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Starting Over

Drug Court helps addicts clean up and regain custody of their estranged children.

A recent meeting of Alexandria's Family Treatment Drug Court was an opportunity to graduate a successful participant, inaugurate new members into the 15-month program and lend moral support to self-confessed drug addicts who are trying to keep their lives clean. The judge opened the meeting up to the Gazette Packet on the condition that none of the participants, who are in the program to regain custody of their children by demonstrating that they can live without drugs, are identified by name.

The meeting felt like a cross between a pep rally and a revival.

"All rise," the sheriff called out. "That means you!"

A man in the back row who had been slow to stand quickly rose as Judge Nolan Dawkins entered the courtroom on the first floor of the Alexandria courthouse. One by one, the participants walked through the swinging door that leads to the table facing the bench -- trying to prove their new lifestyle was healthy enough to restore custody.

"How long have you been clean," Judge Dawkins asked the first participant.

She paused.

"Oh, if you have to think about it, something's wrong."

"No, no. It's just that I stopped counting at a year," she said. "I think it's been 13 months."

The courtroom filled with applause. The other participants in the program try to form a support group for those who are struggling with addiction, and each small step is rewarded with encouragement. The lawyers and the judge also applaud.

"I'm so happy for you. This is just incredible," said Judge Dawkins. "I have to say that when you started Drug Court, you looked really bad. You are not the same person now, and I'm so proud of you."

Looking over her records, the judge seemed impressed that the woman did not relapse. Most participants in the program test positive for drugs at some point, but not this woman. Her testing had been consistently negative for illegal drugs, prompting the judge to ask her about mentoring other Drug Court participants after she left the program.

"I think I can do that," the woman said.

THE NEXT PARTICIPANT walked toward the judge and sat at the table facing the bench. The judge asked her how long she had been clean.

"I've hit my 90 days," the woman said.

The courtroom erupted into applause.

"We all know that 90 days is an important threshold," the judge said. "How long did you deny that you had a drug problem?"

"Seven years," the woman said.

"I see on your resume that you like to write," said the judge. The woman nodded. "I have been talking to someone who might be able to give you an opportunity to write, and I'm going to look into that for you. You've got a lot of skill that I don't think you're using right now, but you've got to make a promise to yourself to stay clean."

The woman thanked the judge for helping her get her life together and restore her family. Then the next participant approached the bench.

"You look like you should be on the cover of GQ," the judge told the man.

"Yea, yea," he said.

"How long have you been clean?"

"157 days," he responded quickly. The room erupted into applause.

"And how long were you using drugs?"

"For 34 years."

People in the courtroom gasped and turned toward each other. "Thirty-four years" they repeated in disbelief.

The man had been sexually abused as a 13-year-old boy, and his dependency on drugs and alcohol began shortly afterward. But now that he had been free of drugs for 157 days, the man was in the final stages of completing the program and reuniting with his children. The judge congratulated the man for his progress and then called the evening's next participants to the bench.

A COUPLE WALKED toward the judge. The man and the woman were going through the program together to restore custody of their child. But they had stopped cooperating with the Drug Court staff. Although they had not broken any of the rules of Drug Court yet, they were on a collision course with the judge.

"If you are going to be part of this program, you are going to have to play the game," the judge said. "Let me assure you that if things keep going the way they've been going, I'll impose the strictest sanction that I can."

The couple agreed to have a conference later with the judge, who wanted to work with the couple to explore all the options that were available. After the man and the woman left, the judge called the star of the proceedings, the Drug Court graduate who had successfully competed the program.

THE WOMAN, whose graduation from the program coincided with a reunion with her children, was beaming. She walked toward the judge with a large smile on her face.

"I'm going to miss you," the judge said. "I'm probably the only judge in the world who can sit on a bench like this and say that to someone in a courtroom. But I'm really going to miss you."

The woman, who had recently had custody of her children restored to her, looked down and wiped a tear from her eye. The judge asked her how long she had been free of drugs.

"I've been free of drugs for 23 months." The audience applauded.

"In the beginning, I used PCP," she said. "And then its showed up in my son's system. My kids were taken away from me."

She told the judge how using drugs had ruined her life, how Drug Court had helped her realize how to live her life soberly and how Judge Dawkins was an inspiration to her. She told the judge how she had gotten a GED and had recently been licensed to be a certified registered nurse. The judge asked her how she did in her nursing classes.

"I was in the top of my class," the woman said.

"What are we going to do without you?"

Then the judge came down from the bench and hugged the woman.

The Family Treatment Drug Court is a different kind of court with a different mission.

THE PROGRAM was created in 2001 after representatives from the Alexandria Model Court Core Group attended a conference on the effectiveness of drug courts. After the conference, Judge Dawkins created a Drug Court for Alexandria to work with those parents who have substance-abuse issues that have been otherwise resistant to prior treatment efforts.

Parents meet every two weeks with the judge, service providers and Virginia commonwealth employees to assess the progress of their treatment and sobriety. Prior to their appearances, parents meet with their case managers to prepare themselves for their court appearance and receive counseling.

"The circle is closing, isn't it," said Judge Dawkins at a recent Drug Court meeting. "The great thing about being a judge is that you get to open the show and that you get to close it."

When he said that, the sheriffs looked at each other knowingly. While other jurisdictions have considered starting a drug court, many people think that the entire process might be dependent on the personality of the judge. While Judge Dawkins has the gumption to run this kind of a program, another judge may not — which is why the process has become controversial.

In the end, when the children are reunited with their parents and the addicts learn to confront the world without chemical dependency, the purpose of Drug Court is evident in the smiles and laughter of children.