(L-R): (back row) Juvenile Justice Specialist Serai Davis, Juvenile Justice Intake Services Supervisor Sarah Barton, Juvenile Justice Specialist Aisha Nichols, Juvenile Justice Special Officer Troy Shatwell, Juvenile Justice Special Projects Officer Aaliyah Chanate, Juvenile Justice Specialist Michelle Swimmer, Juvenile Justice Administrative Operations Manager Brooke Dill, (front row) Juvenile Justice Special Officer Bridgette Wackerly, Juvenile Justice Specialist Taylor Nail, Juvenile Justice Special officer Christina Boswell, Juvenile Justice Services Director Patti Buhl, Juvenile Justice Administrative Assistant Jaclyn Lanier, Juvenile Justice Probation Services Supervisor Aariel Green and Juvenile Tribal Healing to Wellness Court Coordinator Leah Hitcher.

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The Cherokee Nation Department of Juvenile Justice is empowering tribal youth to cope with and overcome their substance and alcohol-related use as well as other delinquent issues through a new program focusing on accountability, counseling services and supervision.

The Juvenile Tribal Healing to Wellness Court program, which is located in Muskogee, consists of a four-phase treatment with each phase consisting of six to eight weeks of activities, including cultural activities.

Healing to Wellness Court requires participants to cease all substance and/or alcohol use, actively participate and be committed to being honest throughout the process. The program assists participants and their families with support, services, cultural activities, counseling and accountability with respect to their journey to sobriety.

“The Cherokee Nation believes in programs that provide support for building strong families and communities and this new Juvenile Tribal Healing to Wellness Court can help those young Cherokees in need with the support system to help and that is rooted in our culture,” Deputy Chief Bryan Warner said.

Referrals for the program generally come from law enforcement. The referral is staffed with a coordinator and intake staff in the Department of Juvenile Justice and if appropriate, a referral is made to Healing to Wellness Court. The court team then staffs the case, using a wide variety of criteria, to determine whether the youth will be a good fit for the program. Since it is a federal grant program, certain offenses may preclude a youth from participating.

“We understand this process will not be easy, but we will be here to walk alongside the youth and their family as they work through the identified issues.” said Director of Juvenile Justice Services Patti Buhl. “From our perspective, the program has been an invaluable experience for the youth and families involved. The expectation for the participants is never perfection; however, we do expect honesty, participation and accountability. We want to reward the youths for their accomplishments and build on the strengths and resiliency that come with being an indigenous person.”

A unique aspect of the Cherokee Nation Healing to Wellness program is the incorporation of culture and history as a method to restore and rehabilitate tribal youth across the reservation who have fallen into a difficult season of life. By having the youth and families attend community events, the program helps to bring participants back into a healthy community setting where they can build healthy connections and experience positive interactions.

To begin the process of creating the Healing to Wellness Court program, in 2021 the Cherokee Nation’s Department of Juvenile Justice applied for and received the Department of Justice’s Office Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention funding under Purpose Area 8 for Juvenile Healing to Wellness Court.

“As coordinators and staff members we should place ourselves in the role of a learner and allow the kids and families to be experts in their own lives,” said Coordinator of Juvenile Tribal Healing to Wellness Court Leah Hitcher. “Before finalizing our policy, procedures and handbook, we consulted with the Cherokee Nation Tribal Youth Council to ask their thoughts on the program and what they felt would work with the youth and their families. Through our consultation with the Youth Council, we were able to gain better insight and assistance in finalization of the policies, procedures and handbook.”

Hitcher also said that in addition to being a learner, she feels it is vital to build connections, relationships and collaborations with community partners and neighboring tribes. By building resources, she believes that her department can better serve the Youth and the families that will enter into the Healing to Wellness Court.

The program received its first docket for the Healing to Wellness court on March 29, 2023, and the staff is now celebrating their first cohort’s success. Each week the Department of Juvenile Justice staff new cases and if any qualify for Healing to Wellness Court they are referred for consideration.

The program is accepting participants for its second cohort.

For more information or questions about the program, please visit https://www.cherokee.org/all-services/dept-of-juvenile-justice/tribal-juvenile-healing-to-wellness-court/ or contact Leah Hitcher at 918-453-5645.