“Many People Who Do Bad Things Are Not Bad People”

April Chouinard at Solace Apartments in Saint Peter, photo by Sarah Whiting

In 2018, I had charges against me in five different counties in Minnesota, ranging from theft and tampering with motor vehicles to fifth-degree possession and child endangerment. I lost my children in an emergency removal of custody after a family member found syringes loaded with methamphetamine in my bedside table drawer, well within reach of my children, ages two to eight.

I became violently resentful. I felt I was owed a beautiful life that had been ripped away from me. Every obstacle I faced was someone else’s fault, and I felt myself to be a helpless victim of circumstance. I was dishonest with others, manipulative, and would say whatever I felt would make someone want to help me. The world owed me, and I thought everyone should feel sorry for me.

I was convicted of drug charges in Nicollet County and placed on supervised probation. My probation officer had genuine compassion for those of us who struggled with addiction. Eventually I learned of the Nicollet County Treatment Court team. Judge Allison Krehbiel oversees the program that seeks to reform people who, in her words, “have done bad things but are not inherently bad people.”

Trapped in a Cycle

I was what the recovery community deems a “chronic relapser.” For reasons unknown to me at the time, I was trapped in a cycle — a conviction to stay sober and turn my life around, then phenomenal craving and relapse. Over and over again.

After my fourth probation violation due to chemical use in 2019, I was facing a year in jail and losing the weekends I was finally able to spend with my daughters. I asked to become a participant in treatment court and was approved. My life has continually changed in the most awesome ways since.

I began to develop a sense of fellowship with people recovering from alcoholism because of the mandatory 12-step program. I came back from a relapse with a portable breathalyzer. Head hung low, hood up, I expected to be a disappointment to my new friends. To my surprise, they joked with me about their own relapses and were sincerely happy I had shown up.

I began to realize my voice that day. Bit by bit, I shared more of my truth, however ugly, each time I returned.

The treatment court I experienced succeeds at looking at people simply as individuals with struggles. Participants develop genuine relationships with people most of us are taught to fear and see as villains.

It is about two sides in a system coming together to promote healing.

Experiencing Love in Treatment Court

My mother passed away when I was young, and my dad honestly could not be a father after that. He did the best that he could, but I hopped around from place to place. Most parental figures I connected with were drug addicts or drunks. I was vulnerable and had no one to teach, guide, or protect me. I became a young mother.

April Chouinard (l) with Judge Allison Krehbiel

From the age of 13, when my mom got sick, until I was 33, I had no discipline, structure, or sense of accountability.

Treatment Court changed everything for me. When I stood in front of Judge Krehbiel for the first time, she spoke to me in a way that I originally thought was incredibly inappropriate. I was scrutinized for bad parenting and seeking attention from men. I also was told that I am intelligent, capable, and worth more than relapses and the dishonest life I was living.

Judge Krehbiel works with a team of professionals — including mental health and legal specialists — to serve people in Brown, Nicollet, and Watonwan Counties. She asks them to help her help us, and carefully considers the input she is given. She loves us all until we can love ourselves. She is open and kind, and makes people feel like they are worth something.

Judge Krehbiel never gave up on me. She convinced me that I was going to do profound things in recovery, and here I am. I am using my story, my testimony, to help others recognize their own potential. I am now a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist, building a team of other people in recovery to fight against the addiction epidemic in Nicollet and Blue Earth Counties.

The team that enfolded around me during two years of the treatment court program enabled me to create a beautiful ripple of light that serves the public, that serves me, and by extension serves my children.

As I was preparing to write this reflection, I had a chance to sit down with Judge Kreihbel for a conversation about what the treatment court process meant to me. I was able to express to her my appreciation for being the maternal figure I missed having when I was young.

While we talked, she braided my daughter’s hair. It is a warm, comforting image I will never forget.