One graduate returns to her family from brink of death

The Yates County Courthouse, like all institutions of its kind, is rarely the scene of happy events. Most people called to appear there arrive by unfortunate circumstances, some of their own making. One event that does not fall into that unhappy lot and brings an atmosphere of celebration is when the county judge formally approves adoptions, when children are given a new chance in life with their new families.

Another court event also celebrates new chances at life - graduation from the Yates County Drug Treatment Court. And the YCDTC celebrated its 33rd graduation just in time for Christmas and the New Year; a significant time for new hope and new beginnings for us all.

Yates County Judge Jason L. Cook, who presides over the YCDTC, welcomed the four graduates Wednesday, Dec. 20, along with their families, friends, counselors, and other YCDTC participants who have helped them toward this day. Together, they have 1,867 days of “clean time.” The three men and one woman have all known Cook for several months in the less formal setting of “drug court” (as it is commonly known) but all four were admitted to the program during the tenure of the now retired Judge W. Patrick Falvey who was also in attendance for this important day. All four first met Falvey in the far more severe setting of Yates County Criminal Court, where their drug use and related crimes brought them, standing before that bench for heroin possession and even dealing drugs to other addicts to fund their own addiction.

Years ago, these crimes would have resulted in lengthy, costly, and ineffectual prison sentences. The drug courts were conceived in Rochester in 1995 as a diversion program for non-violent drug users to receive effective treatment rather than merely punishment. Since that time, the statewide courts have proven to be far more economical.

Every $1 spent on drug court saves over $2 in treatment costs, according to Cook. And nationwide, drug courts save over $3.30 in criminal court costs, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Drug courts are also more effective than prison sentences, resulting in lower rates of repeated and drug use.

Judge Cook stresses that the first responsibility in drug court is honesty. Participants are sanctioned and even removed from drug court for any failures to be forthcoming and accept responsibility for their actions and choices. Relapses are also sanctioned, but the nature of addiction means that this is often seen in the first stages of recovery.

One woman’s story

One of those graduates can proudly claim that her time in drug court was longer than some, but was never once sanctioned. That is a testament to how seriously she took this new chance. It is also testament to how desperate her addiction had become. Natalie Tette is willing to let her story be known because that story so easily could have ended far earlier and more tragically.

In February 2015, a driver reported to the Penn Yan Police that she thought she may have hit something lying in the snow near Basin and  Seneca Streets that she feared might have been a person. When officers arrived, they found Tette, semiconscious lying in the roadway bleeding from the face.

In November that year, Tette was discovered unconscious and overdosed on multiple drugs behind the wheel of a vehicle at night in the parking lot of Penn Yan Elementary School. 

Tette’s story of how she was introduced to opioid drugs is all too common today. She was first prescribed them following her hysterectomy. “That began a tumultuous relationship with drugs,” she says. Her doctors kept prescribing them, and she continued to seek other highs as they stopped.

Moving to Penn Yan from Florida in 2012 but having no circle of friends here, she fell in with “some people I thought were fun,” who first introduced her to heroin.

Within a year she was hopelessly addicted. She lost her job, her home, and worst of all, her four children. “I can’t believe — I can’t even relate to who I was then, who I used to be. I pushed everyone away because of my behaviors. No one wanted to be around me. I was desperate. I wanted someone to save me — I couldn’t do it myself,” she recalls.

Tette says that overdose in the school parking lot and another were actually attempts at suicide because of what her life had become, and were just as sincere as cutting her wrists in another attempt had been. “I couldn’t succeeding at anything, not even at killing myself,” she adds.

Tette confesses not relief, but only sadness and disappointment every time her life was saved.

“It’s an awful cycle,” she says. “You want to change but you don’t know how.”

Her near encounters with death by drug use and hypothermia, by overdose, and even by suicide were not enough to make her get clean.

Tette says it wasn’t until she was arrested that she was able to break the cycle. Following the parking lot overdose, she was charged with felony DWAI by drugs, felony first degree aggravated unlicensed operation because of a prior conviction for DWAI in 2014 in Canandaigua.

“Even though I had the money to bail myself out,” she says, “I knew if I did I would use again.” That date just over two years ago was the beginning of her sobriety, but not her recovery.

In May 2016, she was sentenced to 5 years probation under the terms of YCDTC, and it is this period she calls the beginning of her recovery when she was choosing not to use again. “I knew what not to do, but not what to do,” she explains. Tette says she never saw drug court as “an easy way out.”

“I always saw it as an opportunity. I wasn’t in a rush,” she says. “I was starting at the bottom - all I wanted was to get sober.” She admits she had never been a patient person, but she was for this, “There was no ‘normal life’ for me to get back to.”

Tette went through two very strict rehabilitation programs, including Liberty Manor in Rochester, one of the toughest in the state. She then worked with counselors five days per week to get to the root problems that were leading her to drug use: her fears and anxieties stemming from the difficulty of her childhood. “I know it’s a cliché, but it does have an impact on the adult you become. I’m now able to understand myself better than ever before. It took getting completely lost to find myself.”

Now Tette has her life heading back in the right direction. She graduated from supported living in October, has her own apartment in Clifton Springs, and is attending AA and NA on her own. She is back at college, earning high honors and with perfect attendance. Tette credits Drug Court Coordinator Evelyn Watkins and her Probation Officer, Linda Rossi, with the support and counseling that made it possible.

“Evelyn scared me crapless the first time we met! I was in tears,” Tette says. “Now she is my biggest support along with Linda. I visit them even outside of drug court and always will.”

The greatest milestone she has achieved has been reconnecting with her family. Tette recounts with tears that her 14-year-old eldest daughter came to see her graduate from YCDTC. Speaking on a white Christmas Eve, Tette said, “Drug court has been the best thing ever for my family. Tonight will be my first time back with my kids going to Christmas Eve service since all this started four years ago. I wouldn’t have that without Drug Treatment Court.”