CANAAN — Seven months into an alternative substance abuse program, Abby Fowler remains drug and alcohol free and a role model for others needing a second chance at getting sober and staying out of jail.

Fowler, 25, is the program’s first participant. She now spends her time outdoors cutting trails, and exploring woods and a small stream behind her house with her children and a group of enthusiastic neighborhood dogs. She does community service by opening and closing weekly Narcotics Anonymous meetings, attends an outpatient program, gets counseling and has started attending church.

“Seven months into it, life is good,” she said in an interview. “I didn’t think it could feel this good, but it definitely does. It’s been worth all the work and efforts. It’s better now — more than better.”

Fowler, the mother of two boys, 3-year-old Jeremy and 6-year-old Kolbie, has done all the heavy lifting by sticking to the rules. But she also has had the support of team members at the Alternative Substance Abuse Program developed by Kennebec and Somerset Counties District Attorney Maeghan Maloney, the Somerset County Sheriff’s Department and other state agencies.

Fowler has been clean nearly a year — since last Oct. 10 as she performs the conditions of the negotiated plea that placed her in the program.

In other parts of Maine, offenders facing narcotics charges are often diverted into drug courts to fashion sentences and conditions of release intended to break the cycle of drug use that leads many to repeat offenses. The state judicial branch has created five adult drug courts, in York, Cumberland, Androscoggin and Hancock counties, as well as a district that includes Penobscott and Washington counties.

Drug courts use many judicial resources; defendants return to court weekly, and judges clear large blocks of time for sessions to deal specifically with their issues. But counties without drug courts are left to fashion their own remedies.

“We don’t have adequate resources to expand at this time,” said Hartwell Dowling, coordinator of diversion and rehabilitation for the administrative office of the state courts.

Maloney said her office can learn from Fowler’s progress how to achieve better results for adults in similar circumstances.

“I want to learn from her what it takes to be successful in order to build a program that will be successful for others,” Maloney said. “We both have a lot that we can learn from each other. Abby has continued to thrive as a role model.”

Under the program, Fowler must attend monthly meetings with the ASAP team, continue to get mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment and refrain from the use or possession of alcohol or illegal drugs.

Fowler said those affiliated with the ASAP program have been supportive and helped create an environment for her “where I can feel safe talking to them about issues I am having and they can give me their input.”

She said Maloney, along with Teresa Brown in the community corrections program at the county jail, and Ann Dorney, the program’s physician, have helped her through the rough times staying on track.

Maloney said Fowler continues to be in compliance with the program.

“I’m glad that worked out,” Maloney said. “I keep her in my prayers as I know her road is a difficult one to walk. I have an interest in people who are trying to change their lives for the better. Abby impresses me as someone who is successfully changing her life.”

“What District Attorney Maloney has done is to try to make the best of the situation in Somerset County by putting together alternative sentencing, hopefully with clients that don’t need that highest level of accountability,” Dowling said. “It’s challenging to be innovative when you’re just trying to do the best you can with what you’ve got.”

Getting into trouble last year may have been Fowler’s saving grace.

She was arrested in October on a felony charge of possession of heroin. She faced five years in prison, a criminal record and a future fraught with addiction. Fowler said she had been addicted to alcohol and opiates since she was 12.

Instead of taking what she called the easy way out — jail time and a return to her old ways — she chose to finally get help.

In February, Fowler became the first participant in the Alternative Substance Abuse Program.

“I got in a huge hole — I made a huge mess of my life,” she said. “It took getting in trouble because I would never have gone to my first meeting and actually listened. I would never have done any of this and it took getting in trouble for me to realize that.”

Fowler, who grew up in Norridgewock but later moved to Skowhegan, pleaded guilty to the heroin charge, but can withdraw the guilty plea in February in exchange for a conviction on a lesser misdemeanor charge and will do no jail time.

If she fails the program, Fowler will be sentenced to four years in prison on the felony charge, with all but one year suspended, and two years’ probation.

If she succeeds, her record will be free of a felony conviction.

“It’s definitely life-changing,” Fowler said. “It’s been staying away from people — changing people, places and things like not associating with those people.

“In the beginning (doing drugs) was just a compulsion, an obsession, but by going to meetings and actually taking care of myself, going to the counseling and all those different appointments, it turned into a behavioral change.”

She said taking the kids down to the woods and the stream has been a blessing.

“It’s good for all of us,” she said. “Getting out and teaching them how to work together — dedication and teamwork — all that stuff ties in with being patient and teaching that togetherness and how to work together and establishing a healthy relationship, knowing that they can trust me.”

Maloney said she last met with Fowler Sept. 18.

“Setbacks are to be expected as the road to sobriety is typically a bumpy one,” Maloney said. “My thoughts seven months into the program is that it is far more effective and far less expensive than a few months in jail.”

Alternative sentencing, such as that being tried in Somerset County, is being introduced gradually and handled case-by-case. Drug courts, by contrast, require groups of offenders to face formal proceedings.

But the individual attention, and insistence on individual responsibility seen in the ASAP program is an approach shared with the more formalized drug court proceedings.

In the drug court, “there is a certain level of formality, the judge is on the bench, wearing robes with the court bailiff present,” Dowling said. “But obviously there’s an interaction between judge and participant in front of other participants, a back and forth conversation that you wouldn’t see in a traditional court setting.”

Maloney said another person has enrolled in the ASAP program and other cases will be considered at the ASAP meeting Oct. 16.

“Frankly, we started slow as we expected more problems,” she said. “Now that we can see both participants doing so well, the ASAP group is comfortable with growing the program.”

Morning Sentinel staff contributed to this story.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

dharlow@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow