The teddy bear Scott VanDerKarr carries in his briefcase tells the story of the opioid epidemic and one life saved. It also helps explain why VanDerKarr stepped down as a Franklin County Municipal Court judge in 2016.
The light-brown bear with a golden ribbon belonged to the son of a woman enrolled in VanDerKarr’s drug-court program. But the boy, who was about 4 years old, wanted VanDerKarr to have it.
“He says you gave him back his mother,” VanDerKarr recalls the mother telling him.
He pauses for a moment.
“Usually the hair on my arms stands up when I tell it,” he said. “That’s what this is all about.”
VanDerKarr, 61, of Dublin, has been directly involved in the fight against the opioid epidemic since 2009, when he started overseeing Franklin County’s drug court. He left the bench in 2016 after 20 years because he wanted to help other cities and counties establish their own drug courts. He thought he could help more people that way.
Drug courts help addicts stay out of prison by offering treatment programs and other services while holding offenders accountable.
A 1982 graduate of Capital University Law School who worked in the Franklin County Prosecutor’s office for 13 years before becoming a judge, VanDerKarr recently started Lives Back, a nonprofit that helps communities across the state create drug courts. With the assistance of Lives Back, Vinton County this fall will launch three drug courts.
VanDerKarr also works as a private consultant with companies and organizations on issues related to opioids. He helped Whitehall establish its drug court, and he’ll serve as its magistrate.
Had Charlie Stewart not entered drug court in 2012 and gotten clean, he said he’s not sure where he’d be.
“I know if you continue to stay in active addiction, there’s not many good outcomes,” said Stewart, 26, who now works at Mount Carmel Hospital, helping connect addicts with treatment and recovery resources. “Drug court and Scott were instrumental in me starting my recovery process.”
VanDerKarr said what makes drug courts an effective way to combat the crisis is “treatment with accountability.” The weight of the judicial system, he said, helps ensure participants attend detox, receive intensive outpatient treatment, and get mental-health counseling. There’s also frequent drug testing.
“Without that accountability, I couldn’t tell you whether I’d have been able to get clean,” Stewart said.
Among people Stewart knows locally in the recovery community or who work on fighting the opioid crisis, VanDerKarr is revered, he said. They see him on panels and at seminars, offering advice and learning from others.
“He is out working to help people every day,” Stewart said. “It is a 24/7 job for him.”
VanDerKarr’s nonprofit is still in its infancy. The nonprofit world can be tricky to navigate, but he’s confident it will grow and help establish more drug courts across Ohio and the country—eventually saving more lives.
“There’s nothing like seeing someone actually turn their life around,” VanDerKarr said.