April 9, 2024

Quinault Indian Nation Wellness Courts Replace Punishment with Empowerment

The Quinault Indian Nation’s court system focuses on individual healing from addiction, instead of criminalization and punishment.


Underscore News + ICT

From the steps of the Quinault Indian Nation Tribal Court, you can feel the warmth of the sun on your skin and hear the Pacific ocean waves reach out to touch the shoreline just a short walk away. 

Each person that walks into tribal court is greeted with genuine smiles. Case managers joke amongst each other and catch up with their clients. Quinault Tribal Court Chief Judge Leona Colegrove sits at a desk in plain clothes, her back to the raised bench where judges typically sit. 

“I hate the way that the courtroom is set up where the bench is in the front and up higher than everybody else,” Colegrove said. “I think it's intimidating for people who come to the court. I have people who hate coming to court, they're scared out of their mind to come to court because they associate it with bad things, and I don't think it has to be like that.”

The Quinault Indian Nation Tribal Court in Taholah, Wash. on Nov. 7, 2023. (Photo by Chloe Collyer / ICT + Underscore News)

The Quinault Indian Nation has established alternatives to western court systems that focus on individual healing as opposed to criminalization and punishment. The Adult Wellness Court at Quinault is an alternative to “Drug Court.” Family Wellness Court is the Quinault version of Family Court, which helps keep youth with their parents while supporting parents’ sobriety. Juvenile Wellness Court is Quinault’s latest program, intended to divert Native youth from incarceration and keep them in school. 

“I think that justice for Indian people looks different and always has. It's very communal. Issues are resolved by the community at large generally,” Coelgrove said.

There are about 400 tribal courts in the country. Of those, over 100 have incorporated wellness programs and at least 11 are run by Native nations in what is now Washington state and two in Oregon. According to Colegrove, there are only eight tribal courts in the U.S. that have what Colegrove calls “the trifecta” – wellness courts for adults, families and youth. 

Colegrove started the Quinault Wellness Court in 2011. But when she left the nation in 2012 to become the Chief Judge of the Quileute Tribe, it wasn’t sustained. When she returned in 2021, she picked back up where she left off with support from the community, service providers and the Quinault court’s wellness committee. 

“It's nearly impossible to do if you don't have support from leadership and from the different departments and agencies within the tribe because it really, really does take a village,” Colegrove said. “When I walked in the door almost three years ago, I literally walked in to three employees and we now have probably well over 20 staff members and contractors because that's really what you need in order to develop and maintain this type of programming.”

The wellness committee alone consists of 10 people including the judge, attorneys, probation officer, job training manager, a community member, a Quinault elder, and representatives of the Quinault Indian Nation’s council, police department, education department, chemical dependency program, family services and behavioral health program.

They meet weekly to monitor progress and provide support the participant might need to succeed in each phase of the program.

Colegrove was an attorney for six years before becoming a pro tem judge for the Northwest Intertribal Court System for five years. She earned her own full-time bench in 2011. 

“I really had a front row seat to the system as it relates to addiction and our communities and it just doesn't work,” Colegrove said. “Throwing people in jail doesn't work when they have addiction issues. It's just going to be a revolving door and it's gonna cost everyone time and money and now it's costing lives. It's either come up with an alternative or just watch people die.”

Adult Wellness Court

The typical Drug Court model allows adults who have committed a drug offense to enter Drug Court in lieu of jail time. The person is ordered to attend classes and undergo regular drug tests, which they pay for. If they miss classes or fail to comply with court-imposed obligations, they serve their original jail sentence. 

The Quinault Adult Wellness Court also addresses substance abuse issues through a variety of social services including individual counseling, recovery groups, community service and random drug testing. But it does not require clients to pay for these necessary steps to sobriety. Another major difference lies in a healing model that recognizes relapse as a part of recovery. 

“It's just been so important to be able to say to them, ‘We expect that you are going to have stumbling blocks once in a while. We prefer you don't, but if you do, we prefer that you be honest about it. You're in this infancy period of your sobriety, and you don't have the tools and that's why you're here – so that you can get the tools. And we recognize that,’” Colegrove said. 

Glenn Black, adult peer support specialist for the Quinault Indian Nation Tribal Court, sits on the beach near the tribal courthouse on the Quinault Reservation in Taholah, Wash. on Nov. 7, 2023. (Photo by Luna Reyna / ICT + Underscore News)

Colegrove said that’s a crucial message for people who have low self esteem and typically are very hard on themselves. These conversations help them to understand that they have a sickness and that’s not their fault. Now, it’s up to them to take advantage of the opportunity to learn the tools and accept the support needed to live a life of sobriety. 

Adult Peer Support Specialist Glenn Black also checks in with participants regularly to help them find opportunities for growth like getting a driver's license. 

“I had one client that hadn't had her driver's license in 22 years and she successfully did it in like two-and-a-half weeks,” Black said. “Those are big steps.”

Black says many in the program get overwhelmed or can be forgetful so he reaches out to remind them to check in with their probation officer and case manager. 

When things come up that Black can’t solve on his own, he brings it to the attention of the entire wellness team and they work together to find a solution for the individual. One client that was struggling to find safe housing which impacted their sobriety. This client had relapsed multiple times. Black reached out to Friendship House in Aberdeen, outside the reservation. The participant thrived there and has recently moved into her own rental home back on the reservation. She has maintained her sobriety for almost 9 months now.

Glenn Black, adult peer support specialist for the Quinault Indian Nation's Adult Wellness Court, with the sweat lodge dome he and wellness court participants built on the Quinault Reservation in Taholah, Wash. on Nov. 7, 2023. Black holds Sunday sweats with wellness court participants. (Photo by Luna Reyna / ICT + Underscore News)

Helping participants get basic needs like housing met is part of phase one of the wellness court program. It’s designed to help the client focus on sobriety and other meaningful goals. During phase two, they begin to focus on a treatment plan. In phase three, additional responsibilities like community service, recreation, cultural activities and employment or education are added. And in phase four, the client’s focus is working with a sponsor and maintaining their sobriety once they leave the program.

Seeing people succeed and knowing that there are people who have gone even one more day without using drugs or alcohol has been incredibly meaningful for all the staff at the wellness courts. 

“I think the most rewarding thing is seeing the change,” Colegrove said. “A lot of people have gone the vast majority of their life feeling like they're just pieces of crap. This is probably, for many of them, the first time in many years that they have had anybody tell them, ‘You are a beautiful human being and you're not your mistakes.’” 

Juvenile Wellness Court  

The Juvenile Wellness Court, which launched June 2023, is very similar in its focus on supporting each client in their sobriety through the chemical dependency classes and programs while also creating meaningful relationships. 

“When I first talk with one of the juveniles I always tell them that, ‘I'm here to give you a platform for your voice to be heard. I'm not here to try and get you in trouble,’” said Craig Itewaste, juvenile wellness court case manager for the Quinault wellness courts. “A lot of the time they don't feel like they get that. They don't feel like someone has their back, helping them rather than someone being more of a disciplinarian.”

If Native youth ages 12 to 19 who fall within the jurisdiction of the Quinault Indian Nation Tribal Family Court come into the Quinault Tribal Court for any reason, they get referred to Juvenile Healing to Wellness Court. If they finish wellness court, their case gets dismissed. Youth who are habitually truant are also referred to wellness court. Because of the positive outcomes of youth who have graduated from the program, families have even requested that their children be admitted to wellness court without a prior active case. 

Right now they do not receive referrals from outside the reservation, but the nation was awarded a million-dollar grant to begin the development of joint jurisdiction courts that would allow Natives in the area to access the Quinault wellness courts. 

“Our goal is to have kids come into the program before the problems get too significant,” said Deputy Court Manager Nora Mix. “They need all the support they can get.”

Craig Itewaste, Juvenile Wellness Court case manager for the Quinault Indian Nation Tribal Court, stands on the beach near the tribal courthouse on the Quinault Reservation in Taholah, Wash. on Nov. 7, 2023. (Photo by Luna Reyna / ICT + Underscore News)

The Wellness Court partners with Taholah High School. Every kid in the Juvenile Wellness Court program has a case manager that is consistently in touch with the school. Additionally, the school has a liaison that comes to court every week to report to the wellness team about how the kids are doing in their classes, attendance, behavioral issues and extracurricular activities. 

Consistently being there for each youth to keep them on track with their chemical dependency and mental health treatment plans, grades, attendance and other expectations builds trust and opens communication. Sometimes that means just being there and listening. 

Itewaste gave an example of a youth whose grandmother who raised him had just been diagnosed with stage four cancer. Itewaste listened and empathized. While the youth couldn’t change the cancer diagnoses, he could change how he showed up for his grandmother. The youth likes to cook, so Itewaste suggested he cook one meal a week for her. 

“He walked out of here and was joking, laughing, feeling a lot better,” said Itewaste, who has a background as a professional chemical dependency counselor. 

“I have one kid that they said doesn't even talk majority of the time but when he sees me he’s talking about me, fist pumping me smiling,”  Itewaste said. 

This youth’s mom says he doesn’t even open up with his psychiatrist in this way. 

“That's because I listen,” Itewaste said. “I'm not trying to sit here and dictate what the conversation is gonna be. A lot of times I let them talk about what's going on in their life.”

A Quinault youth attends a hearing at the Quinault Indian Nation Juvenile Wellness Court in Taholah, Wash. on Nov. 7, 2023. (Photo by Chloe Collyer / ICT + Underscore News)

In another instance, a youth shared that class was too loud for him to finish his work. Itewaste advocated for him and the student was able to go to the library or stay after school to finish up. 

Like with the Adult Wellness program, the Juvenile Wellness program has four phases with much of the same requirements. However, youth must write a letter to the judge each time they are ready to move up to the next phase. There's also a focus on recreation, cultural activities and after school tutoring, if needed.

During weekly hearings, the case manager and the rest of the wellness team share and celebrate. 

“They really enjoy coming in and getting rewarded for their successes,” Mix said. “We listen to them. I don't think it's very often that a teenager has a room full of adults that really want to listen to what they have to say, what their struggles are, and take them seriously.”

Itewaste said he always makes sure youth know their accomplishment is the result of their own hard work. He just guides them in that direction.

Family Healing to Wellness Court

Family Healing to Wellness Court also has four phases with very similar requirements to Adult and Juvenile Healing to Wellness Courts with chemical dependency, mental health and sobriety requirements. By phase two, there are requirements meant to strengthen the family unit. The case manager also works with the parents to ensure children’s education, social and health needs are also being met. 

In Washington, Native children are placed in foster care over three times the rate of the general population. Nationally, Native children are 1 percent of all children in the U.S., but are almost 3 percent of all children who are placed outside their homes in foster care, according to the National Indian Children Welfare Association

When children are taken from their parents it can be months before they have a hearing. Colegrove shared that separating a family and then expecting parents who are struggling with substance abuse to do chemical dependency classes, parenting classes, and more without support is a recipe for failure. 

The beach near the Quinault Indian Nation Tribal Court, on the Quinault Reservation in Taholah, Wash. on Nov. 7, 2023. (Photo by Luna Reyna / ICT + Underscore News)

“Wellness court is completely different,” Colegrove said. “We'll see you each week. We'll give you bite-sized morsels of what what we expect from you and then as soon as you reach that goal, we'll give you some more bite-sized morsels of what we expect from you and in the meantime, because we're monitoring you so closely, you don’t stand the risk of losing your kids because we know your kids are safe because we see you every single week.” 

In addition to weekly hearings, mental health therapy and chemical dependency program, parents often have daily check-ins with their case manager, 

“There's no way that you're going to fall through the cracks or your child is going to fall through the cracks because we are here,” Colegrove said. “We are wrapped around you like a blanket and nothing is going to happen. We're comfortable leaving the kids in your home while you're working on this stuff because the most important thing is to reunify or keep the family intact.”

During these first two phases, the wellness team works together to make sure the family’s basic needs like housing and food are met so that the parents can focus on sobriety and their children. 

“We have families who are facing homelessness,” Colegrove said. “We're able to all roll up our sleeves and say, ‘What can we do here?’ That's not something that these parents have the capability of doing because they don't have those kinds of resources. We are able to rally around the family and get them what they need and it's life changing because now they don't feel threatened. They feel cared about.”

Phases three and four are about setting the family up for success including resolving warrants, child support or custody issues and being employed or in school. Cultural program requirements are also a major part of the three courts. 

Cultural programs

Chelsea Capoeman, cultural consultant for the Quinault Wellness Courts, sees the classes she leads as helping participants understand how their values, beliefs and attitudes contribute to their culture and the culture of others. Capoeman usually cooks a traditional meal of fry bread, clam chowder, chili or Indian tacos for the juvenile classes. 

“I want to nourish their bodies as well as nourish their minds,” Capoeman said.

The classes are an opportunity to connect with culture in ways that many have never experienced. In one class, participants made a traditional Quinault tea. Capoeman went over the properties and how to prepare it. She taught them how to say and spell sɫəɡwəlmiš ti in the Quinault language. In other classes, participants have made cedar heart medallions and drums. 

A participant makes a drum in Chelsea Capoeman's culture classes, as part of the Quinault Indian Nation's Juvenile Wellness Court. (Photo courtesy of Chelsea Capoeman)

Each class comes with its own lesson. Capoeman asked the youth to gift that bag of tea to someone that they cared deeply about, and say, “I want you to be able to take care of yourself. In times of sickness I’m thinking of you. This is a gift of me showcasing my devotion to you and I want you to be healthy.” Capoeman asked that they also talk to their loved one about the history of the tea. 

When making the heart medallion, Capoeman brought up the impacts of global warming on dentalium: a small, white, horn-shaped mollusc, and the Quinault history of using it as a form of currency or as a way to display status. 

While they work, Capoeman talks to her students about traditional values and community. She believes these conversations and the revitalization of cultural traditions help them avoid relapse.

“Some of these adults are, for the first time, learning these skills because they were too shameful in their pattern of self-destruction to partake in cultural activities,” Capoeman said. “Or they felt that they weren't worthy enough.”

In addition to Capoeman’s weekly classes, Black holds a sweat lodge every Sunday. The sweat lodge was built by Black and the clients and is located just along the Quinault River. According to Black, after each sweat many of the participants will jump right into the river, washing away all that was released during the sweat and bringing each person closer to their Creator. 

Community impact

Having a cultural component was really important to Colegrove when beginning to implement these programs. She saw that a critical part of healing would be reconnecting with family and the Quinault community. As Quinault citizens have gone through the programs they have returned to the community as contributors. A few people haven’t graduated from the program, but even in those circumstances, they haven’t returned to past behaviors that land them back in the revolving door at the courthouse. 

sɫəɡwəlmiš ti, or Indian tea, made by youth in Chelsea Capoeman's culture classes as part of the Quinault Indian Nation's Juvenile Wellness Court. Participants learned about the tea's medicinal properties and how to say and spell sɫəɡwəlmiš ti in the Quinault language. (Photo courtesy of Chelsea Capoeman)

“I think that [wellness courts] really brought our community closer together,” Mix said. 

Mix believes that instead of looking at citizens who are struggling with addiction through a judgmental lens, more Quinault people are thinking about how they can help. And those struggling with addiction see the wellness courts, and case managers, as people they can trust and count on in the community. 

Black received one such call recently. “This person called me up and said, ‘Hey, I feel like using. I know where you work. What kind of words can you give me right now to help me?’” Black spoke with her until she felt ready to go home without using that night. She messaged him the next day thanking him. 

Capoeman hopes that the rest of the community continues to give grace to folks struggling with addiction. 

“We have a unique stance in Indian country where we have our cultural identity to back us up in times where we need to harness inner strength and resilience in times of disparity,” Capoeman said. “These people have reached rock bottom and they deserve compassion, understanding, and an opportunity to prove themselves.”

Lead image: Chief Judge Leona Colegrove speaks with Adult Wellness Court participants during a hearing at the Quinault Indian Nation Tribal Court in Taholah, Wash. on Nov. 7, 2023. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)

About the author

Luna Reyna

Luna Reyna is a writer and broadcaster whose work has centered the voices of the systematically excluded in service of liberation and advancing justice. Before coming to Underscore News and ICT as the Seattle-based Northwest Bureau Chief, Luna was Crosscut’s Indigenous Affairs Reporter, and her work has appeared in the South Seattle Emerald, Prism Reports, Talk Poverty and more. Luna is proud of her Little Shell Chippewa heritage and is passionate about reporting that sheds light on colonial white supremacist systems of power.

Twitter: @LunaBReyna

Email: lunar@underscore.news

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