Ben Warren had been sober for 100 days by July 9, 2022, but deep down, he said he was still “so scared of finally walking the walk, not just talking the talk. I didn’t know what sober Ben was going to look like.”
Warren, who was 24 at the time, had been hooked on benzodiazepines and opiates for nearly a decade. He was living at a sober house in Lynn, but fell into old habits and overdosed on fentanyl during an overnight visit to his parents’ home. Alerted by the uncharacteristically frantic barking of Warren’s dog, Lincoln, his parents administered Narcan and called paramedics.
For the first two days of his five-day hospitalization, Warren was intubated while in a medically induced coma. It was his third overdose, and for all but 10 months of the past seven years, he had been on probation for substance abuse-related offenses.
But instead of sending him back to jail, probation officer Kelley Montgomery advocated for Warren to return to rehab during Recovery Court, a special session of Lynn District Court providing intensive, supervised probation and mandatory treatment with random drug testing.
“That was the day I humbly committed to changing my life, and not just skating by,” said Warren, a Peabody native who is now looking forward to his scheduled graduation from Recovery Court this fall, marking the completion of his probation. He aspires to then give back by working as a recovery support specialist in a treatment center to impart hope along with hard-earned life skills to other juvenile drug users.
“I’ve had tough times in the past with authority, being young and hard-headed, but Kelley is an up-front, down-to-business person. Some people have to touch the hot stove after being told not to, but she really does want you to succeed,” said Warren, crediting her with “helping me find independence and become a man.
“She’s the way Recovery Court has to — and should be — run.”
In reflecting on her 22-year career during National Recovery Month in September, Montgomery estimated she has worked with more than 500 individuals suffering from drug addiction. Over that time, the drug of choice has evolved from cocaine to OxyContin, heroin, fentanyl, and xylazine, a non-opioid tranquilizer — known as “tranq” on the streets — approved for veterinary use only.
This past June, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported that 2,357 confirmed opioid-related overdose deaths occurred in 2022 — 57 more than in 2021. Of those deaths in 2022, fentanyl was present in 93 percent of cases.
“Everyone knows someone [suffering from drug addiction], which is a blessing and a curse,” said Montgomery. “Right or wrong, the crack epidemic of the 1990s was viewed as an inner-city problem. Now drugs impact people whether they’re Black, white, Latino, rich, poor, middle-class, young, or old, and [users] are viewed with the empathy that was missing in the past. And do have empathy, because there are only three ways out of addiction: sobriety, prison, or death.”
Born and raised in Lynn, Montgomery said she “saw stuff I probably shouldn’t have” while growing up in a rough neighborhood. A lifelong fan of true crime shows and books, she majored in criminal justice at Salem State University and selected Northeastern University for her graduate degree, specifically to study under renowned criminologists like Jack Levin, now a professor emeritus and codirector of the college’s Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict.
Montgomery worked in private security before joining the Massachusetts Probation Service as a probation officer at Lynn District Court in 2001. Three years later, she reluctantly accepted an assignment to the city’s Recovery Court.
“I told my [probation] chief I’ll do it, but only for three years because it’s not where my interests are,” said Montgomery, laughing at the memory. “Little did I know I found my niche. It’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
“So many people who have been using for a while have lost everything, but they can get sober and start to get those things back. Hopefully, you plant a seed so even if they relapse, they’ll know there’s a life aside from the one they’re living.”
Once an individual is referred to Recovery Court by a judge, defense attorney, district attorney, or probation officer, Carly Jacobson — a clinician for Centurion Health, which specializes in treating those who have had trouble with the law — conducts an assessment. She then teams with Montgomery to customize a treatment plan.
While Montgomery previously characterized probation as “one size fits all,” she said the role is now equal parts law enforcement, social work, and casework involving medically assisted treatment, sober home residency, and employment in conjunction with drug testing.
Judge Ina Howard-Hogan, first justice of Lynn District Court and a lifelong resident, was an assistant district attorney in Lynn when she met Montgomery.
“Kelley is tough, but fair — and tireless,” said Howard-Hogan, adding that specialty courts for recovery, mental health, veterans, and the homeless have changed the narrative of the criminal justice system throughout the Commonwealth.
“There are times that I sit on the bench because of probation violations, but it’s not about throwing everyone in jail. I come off the bench often to speak to the participants, because it’s more about them than the crime that brought them into court — their progress and finding the community resources to keep them on the road to recovery,” Howard-Hogan said. “In these sessions we are a family, and when something happens to a family member, it affects all of us. Kelley plays a big part in the amazing transformation we see all the time in those who participate in the program to their fullest.”
Jeff Luszcz of Chelsea, who struggled with heroin and cocaine addiction since his teens, had his request for Recovery Court granted by a judge one year ago. While the 34-year-old was initially annoyed by the myriad of required paperwork, classes, and other “hoops to jump through,” he said he gradually noticed a shift in his perspective when he “stopped fighting it and actually listened to what was being said.”
“In the beginning, I thought [Montgomery’s] trying to get us to screw up because she wants to see us in jail,” Luszcz said. “But now I get that focusing on something simple like paperwork carries over into other aspects of life by teaching you to prioritize your sobriety and making you a reliable, responsible person.”
Whereas Luszcz said he was in a comfort zone this time last year, he now realizes “life was moving on, but not necessarily forward.”
“Now I have money in the bank and a Roth IRA, I started a business, and I have a network of sober friends through Recovery Court,” he said. “It’s comforting to know you’re not alone and other people are going through this stuff with you. You’re all in this together and working toward the same goal. It gives you hope.”
Cindy Cantrell can be reached at email@example.com.