PASSAIC COUNTY’S DRUG COURT HELPED AMANDA ZITA TRIUMPH OVER HER ADDICTIONS TO OXYCONTIN AND HEROIN. BUT FIRST SHE HAD TO CONFRONT A CHILDHOOD TRAUMA.
The only thing Amanda Zita wanted was an escape. Downstairs, in the lobby of the La Quinta Inn, three Secaucus police officers were looking to enforce a warrant for her arrest.
Upstairs, locked in her hotel room, Amanda held a brick of heroin.
Amanda looked out the window. She considered using a heavy chair to smash the glass. Maybe she could jump, run to the reeds by the New Jersey Turnpike, take cover in the swamp.
But it was 2 p.m., and she was five or six stories up.
She looked at the heroin. She loaded up a clean needle, then another. It worked. Slipping back into the drug’s familiar fog, she escaped the nausea of withdrawal. Her relapse into drug addiction had offered an escape from her fear of prison and her sadness at disappointing her parents, as well as her guilt over abandoning her home in Wanaque, her new business as a wedding planner, her boyfriend and her 3-year-old son.
She even escaped her secret ― the one she’d harbored since she was 7, the one that had driven her to drug addiction in the first place. The trauma she endured for seven years, and then suppressed, dragged her from a sheltered childhood in the New Jersey suburbs to sleeping in a stolen tent in the woods, and from there to the abandoned houses of Paterson’s drug dens.
Her secret lingered despite years of pleading from her parents to get clean, and despite intensive probation ordered by Passaic County’s drug court, which offers addicts a path to recovery as an alternative to prison.
Even when Amanda looked into her son’s giggling face, she saw her secret sneering back at her.
So long as her secret remained a secret, heroin was the only escape she knew.
For people like Amanda Zita, who spent six years on and off OxyContin and heroin, drug court is one of the only government programs that has proved effective at breaking the cycle of addiction and crime.
Drug court judges offer addicts facing nonviolent charges and low-level felonies a choice: prison or closely supervised treatment. In drug court, they must submit to frequent urine tests, inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment, weekly appearances before a judge and a probation officer, and weekly 12-step meetings. And they must find a job.
Any slip-up can land probationers back in jail. People with too many relapses can be ejected from drug court and ordered to serve their original prison sentences.
“Addicts are good liars. They manipulate people. The more you handle it, the better you are at sniffing things out,” said Judge Miguel de la Carrera, who runs Passaic County’s drug court. “In drug court, they’re employed, paying taxes, meeting their child support obligations. It’s a ripple of benefits just from getting that one addict into recovery.”
The first drug court was created in Miami in 1989 as an experimental response to the crack epidemic. Today, more than 3,000 drug courts operate in all 50 states and more than 20 countries, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
Drug courts spread fast, but opioids spread faster. The rate of overdose deaths from all drugs per 100,000 Americans tripled between 1999 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile the number of fatal opioid overdoses multiplied by a factor of five in that period, with 42,249 deaths by 2016.
For decades, Americans believed that drugs were a problem only in cities. Opioids shattered that notion.
In Bergen and Passaic counties, 505 people died of drug overdoses between 2014 and 2016, a 17 percent increase over the preceding two-year period, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2017 County Health Rankings report. Ten years ago, large suburban counties experienced the lowest rate of drug overdose death in the country, the foundation’s report found. Today, such communities post the highest rates of drug overdose death.
When she was born, Amanda Zita seemed immune to the dangers of opioids. No one could have expected thata girl born to well-off suburban parents could wind up a single mother, homeless, not caring whether she lived or died so long as she got her next fix.
“That’s what we learned going through this,” said Faith Zita, Amanda’s mother. “You’re not safe anywhere.”
Hamburg is the spot on the map where northern New Jersey’s sprawl peters out. To the east lie hemmed-in suburbs like Nutley, Faith Catanese’s hometown, where the problems she associated with city life — drugs, crime and violence — always felt a little too close.
To the west lie farms, rock quarries and a forest that seems to run all the way to Scranton, Pennsylvania.
“We moved up here when Amanda was 1 because we found this nice house. And we said this would be a nice place to raise her, away from everything,” said Faith, who married a construction worker named Mark Zita. “That’s what we were thinking: ‘We’re safe up here!’”
Starting out as a low-paid manual laborer, Mark Zita moved into the upper middle class by learning to operate heavy equipment and climbing the ranks of a local construction union. Faith stayed home with Amanda, their only child.
“I was very regimented. My grades had to be good. I had to get up on time for school. I had chores,” she said. “It wasn’t like I was a princess. I had to work for it.”
In return, Amanda received nearly everything she wanted. Her parents paid for years of dance lessons and regular trips to Macy’s at theRockaway Mall, plus the latest video game consoles, bicycles, snowboards and popular music.
“As a kid, I had every toy you could think of,” Amanda said. “It was like, no questions asked.”
A man in her life, a man her parents trusted, noticed that Amanda liked to shop. With her parents’ permission, he started picking her up on weekends and driving her to the mall.
“I looked forward to every weekend going to Coconuts and getting a CD and getting ice cream and going to eat fast food, all the things my parents didn’t do,” she said.
After months of grooming, the man raped Amanda. She was 7. The abuse continued almost weekly until she was 14.
“He gained this mental power over me,” she said. “He was telling me, ‘This is how people love one another. And kids love secrets, so this is our secret. You can’t tell anybody. You don’t want the sneakers or the CDs to stop, do you?’”
Today, Amanda knows she was an innocent victim. At the time, however, accepting the gifts made her feel complicit in the abuse.
“I felt like nobody would believe me as a kid,” she said. “So I didn’t say anything.”
Powerless to stop the abuse, Amanda found other ways to express her pain. She raged at her parents, then sealed herself away in silence. She was caught lying at school, and became disruptive in class.
Amanda’s parents found her a therapist who prescribed antidepressants, including Zoloft and Paxil.
“I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I could tell she wasn’t behaving like herself,” Faith said. “It was easy raising her, and now she’s going to be defiant? I was like, ‘What the heck?’”
Between memories of rape in the past, and fear of rapes to come, nothing quelled Amanda’s horror.
“I didn’t care about my schoolwork. I didn’t care about my toys. I didn’t care about anything,” she said. “I was completely shut down. I was like an empty shell.”
When Amanda turned 18 she got her first job, at a restaurant a few blocks from home. She rose from dishwasher to sous chef in less than a year. After closing time, the staff would party, gorging on alcohol, ecstasy and cocaine.
No matter how much Amanda drank or snorted, memories of rape filled her with self-hatred and terror.
“I didn’t blame myself for the first time of it happening. But I blamed myself for letting it continue,” she said. “I just felt disgusting and dirty and wrong. If those thoughts come into my head, I feel like I have to go home and take a shower.”
Flush with money, Amanda reserved a hotel room by the beach in Seaside Heights for a weekend party with friends. Afriend took Amanda by the hand, led her into the bathroom, and locked the door.
The friend pulled a pill from the front pocket of her cut-off jean shorts. She laid it on the toilettank, crushed it to powder with a credit card, and handed Amanda a plastic straw.
Amanda didn’t know what it was. She snorted it.
It was 40 milligrams of OxyContin, a drug whose active ingredient is oxycodone, a partly synthetic opioid nearly twice as powerful as morphine. Forty milligrams is a lot. The maximum dose for adults experiencing severe pain from car accidents or operations is 9 milligrams every 12 hours, according to advice on the prescription drug’s use published by the Mayo Clinic.
The drug locked into Amanda’s opioid receptors, flooding her brain with calm euphoria.
For the first time since she was 7, Amanda forgot her secret.
This, she supposed, was escape.
“It clicked,” she said. “It was like, ‘This is what’s been missing.’”
The only thing she wanted was more.
More than 1.5 million Americans were arrested for drug possession in 2016, the latest year for which data is available, according to the Department of Justice. Nearly half a million people are in jail or prison on nonviolent drug charges. At an average cost of $33,274 per year, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, taxpayers spend $15 billion annually to incarcerate nonviolent drug offenders.
“As you can see, locking up drug addicts is not working at any level,” said Judgede la Carrera, of Passaic County’s drug court. “They’re still addicted, so they’re going to get out and go right back to selling and using drugs and stealing. It goes on for decades if the person doesn’t get into recovery.”
New Jersey’s 21 county drug courts have offered 22,973 addicts an alternative to incarceration since the program started in 2002, according to the state courts system. Of those, 37 percent have graduated or are currently serving the final, and lightest, phase of probation.
There are signs that the programs work. Only 18.6 percent of New Jersey drug court participants have been re-arrested within three years of graduation, and 88 percent are employed. By comparison, 62 percent of people imprisoned on drug charges nationwideare re-arrested within two years of release, according to the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.
“I really think it makes a huge difference,” de La Carrera said. “A remarkable number of people get their lives on track through drug court.”
Taxpayers spend more money on social services for the average drug court participant compared to someone on regular probation, the National Institute of Justice found. But when the benefits of reduced crime and increased employment are factored in, drug court saves society $5,680 per participant, according to a study by the institute that applied a cost-benefit analysis to a study of 2,500 offenders in 28 drug courts across the country.
Despite its track record of success, however, drug court often fails. Half of New Jersey’s enrollees drop out. Nationally, 56 percent admit they continued to use drugs after enrolling in drug court, and 40 percent admit to committing additional crimes, the Department of Justice found.
“It works,” de la Carrera said, “but it’s not a panacea.”
Even when it works, drug court is slow. It often takes 18months to two years for addicts to begin to change their behavior, said Terrence Walton, who directed treatment programs for the drug court in Washington, D.C., before becoming chief operating officer of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
Many drug courts limit participation to five years. Amanda Zita needed seven years to graduate, partly because of her relapse in 2015, which caused her to miss mandatory probation meetings and led to her arrest at the La Quinta Inn.
One problem, experts say, is that drug court proponents believed for years that by addressing the addiction that drives so many crimes, they were attacking the root of the problem.
Too often, they weren’t.
That’s because for many addicts, especially women, drug abuse is usually a symptom of something more deeply rooted: childhood trauma.
“It’s an overwhelming correlation” between childhood trauma and drug addiction later in life, said Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatry professor at Boston University Medical School and one of the world’s foremost authorities on trauma. “It’s rare to find people who become drug addicts who have not been victims of childhood trauma.”
Over the last 20 years, researchers have established strong links between trauma and addiction. Among women seeking treatment for drug addiction, researchers have foundthat between 63 percent and 83 percent were sexually abused as girls.
“So many studies have now shown the link between trauma and addition,” said Molly Wolf, a social work professor at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania who researches trauma. “There’s no denying it now.”
People who experience more intense abuse over longer periods are at greater risk of becoming addicted to drugs, researchers have found. Among survivors of all types of childhood trauma, including emotional neglect and physical beatings, people who experience sexual abuse as children are most likely to relapse into drug use, receive warrants for their arrest and fail out of drug court, according to Wolf’s research.
“If you feel really desperate, there’s no drug like heroin to make you feel like life is OK,” said van der Kolk, a former president of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and theauthor of “The Body Keeps the Score,” a New York Times-bestselling book about trauma treatment.
With agrowing consensus that addiction is often rooted in abuse, justice system leaders in many jurisdictions reformed their drug courts to incorporate trauma treatment, hoping to lower dropout rates and speed recovery.
“Most drug courts today that are on the ball have a significant trauma-informed piece because [trauma] is so common, and it absolutely can sabotage recovery,” Walton said. “The goal is to become trauma competent.”
Passaic County’s problems with drug addiction are well known. In 2014, 3,763 people were arrested for drug possession in the county, according to the latest figures available from the FBI. Two years later, 3,303 county residents entered drug treatment programs, according to the New Jersey Department of Human Services.
Yet the county lags national trends in addressing trauma. In his two years as Passaic County’s drug court judge, de la Carrera said he has tried to improve awareness ofand increasefunding for trauma treatment, so farwith little success.
“I think trauma is more common than we know,” de la Carrera said. “We’re trying to pay more attention to it.”
For Amanda Zita, however, this shift came nearly too late.
Amanda Zita woke up in an abandoned house on Auburn Street with a used syringe by her hip and an urgent need to get out of Paterson. Standing up, she wobbled through the dark, stepping over other addicts till she reached the street.
She sold her Coach handbags and used the money to buy expensive Percocet pills. When that money ran out, she hawked her Dell laptop and begansnorting heroin, which was cheaper.
Finally she sold all her jewelry, including the charm that read “Amanda” in gold script and the cocktail rings studded with rubies and diamonds that had been passed down from Amanda’s beloved grandmother.
These she traded for heroin and syringes, the cheapest opioid high of all.
“I crossed every line. I did everything I said I would never do,” she said. “When I started, I was like, ‘I’ll never do heroin. That’s crazy.’ It seemed like that was beneath me. But those pills were expensive.”
Standing on the sidewalk in downtown Paterson, the only thing she possessed from her comfortable childhood in the suburbs was the knowledge that, virtually every weekend from when she was 7 until she was 14, she had been raped by a man she knew, a man her parents trusted. She vowed never to become a victim again, making sure she never dropped her defenses to sleep a full night among Paterson’s junkies. But she could not reveal the rapes to her parents, who still lived in the white ranch house with green shutters near a golf course, 30 miles away in Hamburg, where Amanda grew up.
“I didn’t think I could change,” she said. “Not when I’m beaten down, and I feel like I’m nobody, and I’m an only child and my parents keep declining my phone calls.”
Twenty years of Amanda’s angry, erratic behavior had left Faith Zita tired and confused. She and her husband, Mark, had worked so hard to provide their daughter the perfect American childhood.
How did it all backfire so utterly?
“Most nights I would just stay up at night and cry,” Faith said. “How did we fail? Was I too strict with her? I must have failed as a parent. What did I do wrong?”
Amanda tucked her few remaining baggies of white heroin powder into her bra and walked to the Paterson train station. She and her boyfriend, a fellow junkie, paid $1 to board the last jitney bus of the night.
They got out at the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne and found a darkened clump of trees and bushes.
They crawled inside. They each took a shot. They slept on the ground.
In the morning, Amanda’s memories of being rapedreturned, along with the nausea of withdrawal. So she rode a bus back to Paterson, looking for more heroin.
For millions of women like Amanda, opioids offer the only escape from the remembered trauma of rape and sexual assault.
“I tried ecstasy, cocaine, weed, alcohol. Before oxy, nothing worked. Some part of my brain was always thinking about it,” Amanda said of the abuse. “Then I tried OxyContin. For the first time in my life, that part of my brain just completely shut off. And I knew I needed to do it again and again and again.”
Over the last two decades, academic researchers have documented this same spiral among thousands of people, including an overwhelming majority of women drug addicts.
“We’ve known for a long time that when you block the opioid receptors in the brain, your feelings of distress and loneliness disappear,” said van der Kolk, the trauma expert.
Yet few government programs aimed at breaking the cycle have systems in place to address trauma. Only 20 percent of outpatient programs consistently offer trauma services, according to a national survey published in the Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions.
“I think drug courts are a great idea,” said Wolf, the trauma expert at Edinboro University. “But I think they could go further. My best advice for drug courts is to take a trauma screening immediately, and to give trauma specific treatment to trauma survivors.”
In Passaic County drug court, trauma treatment remains the exception, not the rule. Court officials asked Amanda if she had experienced any traumas as a child, including rape. She lied, and told them no.
“Oh yeah, they asked,” she says. “Why would I tell them? I didn’t trust them at all. This is something I kept from my parents. I kept it from everybody.”
Such responses are common. The reason most addicts start abusing drugs in the first place isto dissociate from the feelings of terror and shame caused by childhood abuse, van der Kolk said. Expecting them to drop coping mechanisms built over many years during a 20-minute meeting with a parole officer is unrealistic, Wolf said.
Rather than hoping addicts might someday reveal their darkest secret, Wolf said, it might be more effective to avoid the question entirely and assume everyone addicted to opioids has experienced some type of trauma. That way everybody gets access to services that have provedmost effective at breaking the cycle of trauma and addiction, including one-on-one therapy.
“If you’re a child trauma survivor, and even more so if you’re a child sex abuse victim, your failure rate from drug court is really high,” Wolf said. “If we don’t address that, we’re setting these people up for failure.”
Judge de la Carrera agrees.
“Unless you’ve had some specialized psychotherapy to address all the negative feelings which lead to thoughts of suicide and promiscuity and drug addiction,” he said, “childhood sexual abuse seems to me to be the most intractable aspect of addiction.”
In response, the judge has tried to build a relationship with a program in Clifton that specializes in therapy for victims of childhood sexual abuse. Such services increase the up-front cost of drug court, however, which is why few participants in Passaic County receive them.
But just as extensive research by the U.S. Department of Justice has indicated thatdrug court’s increased spending onup-front services pays for itself in long-term benefits, experts believe adding trauma treatment would pay for itself over time.
“It is expensive,” Wolf said. “But it’s more cost-effective to pay for one-on-one therapy to help people live healthy, productive lives than to keep paying for drug courts and jail and putting their kids in foster care.”
A simple change could improve drug court’s effectiveness at no additional cost, Wolf and Walton said. Fewer than a third of American drug treatment facilities provide programs designed for women, according to the United Nations Intergenerational Crime and Justice Research Institute.
But compared to women in co-ed groups, women who attend female-only therapy sessions are more likely to disclosetheir sexual abuse historiesand have more success avoiding jail and escaping drugs, according to research by the United Nations and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
“Only when we started to offer gender-specific groups did we began to get a sense of how widespread the problem [of trauma] is,” Walton said of his time leading drug court treatment in Washington, D.C.
During her five years of probation, Amanda Zita participated in women-only treatment groups during two stays in inpatient treatment facilities.
For the rest of her nearly six years in drug court, she received therapy in co-ed groups. The thought of admitting her history of sexual abuse among men never occurred to her.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “It’s embarrassing. You think people are going to look at you like you’re disgusting, like obviously you must have consented to it. The idea of opening up around men, it’s just not comfortable to me.”
Instead, Amanda tried pulling her life together while keeping her abuse a secret. Facing five years in prison for depositing two forged checks, which she’d cashed to buy drugs, Amanda was allowed to enroll in drug court in 2012. The following year, she left an inpatient rehab facility to give birth to her son, Mason.
She found work managing a flower shop. She attended multiple 12-step meetings every week, plus probation and court appearances every month. She met a man named Kevin Garrett, and together they moved into a comfortable apartment in Wanaque.
A year of sobriety passed, then two. On each anniversary, Amanda drove to the Macy’s at the Paramus Park mall to buy herself a designer handbag or a Michael Kors watch, wearing them as a public display of her success.
“I was trying to show everybody that I had changed,” she said. “That’s how everything used to work in my family. Anything bad that happens got swept under the carpet and we put a nice little bow on it.”
Deep down, though, her memories of abuse never went away.
“I’d been though jail and all these inpatient treatments, but I just couldn’t get rid of my mind,” she said. “You can’t run away from you.”
Amid the stress of work, drug court and a new relationship, Amanda was caring for Mason for the first time without distraction from heroin or help from her parents.
“He’s so innocent, he’s so cute, he’s so smart. We have the same blue eyes. I saw so much of him in me,” she said. “I once had that innocence, too. And that was taken from me. I was having nightmares about it, waking up sweating and screaming. I just snapped.”
Her relapse lasted a month and a half. She missed probation, which caused Passaic County to issue a warrant for her arrest.
After Amanda was handcuffed and taken from the La Quinta Inn to the Secaucus jail, Kevin drove home and tore their apartment apart.
Kevin found the notebook under the bed. It was black and white, with the words “Start each day with a grateful heart” written across the cover in gold script.
He read it. And discovered Amanda’s secret.
“When I read her journal, everything made sense,” Kevin said. “The relapse. Waking up in the middle of the night screaming, saying, ‘Don’t touch me.’”
Because Amanda had stuck with the program, and appeared to be doing well before her arrest in Secaucus, drug court officials agreed to extend her probation and pay for her to see a therapist trained in recognizing and treating trauma.
Even then, she planned to keep the abuse a secret. Amanda relented only when her boyfriend demanded to meet the therapist and describe the contents of her journal.
“I said, ‘You’re not going to get better until you tell your parents what went on,’ ” he said. “Your parents need to know why you are the way you are.”
For two years Amanda processed her pain. Then, in December 2017, she asked her mother to attend a therapy session with her.
For the first time in almost a decade, Faith Zita knew her daughter was telling the truth.
“I just started crying. I felt sick. She was my little girl, and I somehow didn’t protect her,” Faith said. “It all makes sense now. It was like that missing piece of the puzzle put everything else together.”
Mason Zita ran from the swing set to the basketball court atBogues Pond Park in Bloomingdale. As he approached his grandmother, he stopped, walked the last few feet on his tiptoes, then wrapped both arms around her legs.
“I got you! I got you!” Mason, 5, said as he giggled.
Amanda Zita was back on the swings, joking with Kevin, who is now her fiancé. Together the foursome resembled any loving family enjoying a gorgeous morning in May.
But after Amanda’s relapse, Faith and Mark Zita received full custody of Mason. As recently as December, the only place Amanda was allowed to see her son was inside her parents’ house, under constant watch.
“This happening right here? Amanda, her mom and Mason together at the park? This did not happen,” Kevin said. “They didn’t trust her. They didn’t even want her around. And for good reason.”
Kevin had been right. Only when Amanda began talking about her childhood trauma ― first with her therapist, and later with her parents ― did things begin to change. Finally, she knew she wasn’t crazy. Finally, her parents understood why her behavior had changed so radically when she was a child, why she’d found heroin so hard to kick.
Passaic County’s drug court made this reunion possible. It offered the counseling services, and the constant threat of prison, that forced Amanda to stay sober, often against her will. Three weeks after this morning in the park, Amanda would graduate from drug court, regain the power to leave New Jersey without a judge’s permission, and get her two third-degree felonies for check kiting expunged.
“I feel fantastic,” she said. “I need to figure out a new way to celebrate. I don’t drink and I don’t do drugs anymore. What do people do to celebrate when they don’t do those things?”
“Drug court helped,” Kevin said. “It kept her accountable until she could get to that breaking point where everything opened up.”
Finally, Amanda found a true escape.
“I don’t have nightmares anymore,” she said. “Now I sleep through the night.”
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