Addiction Professionals In the Pandemic – Terrence Walton

  • Who are you?

I’m Terrence Walton.  I am a husband that just celebrated his 20th anniversary, a father of two small children, and a man who has dedicated his life to two big things.  One is the well-being, in every sense of the word, of my family, and then secondly is to help free men and women from addiction – and that includes especially helping people who are helping people get free.

RISE19 Opening Ceremony on Sunday, July 14, 2019 in Oxon Hill, Md. (Paul Morigi/AP Images for National Association of Drug Court Professionals)
  • What do you do professionally?

I’m a treatment and recovery management professional by training.  That’s all I’ve ever done in my entire life as an adult.  Right now, I am the Chief Operating Officer with the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP).  I hope folks know what drug courts are.  We call them treatment courts or recovery courts these days.   They are actual courts either on criminal calendars or family calendars for men,  women, and youth who are involved in the justice system – not because they are hardened criminals but because they are living with addiction or mental illness that is leading to arrests and/or criminal activity.  Treatment courts are designed to help individuals get linked up with effective treatment and effective recovery management, instead of incarceration or just probation without the services they need to get and stay on the right track.        

  • Do you have any personal interest in addiction and recovery that you’d like to share?

Yeah, I do.  I’ve done this for a very long time, and I took a couple of years in the middle of my college career to really decide where I wanted to settle, and I settled here.  I’ve often wondered what my personal tie-in to this really is.  One is that it’s my calling.  This is what I am here, here on Earth, to do. And where that calling came from – the personal basis of it – I think some of it is because I have a long history of addiction in my family, both sides of the family.  I have a favorite uncle, my mother’s only brother, who struggled with alcoholism his entire life.  I have very early memories of him being sort of lost in alcoholism.  I remember one time the family was in the car driving around at night. My two brothers and I were very small and in the back seat.  My parents were out looking for her brother and they found him.  I didn’t know what was going on, Brian, but I remember seeing him.  He was sweating, he was talking out of his head, and my father got out of the car and took him into a place and got him a drink – a beer.  And I saw him get better.  He was himself.  I don’t remember if my parents explained to me what that was about, but I never forgot it.  And I think that planted a seed.  Also, while I’m not a person who is living with a substance use disorder, I’m an ally of men and women in recovery.  And I walk my own recovery journey for my issues that I discovered while working professionally in the field.  So, in addition to my alliance with men and women in addiction and in substance use disorder recovery, I discovered my own issue and work a daily recovery practice, a daily personal practice.       

  • Tell us about your professional experience in the area of addiction and recovery.

I’ve been doing this for as long as I’ve been doing anything professionally.  For me that’s over 30 years.  I worked for about 5 or 6 years, maybe a little more, doing direct services initially as a tech in a residential adolescent treatment center.  And that’s a fancy word for “I observed urines, checked patients’ belongings at intake for contraband, and spent time with young people to keep them from getting into it.”  It was there I discovered I really connected with the kids and the work I was doing.  I was good at it.  I didn’t have much training at that point – maybe two years of college – but I discovered that this is what I want to do.  I want to run a place like this.  After my direct service time, I soon had the opportunity to take over as director of an adolescent treatment program – earlier than I probably should have, based on how little experience I had.  But things went well there.  So, I spent the early part of my career directing community-based addiction treatment programs.  And about 17 years ago, I became director of treatment for the pre-trial services agency for the District of Columbia.  That’s a large pretrial services agency here in Washington, DC.  It’s actually a Federal agency.  And they had and have a drug treatment court.  That’s how I became involved in the drug court world, and very soon I got connected with the organization where I am now – NADCP – as a senior consultant advising them on treatment and recovery matters, and training for them all over the country.  I was eventually persuaded to leave my federal position to come on board here in this role.  So I’ve had the pleasure of working with hundreds and hundreds of mostly young people and also their families, living with addiction, and probably thousands of professionals who are helping people receive and succeed in treatment and enter long-term recovery.  So, I’m enjoying my career – it is what I’m here to do.           

  • What are you most proud of?

Well first of all, and this is for real, my wife and I started our family late, so we have two small kids— my son just turned four and my daughter just turned seven.  I’m convinced that my children are very aware of how much they are loved and how much they and how amazing they are, and that matters to us.  My wife and I both believe that this is critical to wellness.  And it’s never too late to have a happy childhood, so people can always catch up later.  But there’s damage done when children aren’t safe and secure and loved unconditionally.  I know that my children feel that and I’m very proud of that.  Professionally, when I think “proud”, it’s really gratitude.  I’m very grateful that God has given me the ability to do the thing that matters to me and do it really well.  And I’m grateful and proud of the influence I’ve been able to have broadly, but especially in the justice system as it relates to working with men and women who are in the middle of addiction and desperately in need of recovery whether they know it or not.              

  • What keeps you working in addiction and recovery?

You know, I can’t imagine doing anything different.  There are certainly opportunities that have arisen for me to do something other than work in the addiction and recovery field.  I’ve always easily said “No” to those.  Because it is very clear to me –there is no more important and critical work. I am so aware that there are men, women, and young people who are trapped in addiction – they are in bondage – and so much of their potential, what they could do for themselves, their families, our communities, this world, is hampered by the fact that they are trapped and can’t keep the promises they have made to themselves, let alone anyone else.  And that bothers me.  This world and especially this country we’re living in, Brian, is a mess.  And there are people in recovery who will be a part of how we get better as a country. I am convinced of that because real recovery requires self-reflection, acceptance of those who are different, humility, and service.  And that’s what this country is going to need to really recover, not just from this pandemic, but from the unrest over injustice and racism, and the resentment of people in certain communities feeling left behind and forgotten.  We need people in recovery who possess the values required for us to do well, for this country to heal. So I keep doing this because I know that I’m making investments in our future, and making investments in people being able to at least get on the same journey that we’re all on – trying to live our purpose, find meaning, and make this a better world.      

  •  How has the pandemic affected your work?

There’s no question I didn’t see this pandemic coming.  No one did.  I had never really given this possibility much thought.  I suppose I wasn’t a good student of history – of the previous pandemics.  I help lead this organization and we spend lots of time out, throughout the country and the world working directly with teams, court, states, and nations who are implementing treatment courts.  Even though I am Chief Operating Officer and my job is based here in the Washington DC area, I spend probably a third of my time on the road: trainings, speaking, and working hand-in-hand with organizations and systems who are trying to help people enter in recovery in a lasting way.  Other than webinars from time-to-time, we’ve been accustomed to doing business in-person.  We have a significant on-line presence at allrise.org and at ndci.org.  However, the bulk of our work is face-to-face and I really value that.  I’m a face-to-face kind of guy.  We’re that kind of operation. We had to adjust.  We had to figure out and accept “This is what is. And this is going to be our new world for a while.”  Our mission doesn’t change. My calling doesn’t change.  People don’t stop needing help.  Programs don’t stop struggling.  And so we had to adjust.  We closed our physical office for nearly all staff in mid-March.  Our office is closed now and we’ll remain closed throughout 2020 at least.  I still come in most days, as does one other person but everyone’s working hard from where they are.  As the COO, I had to operationally reorganize to be sure the job could get done, and that our team had the resources they need.  Only a third of us teleworked beforehand, and that went up to nearly 100 percent.  I had to personally focus very heavily on my operational duties, to be sure that progress on our critical mission could continue.  Personally, I just had to get used to training and assisting virtually.  And fortunately, I remembered that I’m pretty comfortable on camera and found ways to connect that way too.  I’m looking forward to a world where we can return to some in-person work.  But even as it is, I don’t think we’re missing much.      

  • What effects of the pandemic are you observing in the people you serve?

I’m seeing significant impacts.  And some of the impacts I don’t think we even know yet; we’ll know when we look back and analyze what’s happened to people.  This situation has given me the opportunity to have more one-on-one conversations with treatment providers, and teams, regarding their struggles.  Many of the people they serve, the clients they serve, the families they serve, are struggling.  They had been doing well in treatment court because they have the structure of the court and all that provides, especially the accountability and the reinforcement they get from a judge saying, “Great job! Keep it up!” They’ve sometimes been able to benefit from the best treatment they’ve ever gotten.  More than what they might have gotten if they just walked in off the street from somewhere.  Perhaps they were finally able to integrate into the larger recovery community.  And then, suddenly much of that dropped off. Some treatment courts had to suspend operations altogether for a little bit just to re-group, to figure out how they do court virtually, consistent with laws and regulations. Many treatment providers hadn’t previously delivered telehealth and so they had to figure out how to do that. Part of what sustains many who are early in their quest for abstinence and recovery is drug testing. Many programs understandably had to suspend that.  So the suspension of these kinds of things or the lessening of them I think had some big impacts.  I talked with a program a couple of weeks ago who has not yet resumed services.  That’s unusual – most have. But they haven’t.  I fear once that program is able to resume, those participants who they can find are going to needs lots of work to help them get back on track. Another program, during their very brief shut-down, lost three individuals.  I mean three individuals died.  With one, they are not certain if it was drug-related or not; they know the other two were.  Those kinds of impacts are real for the people they serve.  Finding ways to adjust and navigate this has been a real challenge.  My organization’s job is to figure out how to help them. And we didn’t know, so we had to figure that out for ourselves first.  They need resources. We provided a number of webinars and publications.  We added a full page to our website, just about getting through the pandemic. Because as I mentioned earlier, pandemic or not, addiction continues. One more thing is this – I remember driving through some of the areas in DC where people who are struggling with addiction get their drugs. And I observed that the drug trade was alive and well.  So that didn’t go away, and people still needed help.  Yes, there have been significant challenges.         

  • What, if any, long term effects do you anticipate on the field?

There are probably some good things that have come out of this, but let me first talk about some of the other kinds of effects. I am concerned there may be individuals who are just lost to us – I mean long-term.  There are people who were doing well in treatment court and they’re just lost to us. I hope they find a path somewhere else, but for some that’s not going to happen.  For some already that’s been clearly the case.  I also recognize that the money that the state and Federal governments have had to spend to keep people surviving, and the economy, are going to have to be repaid. I suspect when things settle down, and it’s time to pay the bills, that this may result in cuts in areas that are critical for people’s lives, including funding for treatment and recovery management.  I’m already thinking about how we advocate collectively to keep as many resources in treatment and recovery as possible.  We also need to  be prepared to seek more private sources to help pay for what I fear may be a reduction in public funding for this really important stuff.  

  • Have you seen any benefits or new opportunities in the pandemic?

I have.  I’ve mentioned the fact that I’ve gotten better at this.  Well, a lot of people have.  There are a lot of courts that have, and treatment centers that have. Many treatment centers that have never done telehealth are doing it now.  As a result of that, they are finding ways to reach people that they couldn’t reach before.  Even in regular times, it has been challenging for some of our treatment court programs and recovery centers to connect with the people who need them because they are so spread out.  Just getting to court, and having to get to treatment, and they have a job somewhere hopefully – it’s been really a struggle.  Many drug treatment programs are seeing now that they can continue some of this so that a person who has a job can attend the virtual court hearing on their break and then get back to work. They don’t have to find a way to travel across the town or the state to get to services.  I believe that by necessity the justice system, supervision offices, treatment centers, recovery peer support groups, have all been forced to go virtual and make that lasting.  Peer support groups like Smart Recovery have always been largely online and so they were in much better shape.  AA and NA, where most people get their peer support from, had some virtual meetings and phone meetings, but many of those fellowships have stepped it up so people can see each other.  I believe these additions are lasting.  They are enormously helpful for access and for people who really want and need to wrap around themselves a support network that is available almost any time.  I believe that’s going to happen and is a really positive outcome of everything we’re going through right now.      

  • If you were able to work on a fantasy project to improve treatment and recovery support, what would it be?

Brian, here’s what I want to see happen one day and perhaps be a part of: I want to focus on two impoverished communities – one in a large urban center, and one in a rural area. Using a cross-systems approach, I want to focus on the people who live there, who have hopes and dreams like everyone else and where addiction is alive and well (because addiction is everywhere), and help to create recovery-supportive communities in an intentional way.  Leveraging and building resources in those communities.  Part of that effort to create a recovery-oriented community would mean ensuring that people’s basic survival needs are met (needs for shelter, sustenance, safety, and sustainable healthcare).  That’s a part of a recovery-oriented community.  Because if people’s basic survival needs are not met, it’s very difficult to focus on sobriety and other elements of wellness.  Understandably!  And as we work on that, we develop or build upon those kinds of services and programs and connections that can help people move from addiction, to remission, to recovery.  That means embedding in those communities really good evidence-based treatment and various treatment interventions, including medications to help support recovery.  It means recovery centers, and recovery barber shops and salons, and gyms focused and designed for people in recovery – recovery high schools.  That’s what I want to see.  Let’s start small and be deliberate and intentional in growing it.  That’s what I would like to see happen one day soon. 


This interview was conducted on 10/07/2020