A dad was set to lose daughter. How did Okaloosa's drug court program help him get sober?

Sierra Rains
Northwest Florida Daily News

On Monday morning, Eric Burch returned to his Niceville home after attending his 6-year-old daughter’s orientation for first grade.

Burch has become a father figure to his daughter and 2-year-old son, but it was only three years ago that he was told he might lose his daughter for good. 

Burch was incarcerated for about nine months on two felony counts of fraud and one count of dealing in stolen property. He was out of jail for about three months when he violated his probation and ended up behind bars again for misdemeanor charges of possession of drug paraphernalia. 

“I was an addict. I was addicted to heroin and methamphetamine,” Burch said. “I was just generally making poor decisions. I was in there nine months so I wasn’t using, but I had no real-world tools that I could enact in my life. So when I got out, I was lost and I fell in the same habits and same routine.”

Eric Burch is a graduate of Okaloosa County's drug court program. July 15 marked three years of sobriety for Burch — something he never thought was possible until he went through the program.

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He was facing more than a year of incarceration and was prepared to accept the sentence until his lawyer advised that he also would lose custody of his daughter, who was 2 years old at the time. 

“That was something I didn’t want to do,” said Burch, who added that the moment was a wake-up call. 

His only other option was treatment, and he was a prime candidate for Okaloosa County's drug court program. Director of Case Management Cathy White said the drug court looks at a person’s criminal history and current charges during its intake process. 

Non-violent offenders who score low on a point system based on their criminal history are accepted into the program. Those people typically have committed offenses such as forgery, possessing or selling drugs, theft and stealing property. 

The selection also has to be approved by the State Attorney’s Office, and a treatment provider who determines if the offender is suffering from a substance use or addictive disorder. 

“A lot of the charges are drug-related, and that’s why they committed the crime. It was supporting their habits. So we’re getting to the roots of what the issue is,” White said. “It’s extremely important to have a program like this because we’re wanting to treat the individuals so we can help them with that addiction so that they’re not back in the system again.” 

It took about a year for Eric Burch to complete the Okaloosa County drug court program. “It’s a challenge for sure, and there’s no way around that. But it was a beautiful thing because it enacted this structure in my life,” he said.

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Burch and other inmates who were interested in the program were taken to the courthouse on Wednesday nights, where they would sit in the jurors’ spots and observe in order to decipher whether the program was something that would work for them. 

Every week drug court participants are required to come before Okaloosa County Judge Jim Ward, who helps them track their progress. White said Ward often volunteers his time for the program. 

“It was something that at first it terrified me because they had Judge Ward out there and Judge Ward was really interested in these peoples’ lives, and he was holding them accountable,” Burch said. “It was something that you couldn’t just kind of fake your way through, so that kind of intimidated me at first.” 

How the drug court program works 

The program is separated into three phases and an aftercare component. Phase one includes three months of intensive outpatient treatment through the Lakeview Addiction Treatment Center in Shalimar. In some situations, participants also will be sent to an inpatient recovery center. 

Participants start out receiving 12 hours of treatment per week and are required to attend community support meetings and court sessions, find employment and undergo random drug testing. 

The testing is randomized by giving each person a color. Burch said he would have to call in every day to find out what colors were required to do a urine analysis. 

“It’s a challenge for sure, and there’s no way around that. But it was a beautiful thing because it enacted this structure in my life,” Burch said. “You put yourself in a vulnerable situation in group settings and things like that. It’s hard work. It’s mentally and physically exhausting, but the rewards are tremendous.”

The minimum required hours of treatment and court sessions gradually decreases as participants move through the next two phases of the program. The average time spent in the program is 12 to 18 months, depending on how well they are able to stay on track. 

“Sometimes people have a setback and they may be put back to Phase Two because they’re not following through with what they need to,” White said. “It’s not an easy program, but if they do the program they can be successful.”

About 79% of participants make it to graduation. They are able to graduate once they have met the minimum requirements of having a place to live, steady employment and transportation to treatment. Burch was able to complete the program without any setbacks about a year after he was accepted.

“I had the gift of desperation,” he said. “I was trying to get custody of my daughter back, and so I was completely willing and I trusted the process — that Judge Ward, my counselors and probation officers, that these people had my best interests in mind.” 

Eric Burch agreed to enter the Okaloosa County drug court program when he was faced with losing custody of his then-2-year-old daughter.

Impacts of drug court

About 50 people are accepted into the program each year, with an exception in 2020 because of COVID-19. At about 43%, White said less than half commit another crime within two years of graduating. 

The other 57% go on to reconnect with their families and friends and become productive members of society, said White, who added that she believes positively impacting just one person’s life makes the program worth it. 

“You’re talking about people that have had a long period of drug addiction,” she said. “And we have people that have graduated the program that have never completed anything, and they will say when they graduate, 'This is the first graduation that I’ve been successful'.”

Burch said part of his success was just making the effort to show up, which wasn’t always something he was able to do when he was struggling with his addiction. Not everyone he went into the program with was able to see it through. Those who are successful have to be willing to do the work, he said. 

“I’ve seen a lot of people that came in and weren’t really there yet and didn’t want to put that effort in. They weren’t done with their life before,” Burch said. “I think you have to really be honest with yourself and be willing to put that work in.” 

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Burch said he still practices many habits he learned during his time in the drug court program. On his dining room table sits a notebook he uses to journal and maintain structure in his life. Since his time in the program, he’s continued working with the same company that employed him doing contract work. 

Only a few years ago, Burch said he never would have thought he would be capable of being sober or being a “leader and a provider” for his two children and partner. But July 15 marked three years of his sobriety. 

“If I can do it, it’s definitely possible because I was really at the bottom of the barrel,” Burch said. “I had thrown away my life pretty much, and it’s a complete change of the person I am today, and I never thought it was possible. I never thought having peace and living with myself was possible.”