First Drug Court Graduate Turns over ‘New Leaf’
March 12, 2021 by Amy Patterson

Tom Clemens Celebrated for Achieving Sobriety, Success in Program

Tom Clemens has made history as the first graduate of the Geauga County Common Pleas Court “New Leaf” Program, but he plans to keep looking forward as, in his mind, backward is not an option.

Tom Clemens has made history as the first graduate of the Geauga County Common Pleas Court “New Leaf” Program, but he plans to keep looking forward as, in his mind, backward is not an option.

Clemens was celebrated March 11 by his treatment team, fellow program participants and Geauga County Common Pleas Court Judge Carolyn Paschke, who initiated the drug court program in 2019.

The program is a voluntary, long-term commitment for those who have been charged with felonies related to drug use and have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder.

Depending on the participant, the six-phase program lasts between 16 and 24 months, and currently has 17 participants.

During the ceremony, Paschke and Geauga County Public Defender Bob Umholtz touched on Clemens’ long history with the justice system, which stretches back over three decades.

Clemens became well-known through his time in the drug court program for his one-liners, including the phrase “reverse is not an option,” Paschke said.

He started the program after another courtroom encounter with Paschke in 2019.

“I just got tired of looking over my shoulder and you gotta do that if you’re in reverse,” Clemens said. “So, I just kept pressing forwards and it made a difference.”

Paschke said the week before the graduation gathering, Clemens made a comment about being in front of judges once again.

“He (had) spent some time in front of judges and I said, ‘You know what Tom, at graduation, you’re not gonna be in front of me, you’re gonna be next to me,’” Paschke said. “And so that’s a little bit of symbolism here of him standing here next to me.”

While he was an active addict, Clemens’ gifts of the heart were only available in glimpses and only to people who were close to him, Umholtz said.

“Boy, over the past year, year and a half, those gifts have really come out. You care about people, you’re compassionate, you have empathy,” Umholtz said. “There’s so much good that you can do now, so many people you can help with all of your gifts. And I know all of us who’ve known you over the years are very proud this day of you, our first graduate.”

New Leaf participants are required to attend weekly status hearings with the judge, submit to twice weekly substance screens, and participate in substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling. Support and assistance are offered for employment, job training, transportation and housing needs.

The program is built around a treatment team that includes representatives from Lake-Geauga Recovery Centers, Ravenwood Mental Health Center, the Geauga County Prosecutor’s Office, Geauga County Public Defender’s Office, Geauga County Sheriff’s Office, Family Pride, Northeast Ohio Community Alternative Program and Adult Probation.

The team meets weekly in a collaborative setting to share progress and discuss rewards, consequences and changes in treatment for participants.

To successfully graduate from the New Leaf, participants are required to complete six phases. Each phase has different requirements and goals, with the early phases focused on stabilization and sobriety and later phases focused on maintaining sobriety long term, as well as education, job training and social activities. Participants are required to demonstrate continuous abstinence from illicit drugs and alcohol for a substantial period of time, remain arrest free and obey other supervision conditions.

A ‘Bright Light’

On Thursday, Clemens was commended by speakers, including members of his treatment team and other participants in the program. One special guest, however, explained his personal reasons for supporting recovery programs in the community.

“Drug addiction has hit our family rather hard,” Geauga County Commissioner Jim Dvorak told Clemens.

In 2016, Dvorak said his son-in-law’s sister died of an overdose, leaving behind two daughters who instantly became Dvorak’s granddaughters.

“Then a year later, my daughter, Jamie Marie, passed away Feb. 1 of ‘17. And that was devastating,” Dvorak said, his voice heavy with emotion. “So anytime there’s a program like this, I get behind it.”

Dvorak said he put efforts in memory of his daughter into the Red Tulip Project, which is the first recovery house for women in Geauga County. The community is behind everyone in the New Leaf program, he told Clemens.

Liz Doran, who worked with Clemens through Ravenwood, told him it was a privilege to see every step of the rebuilding of his life and see him walking down a new path.

Given his “colorful history,” Clemens has shown the treatment team and other participants that his past does not define him, Doran said.

“It’s been so fun being able to work with you, being able to support you,” Doran said. “And I know you feel lucky to be in (the program), but I feel just as lucky to have been able to be a part of it with you.”

Clemens’ success was also heralded by Sally Charney of Lake/Geauga Recovery Center, who said even on his darkest days, Clemens gave support to other people in the recovery program. One group activity Charney described had participants bring something they really like to a group meeting.

Clemens parked an 18-wheeler behind the building.

The experience stayed with her, Charney said, because Clemens “dissected” the vehicle, describing details down to the cost of each tire.

“That was the point of doing that, to see people’s passion,” she said. Because it doesn’t always happen, when (people) truly let go and surrender, … and it’s like a bright light. Everybody sees it.”

Recovering from an addiction is not about asking someone to get their lives together and then bringing in a 12-step or other recovery program, Charney said, adding those processes can happen together.

Paschke said Clemens, as an alumnus of the program, will still be involved, although now on a voluntary basis.

He has already offered help and support to other program participants, she said.

One of them, Deidra Fairbanks, is currently in phase five of the program and commended Clemens for completing the program, as well as for taking care of his mother.

“I’m so proud of you. You’re accountable, you’re dependable, you are a wonderful guy and you’re doing wonderful things,” Fairbanks said. “You’re showing this community that we are not just some trash. We have issues and we can overcome them.”