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Step by Step

When Sonoma County's courts sentence alcohol and drug offenders to rehab, a nonreligious option hasn't always been clear—until one man's crusade to change the process

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Guillén does acknowledge that there has been some ambiguous or incorrect language used in court and county documents up to this point. That's being worked on, he says, and in some cases has already been changed.

"Mr. Kerr identified areas that were incorrect or needed to be expanded, and we have started doing that, and working with the county to ensure that participants know that there is an array of services available."

Guillén likens the choices in Sonoma County to a cafeteria menu, where defendants are encouraged to choose their mode of self-help. Consequently, the court has been meeting with the county to make sure that exclusive language is not used in any documents.

"I'm confident that most of the paperwork has been corrected, but we're in the process of making sure that any old documents are replaced by the new ones."

As of July, it does appear that changes are being made. At a recent meeting of the Sonoma County Advisory Board on Alcohol and Drug Problems, Derrick West, an administrator at the Department of Health Services Alcohol and Drug Services, said that the Participant's Guide to Drug Court was currently being revised. The old document specifically required participants to attend "12 Step meetings such as Narcotics or Alcoholics Anonymous." A look at the newly posted revised document on July 3 reveals that all references to 12 Step programs have been removed. Instead, participants are required to attend a "self-help group," without any specifications.

Kerr also received a response on May 30 from the Office of the County Counsel. According to Deputy County Counsel Phyllis Gallagher, the county had spent "considerable time" investigating county practices regarding referrals to self-help groups and did not find any violations of the Establishment Clause. (Calls to Gallagher for more detailed comment were not returned.)

"All county personnel and outside treatment providers under contract with the county work with clients who object to participation in 12 Step programs on religious grounds in developing alternative treatment plans," writes Gallagher to Kerr.

Mike Kennedy, Sonoma County Behavioral Health Division director, says that clients should not have to attend 12 Step support groups if they aren't comfortable with the spiritual aspects. He adds that it is important to respect clients' sensitivities, needs and choices.

"We support our client's participation in the support group of their choosing, as part of their individually designed recovery and relapse-prevention plan," Kennedy says by email. All contracted providers, and the county's detox facility, the Orenda Center, must offer referrals and brochures to a variety of self-help groups, says Kennedy. In fact, at a recent visit to the Orenda Center, LifeRing brochures were visible and accessible in the facility's waiting room.

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