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Step by Step 

When Sonoma County's courts sentence alcohol and drug offenders to rehab, a nonreligious option hasn't always been clear—until one man's crusade to change the process

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But Richard S. says that at the facility where he has been court-ordered to work on his recovery, there are signs in the dining hall touting the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions, and that in a recent group meeting counselors suggested that residents get a sponsor—a decidedly 12 Step dominated approach to sobriety.

With over 300 weekly meetings offered in Sonoma County, in comparison to sparse secular options, it might be that 12 Step has just become the default go-to option. As of July 2012, there are only three LifeRing meetings in the county—most in Santa Rosa. While other secular support groups like SMART recovery and Women for Sobriety have a strong online presence, they offer no face-to-face meetings in the area. The only other option is a weekly Wellbriety Talking Circle at the Indian Health Project in Santa Rosa, which focuses on Native American spiritual traditions on the road to recovery.

Craig Whalley, LifeRing's chairman of the board, says that the relative size of these groups in comparison to AA is one reason for the lack of alternatives.

"It's common to run into people, including treatment providers, who are not familiar with us, and are closed-minded to the idea of alternatives to AA," explains Whalley. "When we're starting meetings, sometimes we can't get meeting spaces from hospitals or treatment centers. That's a generic problem. It's because we are small, and many people aren't aware of us, or they're not drawn to the idea of an alternative group."

LifeRing supports Kerr as an individual in his fight with the county and courts, but Whalley says they can't take an actual position on the matter of whether the Sonoma County Superior Court and the Department of Health Services are in violation of the law. "None of us has studied it, and we're not lawyers. But you should have alternatives for people should they want them. It seems pretty sensible to me."

In an another sign of change, a meeting on July 2 between Kerr and the Drug Abuse Alternatives Center management ended with an agreement to provide space at the Orenda Center for a LifeRing meeting that will be open to the public. Qualified residents from Turning Point, one of 15 DAAC-run facilities in the area, will be bussed to the meeting.

Still, Kerr believes these are small changes in comparison to the massive system overhaul that would need to happen to truly make secular options a real alternative.

"'The Participant Guide to Drug Court' is one document out of the entire county system," he says. "There are many other areas within this issue where people are exclusively ordered and coerced into a 12 Step as a condition of their sentence. If the county begins to actually move towards giving choice pre-sentence, or as part of a sentence, that's all that I care about. I'm not hell bent for leather on going to court; I'm hoping to avoid litigation. All I want is for the policy to change. I don't really care about the past tense. I just care about policy changes in the future."

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