Nova Scotia

In the battle against alcohol addiction, one court aims to turn around lives

The Alcohol Monitored Pilot Program is the latest example of the Nova Scotia Mental Health Court's efforts to reach more people with its treatment-based programs.

Future of the program uncertain due to lack of funding, limited treatment spaces

The Nova Scotia Mental Health Court's alcohol pilot program launched in November 2017. (CBC)

Walking along Robie Street in a red golf shirt with a grey messenger bag slung over his shoulder, 34-year-old Darryl Horochuk fits right into the Halifax student neighbourhood he now calls home.

But Horochuk doesn't live in student housing. His current home is a treatment facility for substance abuse.

And he isn't enrolled in a sciences or arts program. His program was created to treat the alcohol addiction that has put him behind bars and took a serious toll on his health and wellbeing.

"There's been many cases where I could have died," said Horochuk. "It's just a self-destructive road. And, you know, to be able to get an opportunity to get out of that, that's where it's at."

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His latest opportunity is called the Alcohol Monitored Pilot Program, and it's an initiative of the mental health court in Dartmouth, N.S. The pilot launched last November, and it's the latest example of the court's efforts to reach more people with its treatment-based programs.

"We take a more individualized approach," said Chief Judge Pamela Williams. "We get to know these people better, know what their circumstances are, what has led to them breaking the law and then try to deal with the root causes."

Darryl Horochuk's journey

Over the course of his battle with alcohol and drugs, Horochuk has become very familiar with treatment programs. He estimates that he's been in and out of hospitals and "detox" more than 100 times in the last decade.

Horochuk, who also has some mental health issues, said his addiction to alcohol took hold in his 20s and led him into some desperate circumstances.

"When I've been in my grid of being on the streets, it's like Listerine and hand sanitizer," he said.

Darryl Horochuk appears in court to brief Chief Judge Pamela Williams on his progress. (CBC)

On April 1, 2017, he said desperation was once again at work when he walked into a bank in Dartmouth and demanded money to buy alcohol just months after completing a year-long stint in treatment.

"I remember feelings that I was going through, which were very intense and they're obviously delusioned because I haven't had much sleep," he said. "I wasn't taking my meds. I was off on a run like drinking copious amounts of alcohol. I'm talking about 40 ounces of vodka a day."

Horochuk was arrested shortly after the incident and faced the possibility of federal prison for robbery and weapons charges.

Alcohol Monitored Pilot Program

Horochuk was in jail awaiting trial when Kelly Rowlett of Nova Scotia Legal Aid heard of his case through a colleague. Rowlett is a defence attorney with the mental health court and said she had been advocating for a program to help people like Horochuk for years.

"We haven't had anything for alcohol and Nova Scotia has a disproportionate amount of people who have substance use disorders, in particular alcoholics," she said. "It's a huge issue in this province and in the Maritime provinces."

The mental health court is a therapeutic or problem-solving court that focuses on treating the underlying causes of criminal behaviour. There must be a strong connection between mental illness and the the offence for a case to be accepted. The same kind of threshold is applied to cases accepted into the Court Monitored Drug Treatment Program for opioid users and now the Alcohol Monitored Pilot Program.

Chief Judge Pamela Williams listens as Darryl Horochuk provides an update on his treatment. (CBC)

Nova Scotia is one of eight provinces including Alberta, Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador with at least one dedicated mental health court. It's part of a broader trend toward specialized courts, which now exist in almost every jurisdiction.

CBC News recently visited the court in Dartmouth to get a sense of why mental health courts exist and how they work.

"It just seemed so wasteful because Darryl was not going to be a better man out of jail in two or three years. It was going to be worse for him," said Rowlett. "I just thought 'My god, what a shame. This guy is going to fall through the cracks.'"

So, Rowlett worked to secure his release and a bed for him at Alcare Place — the same facility he attended before his relapse — and in November 2017 he became the first person admitted into the pilot.

How the pilot program works

In Horochuk's case, the court's team determined that his alcohol addiction was a substantial contributor to his actions on the day in question.

Like the the Court Monitored Drug Treatment Program, participants in the alcohol pilot must plead guilty. The offences must fall under provincial court jurisdiction, so crimes like murder or treason are not eligible. The pilot also excludes impaired driving.

Once admitted, participants are expected to follow through with a program that includes substance testing, addiction treatment and regular court appearances.

They spend the first year in a residential treatment facility, and the court will continue to monitor them for at least a year after they move out.

On April 1, 2017, Darryl Horochuk walked into a bank on Portland Street in Dartmouth, N.S., and demanded money. (CBC)

The benefits for someone like Horochuk are clear. He's out of jail, receiving treatment for his addiction, and, if he completes the program, he'll likely receive a sentence that allows him to stay in the community.

"Darryl, given the nature of his offence, would have been for sure looking at very lengthy jail time had we not been able to develop a program like this," said Williams.

"Often taxpayers don't realize that by putting people in jail it's costing us on a provincial level $200 a day to house someone and it may even be more costly than that in the federal system," she added.

Future uncertain for pilot program

Almost a year into the program, Horochuk is maintaining his sobriety, working, and preparing to move out of Alcare Place for a second time. But as the first person through the pilot prepares to take a major step in his recovery, the future of the program is uncertain.

The pilot, which currently has two participants, is unfunded. Rowlett said the court created the program because it saw a need, and its future depends on partners having space to take on new participants. In fact, a third person has been accepted into the program, but is currently in jail awaiting a bed in a facility.

Alcare Place is one of the organizations providing residential treatment to alcohol pilot participants. (CBC)

Rowlett said funding would add predictability and a chance to expand.

"Let's say a bed costs $25,000 a year. If Alcare said we'll give you that bed for the alcohol pilot project, we'd have a space every year for one person to be in that bed," said Rowlett. "Right now, we're just basically in the queue with everybody else waiting for space in community-based facilities."

Government funding for the program is one option, but Rowlett said money directed to one of the community partners might also allow the pilot to expand.

Another chance for recovery

The first time Horochuk walked through the doors of Alcare Place he was emaciated from living off of booze and looking for a fresh start.

This time around he's approaching treatment with the humility that comes from knowing a few bad choices can erase a year's worth of progress.

"I had the ultimate reality check, right? I had a bad relapse," he said.

The Nova Scotia Mental Health Court was launched in November 2009. (CBC)

It was a bad relapse that resulted in a crime that could have put him on a very different path than the one he is on today.

"Do I get more help in the prisons? No," said Horochuk. "At least I'm actually contributing. I pay my taxes. I'm starting to get help mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually."

And the hope from those involved in his latest stint in treatment is that the programming at Alcare Place, the support and monitoring of the court, and, most importantly, his own desire to stay well will be enough to keep him on his current path.