‘I am becoming stronger’: How specialty courts in Kane Co. help people with mental illness, addiction

“I love being sober and being with my family and friends.”

“I am becoming a stronger man for my family and a better citizen.”

Gratitude for a second chance at life triggers these types of comments, most recently from the Drug Rehabilitation Court spring graduates in Kane County’s 16th Circuit.

Those facing jail time in Kane County can opt to be sentenced to a specialty court — Drug Rehabilitation, Treatment Alternative (mental health), Veterans Treatment, or DUI.

Upon entering a specialty court, it’s not a barefoot walk in the morning dew. They are difficult programs, generally about two years, but worth the result when the mission of getting lives back on track through needed treatments and support succeeds.

Kane County’s 16th Circuit specialty court option is a model for many others in the state, but it also has something most others don’t have. The Kane County Specialty Courts Foundation, a 501c3 not-for-profit organization, supports court participants that the court cannot legally provide. This support includes everything from transportation assistance, clothing, support-group meetings, family parties and picnics, and a Cougars game outing to milestone recognition through gift cards.

“It’s not enough for a participant to get into a period of sobriety; they have to go to work, establish new relationships and have social functions with their families,” said Judge Christine Downs, a 16th Circuit court judge since 2013 and recently assigned to the drug, treatment alternative and veterans specialty courts. “The foundation provides what is needed for the participant to achieve those other things and pays for it, like the Cougars game outing. The foundation pays, not the taxpayers, not the county, not the state.”

Participants and alumni of the drug court program spent a day at a Kane County Cougars game last August with their families. The outing is provided by the Kane County Specialty Courts Foundation. The annual baseball game is part of the foundation’s goal to bring drug court participants and their families closer together. Courtesy of Kane County Specialty Courts Foundation

The foundation had previously supported the county’s Juvenile Drug Court, overseen by Judge Clint Hull. In 2017, Hull informed the foundation that his court was closing operations, but four more significant specialty courts were being created. He asked if the foundation would consider supporting those courts.

“We said we would love to do it,” said Dennis Carr, the foundation chairman for the past five years. “The foundation is not part of the county government or court system. It is separate, private individuals who do this, and we’re glad to do it as a supplement to a much larger network.”

The Kane County Specialty Courts Foundation currently has 15 members, including members of the community, Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain, Kane County State’s Attorney Jamie Mosser, and some retired individuals who used to work in the courts. Others, Carr noted, are “just individuals in the community who have a heart for this.”

It also helps to understand what it takes for participants to want to get their lives back on track.

“These are tough programs; participants are getting tested all of the time and going to court often,” Carr said. “You have to be a strong person for doing this, and I admire them for it. We are building a support network for them so they are not in it alone.”

Carr added that the objective isn’t just to get those convicted of crimes to get into the program. “You want them in an environment where they are in a stable situation where they will never do this again … and that means reuniting families.”

Downs has seen what a transformation from drug addiction to sobriety can mean. “Many people have to give up the people, places and things they had before,” she said. “One of the participants said 100% of his former friends were active drug users, and for him to be successful, he wanted to get 100% new friends.

“For some, it can also mean having limited contact with their own families because there are users there, and you can’t be around them.”

The specialty courts need planning and guidance. Programs coordinator Phil Wessel takes on that task, creating the veterans treatment court in 2018 and the DUI court in 2023.

Wessel said establishing a specialty court starts with creating a planning committee of various court system players, from judges to probation officers, county board members and public defenders.

“We have to make the community aware of what we are doing and set up parameters for viability and eligibility — and determine how many people could be in it, based on actual needs in Kane County,” he added.

As much as anyone, Wessel sees the foundation support as a key element in the process.

“It is very unique (foundation support), and a lot of places envy the amount of support we get from the community,” Wessel said. “In Illinois, similar foundations are probably few and far between. Everyone wants this foundation and community support, and I would say it is rare (to have one).”

The foundation can be reached via email at

It would be easy to view the courts and their foundation as essential tools to avoid the high costs of incarceration vs. getting a citizen back in the community, working and paying taxes.

But you cannot underestimate what it does for the human heart.

“These people are really at the bottom, and these courts transform lives,” Carr said. “To go to a graduation of the drug court and hear the stories of these people and how they transformed their lives … boy, that is a rewarding experience.”

The vital work of literacy

We welcome Rebecca Eller-Molitas as the new executive director of the Literacy Volunteers Fox Valley as she replaces longtime director Peg Coker.

Eller-Molitas has the needed background to keep this important organization moving forward, especially when all communities will likely see an influx of immigrants.

When I spoke to Coker last month when she retired, she said something that really stuck with me. She mentioned how teaching immigrants to speak English often made a significant change in their lives, steering many to successful lives here.

When someone posts on social media that immigrants should all be sent back to where they came from, we can only hope at least some thought has been given to what could be done to help instead.

Becoming a literacy volunteer or at least supporting organizations and clubs that offer a helping hand rather than a far easier fist is an option worth considering.

No cell towers near homes

For the second time in about four years, our neighbors had to rally around the common-sense notion that cellphone towers don’t belong near homes.

We were pleased and grateful that the Geneva Planning and Zoning Commission felt the same way — again — and voted to deny a proposal from DRA Properties/Verizon to construct a tower in a business district behind a berm along Bent Tree Drive in Geneva, about 200 feet from the closest home’s property line and way too close to Eagle Brook Park.

There were other reasons to deny this idea, but there were far too many to share with readers of this column.

But they should know if cell towers are proposed too close to their homes in the future, they should speak up.

My neighbors made numerous well-researched arguments, including how the value of homes dives when a cell tower pops up nearby.

I submitted a public comment for the record, but I should add this: An 85-foot cell tower shouldn’t be so close to my house that I could reach it with a golf ball using a pitching wedge.

Mankind is safe

I wouldn’t say I have a green thumb, but I certainly have done more lawn work and pulled more weeds than when working full-time.

It’s probably a good thing I haven’t become a gardener because I lack the skills and, maybe, the patience. But it’s even better that I don’t live in Miami and prefer to wear clothes outside.

Who knows why anyone would rank such a thing, but an outfit called LawnStarter has ranked the top cities for naked gardening. You read that correctly — gardening in your birthday suit.

And Miami came in at the top of that list. Isn’t that place sunny?

For those curious, no city in the Midwest would qualify for or likely participate in this sort of activity. Philadelphia came in second under various metrics, including the number of nudists in each city.

Much to the benefit of the rest of humanity, I am neither a gardener nor a nudist. Nor interested in living in Miami or Philadelphia.

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