Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Learning to Live Life in Recovery

When 23-year-old Ali McEwen thinks back to being a teen, “Life was good.” She has memories of spending time with her family and engaging with people at a local milkshake shop. Those fulfilling connections are a driving force in her life, again, thanks to a treatment court that gave her the chance and the resources to address her mental health and substance use.

McEwen lives in eastern Ohio along the West Virginia border and participates in the Steubenville Municipal Mental Health Court. When she was evaluated by health professionals for the program, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenic symptoms. She says she remembers feelings of anxiety and depression as a teen that were calmed by using drugs.

“I started about a month after graduating high school, and it was like a hurricane. Every drug that was around I was consuming,” said McEwen.

Over the next five years, she was “overdosing more times than I can count” and in and out of jail. Her relationship with her parents and siblings suffered because of her behavior.

“I was manipulative. I would lie to anybody. I would say whatever to get what I needed to get,” said McEwen.

She lost custody of her young son, Wyatt. She was convicted of drug possession. And soon, she was back in Steubenville Municipal Court for theft. She was referred to the mental health docket run by Judge John Mascio. He started the program in 2020 after he saw a pattern in many cases.

“More and more, we were getting people who were drug addicted but also had severe mental illness,” said Judge Mascio.

He tries to get additional background information from defendants during regular court hearings if he detects something unusual about the offense.

“Someone with no criminal record suddenly might have multiple petty theft charges. In those instances, it’s important to have discussions with people so that we can try to get them the help they need.”

Judge Mascio and his staff achieved certification of the mental health court through the Supreme Court of Ohio. To become certified, a court must develop evidence-based practices, policies, and a network of community support by partnering with treatment providers and social service organizations. Each program undergoes reviews of its plan and on-site assessment.

“It’s a lot of work that requires us to regularly review our materials, but that also allows us to keep up with innovations to make our program more effective for participants,” said Lisa Hall, the mental health court program coordinator.

The Steubenville program offers two tracks. The first is called “in lieu of conviction,” where participants who complete the program may have their charges dismissed. For the majority, including McEwen, participation in the mental health court is a condition of their probation. Participants progress through phases to transition from a treatment focus, to sober living, to keeping on the right track. The court can assist with some of the essentials including stable housing, education, and employment.

“We help participants with their everyday needs so they can focus on recovery. We try to remove those barriers so they can create a positive structure that leads to sustained sobriety,” said Hall.

For McEwen, support has been critical. She was close to one year of sobriety when she relapsed. An unrelated health scare was followed by a week in the ICU, leaving her out of work for two months. Court funds covered her rent and utilities until she recovered. The program helped her  regroup, change her environment, and affirm her goals. One of them is taking business classes to open her own milkshake shop. Another is to repair the relationships in her family including regaining custody of her now 5-year-old son, Wyatt.

“Life is really good now. I’m really looking forward to taking him to the beach for the first time when we visit Myrtle Beach later this month,” McEwen said.