- Associated Press - Sunday, April 16, 2017

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) - Michelle DeBord rifles through a binder stuffed with homework assignments and personal papers to find a dozen photographs illustrating her troubled past.

Each picture tells the story of a woman struggling with addiction and the sudden death of her husband. They reveal numerous trips to rehab and lost custody of her two oldest children. Her eyes well with tears as she confronts the painful memories.

DeBord, 39, is a heroin addict.

“A little piece of heaven on Earth,” she described the drug recently. For years, it was the only way the Oregon woman felt she could get out of bed, but came at a price.

“I became a slave to it,” DeBord said. “It was always about getting more.”

Now two years clean, DeBord insists her saving grace was Umatilla County Drug Court. When 13 other inpatient treatment centers failed, drug court succeeded. Through the program, DeBord said she learned how to take accountability for her actions and responsibility for her future.

With drug court set to be eliminated June 30 due to a half million dollar budget shortfall, DeBord is putting herself front and center in an attempt to keep the program alive. She is helping spearhead a group of advocates, including former drug court employees, meeting with state lawmakers and circulating an online petition to raise public support.

Perhaps more importantly, DeBord is encouraging her fellow drug court graduates to speak up, share their experiences and put a human face on the program.

“I think humanity is the most important part of this,” DeBord said. “I need to share that wisdom. I need to get that story out there.”

For DeBord, the photos she keeps are a sobering reminder of her own journey. It has been two years since her last hit, and she plans to graduate from Blue Mountain Community College this winter with majors in sociology and anthropology.

None of that would be possible without the structure and support provided by drug court, she said.

“It did change me. It changed my life,” DeBord said.


Growing up in Pendleton, DeBord was one of five kids raised by a single mother. They were poor, and the stress at home ultimately led DeBord to drop out of high school when she was 15 and move in with a friend.

Around that time, DeBord said she began experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Four years later, she met Christian, the man she would marry and who convinced her to go clean.

Slowly but surely, she said they got out of poverty and had two kids together - son Bailey and daughter Addison.

“It was wonderful,” DeBord said.

Things changed, however, after the couple was injured in a hit-and-run car crash. They became addicted to opioid painkillers, and on April 1, 2002, Christian died after mixing Valium and OxyContin, which caused him to lose consciousness and asphyxiate. He was 27.

The death was especially damaging for DeBord.

“I fought all my life to find the stability we had,” she said. “I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

In her grief and guilt, DeBord turned to heroin to blot out the pain. In the short term, she said the drugs helped her to function. But in the long term, they consumed her life.

DeBord sold everything she could - her furniture, her kids’ belongings, her wedding ring on more than one occasion - to buy heroin, running with a group of 11 other addicts. Bailey and Addison were eventually adopted out to DeBord’s parents in Milton-Freewater, and DeBord gave birth to her third child at a methadone clinic in Eugene. She did not even know she was pregnant until 24 weeks.

“Heroin keeps you so numb, you can’t put it together,” she said.

Over the years, DeBord cycled in and out of 13 different rehab centers, but none worked. In hindsight, she said she did not want them to work.

In 2012, DeBord was convicted of felony assault of an officer while high. The incident took place during a welfare check at her home. The court sentenced her to three years’ probation and more than 300 hours of community service.

As part of Measure 57, DeBord’s probation officer also got her into drug court, despite not having a drug-related charge.

“I fought it for a long time,” she said.


Umatilla County Drug Court was established in 2006 as an intensive treatment program that blends counseling, group treatment and community service to put medium- and high-risk offenders on the right track. Participants also need to have a job or be enrolled in school full-time to graduate.

At the time, the county Local Public Safety Coordinating Council applied for and received a grant from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission that covered 100 percent of the program cost. Since then, state funding has declined to the point where, next biennium, the program would be $516,000 in the hole.

The county says it cannot make up that gap, and the public safety council decided to ax the program in its current form. However, the council will discuss potential alternatives for providing drug court services.

Dale Primmer, director of Community Corrections and a Pendleton city councilor, said that could take a number of forms, depending on size, scope and funding.

“It all comes down to what model we can afford,” Primmer said.

The big question now, Primmer added, is what exactly the state budget will include for justice reinvestment. Currently, Gov. Kate Brown’s proposed budget calls for $32 million statewide. But if the Legislature can agree on a plan to stave off the opening of a second women’s prison, it could bump that number up to $50 million.

DeBord said she plans to get as many drug court participants as possible to attend the council meeting about drug court alternatives.

“This is something that can’t be overlooked,” she said.

Nicole Morris, a drug and alcohol counselor who began working with drug court last year, said the program not only provides steps for offenders to succeed, but gives them a safer place to fail. Offenders tend to be very artistic and intelligent, Morris said, but just haven’t been shown a better way to live.

“We were able to be there for them, and advocate for them,” Morris said.

Mike Breiling, a Pendleton attorney and former public defender, said drug court can be beneficial for addicts who need that level of care and intervention. The program is cheaper than putting offenders in jail for six months or a year, he said, and no less effective in getting them clean.

Breiling does, however, caution against overusing the system.

“I have seen, in the past, people who would seem to me to be a poor fit,” he said. “We should really reserve it for people who truly need it.”


It took three years for DeBord to embrace and eventually graduate from drug court. The biggest wakeup call, however, had nothing to do with the program.

Two years ago, teenage daughter Addison was flown to a Portland hospital with a life-threatening condition that affected her pancreas. DeBord said it reached the point where doctors said there was nothing else they could do.

“I’m just out in the parking lot, screaming at God,” she said. “I said if she dies, I’m going to lie on this floor and die too. I’m not leaving without her.”

Addison did not die, but spent three months in the intensive care unit before they were allowed to return home on Christmas Day 2015.

DeBord swears that, in the face of death, her daughter chose to live.

“I decided that day that I would choose life too,” DeBord said.

DeBord said she has not touched drugs since that time. Meanwhile, drug court staff stuck with her throughout the ordeal, and helped her to see a life outside of addiction. She hangs her framed drug court diploma proudly on her wall, among her paintings and family portraits.

“I never want to forget that,” she said.

DeBord now lives in a home with her sister and 2-year-old niece. Bailey, now 18, graduated last year from McLoughlin High School and Addison, 17, will graduate later this year.

Drug court affects more than just participants, DeBord said. It also has a profound impact on children, families and loved ones.

“I want them to look at $516,000 as 516,000 people,” she said. “You can’t put a price tag on a life.”


Information from: East Oregonian, https://www.eastoregonian.com

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