A lasting legacy: Developing treatment court program was 'labor of love'

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A celebration was held in late 2019 in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the 37th District Treatment Court. The event included a ceremony for the court’s most recent graduates. Tom Jekielek (left) is pictured with Judge Matthew Sabaugh (right), presiding judge of the treatment court, and retired 37th District Court Judge Dawnn Gruenburg, who started the court in 1999.

– Photo by John Meiu


By Melanie Deeds

Legal News

Over the two decades Tom Jekielek was involved with the Treatment Court program at 37th District Court in Warren, he helped change the lives of hundreds of troubled folks.

It was a rewarding, gratifying period in his life and he’s thrilled at the success of the ground-breaking initiative.

But Jekielek greatly understates his role, according to Judge Matthew Sabaugh, who presides over the docket of the specialty court.

“The truth is there wouldn’t be such a successful 37th District drug court without Tom Jekielek,” said Sabaugh of the court’s longtime director/coordinator who retired on Dec. 2.

Sabaugh said Jekielek “was there from the beginning ... when everyone thought it wouldn’t work.

“He worked nights and weekends — and I believe it was a labor of love,” the judge said. “Tom dedicated himself to our individual participants, taking the time to see them through their difficulties as they overcame addiction and rebuilt their lives.

“He got to know them and their families and he was always patient, kind and encouraging.”

Jekielek missed the most recent ceremony — a Zoom event on Dec. 15. Five participants graduated from the intense program that helps defendants with substance use disorders achieve long-term recovery.

But Jekielek savors many fond memories of similar ceremonies before that virtual event.

“Those occasions were rewarding. I think the program helped a lot of people,” he said.

Since the program began in 1999 — one of the first in the state — more than 600 people have graduated. Those who successfully complete the program often see the criminal charges filed against them dropped or significantly reduced.

Although Jekielek doesn’t show up at the office anymore — and admitted in a recent phone interview he still feels like he’s just on vacation — he still stays in touch through e-mails and phone calls with the new coordinator, Donna Cilluffo, who previously served as case manager for more than 13 years.

“Just helping a bit with the transition,” he said.

The Treatment Court includes both the Drug Court and the Sobriety Court, which are structured – and intense – probation programs.

The programs currently have about 80 participants. They are non-violent offenders facing felony or misdemeanor drug offenses and second-offense drunken driving charges.

Jekielek, who has a master’s degree in psychology specializing in substance abuse, had worked at a variety of clinics in the area before he joined the court more than 20 years ago.

He and Judge Dawnn Gruenburg combined their energies and skills to formulate the specialty program along with its original coordinator, Sue Woodhouse. Gruenburg left the court in 2012 to serve as an administrative law judge for the Social Security Administration.

Although drug courts had been operating for several years in Florida in the late 1990s, “nobody really heard of them in Michigan” when the program got underway in Warren, according to Jekielek.

“Even today, if you say treatment court or drug court, a lot of people have no idea what you are talking about outside the legal community,” Jekielek said.

At the start, “a lot of people didn’t feel it was worthwhile,” Jekielek said. “They thought it was too lenient of a program, that people should be punished in jail.”

Sabaugh echoed those comments about the early days.

“This was started way back in 1999 when really it was not viewed as the way to go,” he said. “Judge Gruenburg had the foresight to understand that you treat addiction by treating it as a disease.”

Thousands of specialty courts have been established around the country these days, not just focusing on substance use disorders, but also offenses committed by veterans, the homeless, juveniles, and those suffering from mental health issues. 

Drug courts are primarily funded through federal and state grants and, according to Sabaugh, that’s one of the areas where Jekielek exhibited his expertise.

“Tom had the ability to write these grants to get the program funded and keep it funded,” the judge said. “He kept the program going strong after Judge Gruenburg retired and worked well with everyone on our team.”

It is a rigorous and demanding program, Jekielek acknowledged, and not everyone who is offered the opportunity accepts the challenge. Depending on the crime, it takes participants 12 to 18 months to meet all of the criteria.

“I’ve done assessments on people that come into the program and they chose jail instead,” Jekielek said. “They felt it was too intense. There were too many requirements.

They didn’t like all of the monitoring, the drug testing, the treatment, self-help meetings and meetings with the judge and members of the court staff. They felt it was too much to do right off the bat.”

Not everyone succeeds, Jekielek noted, adding that even for those who graduate, “I wouldn’t call it a permanent fix.”

Said Jekielek: “In cases of people with substance use disorders, a lot of times there are relapses. But it does help in the long run. A lot of people who graduate from various programs maintain a long sobriety after graduation.”

Although there are some setbacks, “it is something that helps people stay sober and in recovery, usually long after they graduate from the program,” Jekielek indicated.

The pandemic was tough on the program and its participants, but Jekielek said he and his staff “maintained as much contact as possible.” They stepped up phone contacts and tried to stay in touch through online meetings.

For Treatment Court participants, a host of factors came into play, Jekielek said.

“A lot of it was just having nothing to do,” he said. “People turn to substances in such situations. It’s hard for people to lose social contacts. A lot of the self-help meetings shut down and people missed their treatment for a while.”

After all of his years with the court, Jekielek has many good memories to cherish as he settles into retirement. Among his favorites are instances in which program alumni would show up for annual court picnics, parties and graduation ceremonies.

“Most often they would report that they were maintaining their recovery,” Jekielek said. “Some would say they had slipped up but, that with having that background, that solid treatment behind them, they got back on track quickly.”

There were other special visitors — several women “that came into the program pregnant and were able to deliver healthy babies,” he said. “They’ve come back with their families to visit.

“We’ve had people that graduated 15 years or so ago and continue to show us that they’ve made progress in life. They’re working, they have families, things are going good. It’s gratifying to see.”

Jekielek is encouraged to see the rising number of specialty courts and believes attitudes are continuing to change when it comes to criminal cases involving those with substance use problems.

“More people recognize that treatment does help and does work for people, and it’s better then just locking people up,” he said. “There are a lot of courts now where you’re using a treatment-oriented approach rather than a punitive approach.”

Jekielek admits it was “great helping people. I miss it in a way.”

His absence will be felt by those on the treatment court staff as well as the participants, Sabaugh said, but Jekielek’s dedication and focus will serve as a motivation to keep the program strong, according to Sabaugh.

“Myself and the whole team will continue the program that Tom helped start,” said Sabaugh. “The work goes on more than ever as the opioid crisis still rages across our community. We are all grateful for Tom and his dedication to the drug court.

“He will be greatly missed. He has truly left a lasting legacy.”

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