Penobscot Nation’s Healing to Wellness Court weaves cultural connections into drug court program
Rhonda Decontie grew up tagging along with her father, Frank Decontie, an addiction recovery counselor, to 12-step meetings where she would recite The Serenity Prayer along with the adults. They lived in a First Nation community in Canada, and he would bring in ceremonial aspects—singing and prayer—while she would make headdresses and dream catchers.
“As a grown woman,” she says, “I can appreciate what he was teaching me—the importance of weaving our Native culture together with 12-step recovery programs.”
As clerk of the Penobscot Nation Healing to Wellness Court since 2011, Rhonda Decontie has been key in developing the cultural component of what started out in 2008 very much like a state-run drug court.
“Folks struggling with addiction are often disconnected,” she says. “And, if we’re going to do work to improve who we are, we need to know who we are.”
Drug court participants may be dealing with drug- or alcohol-related charges or a crime, such as theft, committed as a result of addiction. The Penobscot Nation, based at Indian Island near Bangor, has its own legal system and its own wellness court open to enrolled members of federally recognized tribes. Following the same key components of any drug court—including that participation is voluntary and the offender is not violent—Native wellness courts also weave in elements of their shared cultural identity.
The success of any drug court or wellness court is measured by days or years of sobriety and reduced recidivism. Based on encouraging statistics coming out of the Penobscot wellness court, a core group—Rhonda Decontie, social worker Donna Decontie Brown (Rhonda’s sister) and Judge Eric Mehnert—have worked with the Passamaquoddy in Washington County, as well as the Hopi in Arizona and the Lac Courte Oreilles in Wisconsin, to help other tribes establish their own wellness courts.
On Indian Island, bimonthly court hearings open with a traditional spiritual practice of smudging, followed by a brief non-denominational prayer and a reading from regionally based Native moral instruction known as the Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers. Participants sit in a semicircle, and everyone has the opportunity to speak, including encouraging one another and creating a supportive community.
“I was asked to develop a problem-solving court rather than a punitive court,” says Mehnert, who has served the Penobscot Nation as judge since 2008. “And that was the beginning of a whole new approach, for me, with the law. Nationally, more than three-quarters of all individuals who are incarcerated for a charge with a substance abuse component will end up back in jail within five years. That’s a frightful statistic, and what it tells us is that incarcerating people isn’t going to solve the problem. Instead, we need to help people navigate behavioral change.”
To do that, the wellness court staff is supported by a team that includes clinicians, substance abuse counselors, mental health counselors, cultural advisors and, representatives of housing, law enforcement, education, and career and social services.
Wellness court participants are intentionally brought back into the fold of the Penobscot community. They celebrate New Year’s Eve together with drumming, dancing and feasting. They make drums and weave baskets, learn to make traditional regalia (a shawl for a woman or a ribbon shirt for a man) and attend sweat lodge ceremonies and sweetgrass gatherings.
“One strand of sweetgrass is not strong on its own, but when you weave it together is stronger,” Decontie Brown says. “What we’re really doing is braiding—intertwining services working tightly together to lift up and support the participant.
The Penobscot use the term “braided services” rather than “wrap-around services,” which, for some, connotes blankets and the historical trauma of blankets being a form of transmission of smallpox to indigenous people.
“The program isn’t just focused on substance abuse counseling but acknowledging personal and historical trauma and the impact that plays on our people and our wellness,” Decontie Brown says.
Mehnert compares trauma to an infected wound. “Until we can get the infection—the trauma—out, the wound won’t heal,” he says. “A lot of people haven’t had the opportunity to be in counseling, and substance abuse often starts as self-medicating for underlying trauma.”
Under Mehnert’s leadership, the program has evolved from employing a probation officer with a law enforcement background to a case manager with a social worker background—and the budget recently grew to allow for two case managers.
Participants go through the program in 12 to 18 months, or 90 to 120 days for each of the four phases. To move on to the next phase, the participant must have 30 days of sobriety. Medically assisted treatments such as naloxone are allowed; medical marijuana is not.
In the first phase, the participant meets with a case manager weekly and follows recommendations, which may include an inpatient or outpatient recovery program —and participates in three recovery meetings and three random urine screenings per week and a wellness court hearing twice a month.
When a urine test comes back positive for substances, Mehnert has the authority to sentence the offender to jail time. But that’s a last resort, given that the goal isn’t to incarcerate but to rehabilitate. To that end, the wellness team has been known to ask the offender to write about what triggered their lapse and how they can prevent another.
The four phases in the Penobscot wellness court are named for traditional medicines—tobacco, sage, cedar, and sweetgrass—and are positioned on a medicine wheel graphic with each phase tied to a cardinal point direction and a spiritual gift: East for new beginnings, South for protection and purification, West for cleansing and North for wisdom.
At program completion legal charges are dropped—and, Mehnert says, the majority of wellness court graduates do not “re-offend.”
When participants complete a phase, they are given the traditional medicine for which the phase is named. At commencement, the graduate has all four elements, which they light with an eagle feather. The tribal chief or other tribal leader and family and close friends of the graduate are invited to mark the accomplishment, and the graduate wears tribal regalia, walking with pride in their community.
“The old ways are being lost,” Decontie says. “But I see people light up when they talk about the chance to dance or be in a sweat lodge, and they share those experiences at drug court. When I see participants coming back and holding their heads high, it fills me with joy.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Penobscot wellness court has continued biweekly hearings—via Zoom—and started a weekly session with case managers and participants to discuss a chapter in the book The Red Road to Wellbriety: In the Native American Way.
Freelance writer Amy Paradysz first met sisters Donna Decontie Brown and Rhonda Decontie at a Wabanaki-inspired fashion fundraiser for Maine Historical Society. Both have a passion for behavioral health and wellness and a commitment to Native culture, art and fashion.