'I'm not going to drink right now': Program helps drunken drivers

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Frank Schultz
Tuesday, June 10, 2014

JANESVILLE—It's impossible to tell how many lives might be saved by a new Rock County Court program, but Donna Risch knows it saved her.

Risch became the first graduate of Rock County OWI Court in a courthouse ceremony Tuesday.

She has been sober since her third arrest for drunken driving in February 2012.

She had rear-ended another driver after drinking with friends, Risch told a courtroom filled with court officials, friends, family and fellow program participants.

“Alcohol was taking over my life—mentally, physically, emotionally, financially and now my freedom,” Risch said. “I knew without a change in my lifestyle, one of three things would happen. I would kill someone else, kill myself or end up in prison.”

Judge Alan Bates, who presides over OWI Court, grinned as he announced Risch's accomplishment, which was more than two years in the making.

“Today is a special day,” Bates said.

Risch, 27, Beloit, is the mother of a two small children. Her job is providing in-home therapy to autistic children. She got a reduced sentence for completing the program, not to mention a second chance at life.

“I started noticing changes in my life: Lost a lot of 'friends,' or drinking buddies, but started gaining true friends, people who actually cared about me,” she said.

The program has four phases and lots of meetings. The first phase included 112 hours of sitting in a circle with others in the program and talking, she said. Risch found that the most beneficial.

Participants must juggle work, family, employment and arrange to attend meetings every week, sometimes more frequently.

Participants also attend Alcoholics Anonymous, meet with Bates regularly and submit to random drug and alcohol tests. Some fail those tests, and Bates imposes consequences.

The program requires sobriety.

One participant who admitted Tuesday to having drinks—his first offense—was ordered to attend a relapse-prevention group. More meetings.

Bates admonished the man that punishment would be more severe for a second misstep.

A woman admitting to her second episode of drinking was required to attend relapse prevention and to give eight hours of community service.

The program started in fall 2012 with the help of state money dedicated to treatment of offenders. Three of the original 24 participants dropped out.

Five soon will join the program, returning the enrollment to the maximum, 25.

No qualified person has been turned away, said Elizabeth Pohlman McQuillen, criminal justice system planner.

Research has shown that OWI courts work better than jail or prison and better than treatment alone, according to a press release from the court. It seems to have worked for Risch.

“I've seen a tremendous change with Donna. I'm very proud of her,” said Risch's mother, Tina Bouton.

Everyone in the courtroom, including a representative from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, rose to give Risch an ovation.

Risch was glad it was over. She said afterward she doesn't want to drink again.

She said her AA sponsor taught her the attitude that works for her: “I'm not going to drink right now.”

Setting goals for not drinking can lead to failure and backsliding, she said, but those seven words force her “to face whatever problem or stress or boredom or even celebration without alcohol.

"By the time I think about drinking again, I realize I didn't need it, and I can handle life situations without drinking.”

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