?
CARLOS GONZALES: When you hear about a treatment court, when you think about a treatment court, when you read about in the newspaper, when you read it—when you see it on the news—on the evening news, whatever it is, remember that those are people. Those are people changing. And those people that are changing, are changing everybody around them. So when we find a place for someone to feel better about themselves and they start changing their lives, every life that's connected to them changes too, and it changes for the better.
And sometimes not only are we saving a life, we're saving a family, we're saving a whole community, because we put these people back into the community as positive, responsible members of their community and they show people that change is possible. And then somebody sees that change and recognizes maybe there's somebody in their family that can find that change too. They are a beacon of hope. That's what they are.
Opinions or points of view expressed in these recordings represent those of the speakers and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. Any commercial products and manufacturers discussed in these recordings are presented for informational purposes only and do not constitute product approval or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Justice.