Written by T.K. Thorne
Photo Illustrations by Robin Colter
From the outside, Sherri had a “perfect” life as a suburban wife—a well-kept house and flower garden, a nice car, and a good job. That life began to unwind with her first pregnancy. Complications shut down her left kidney. The doctor prescribed pain medications. They helped ease the physical pain, as well as the other agonies, the ones she hid, the ones that had to do with a crumbling marriage and sinking self-esteem.
After she healed, she shopped doctors, looking for more pain meds, complaining of headaches and back pain. Depression ate away inside her like a black hole. In a desperate move to save her marriage, she became pregnant again. Again her kidney shut down, and only the opiates1 provided relief. After the pregnancy, she had a hysterectomy . . . and more pain pills. The strain of taking care of two small children resulted in a hernia . . . and more pain pills.
Sherri was not alone. Alabama doctors prescribe more painkillers than any other state in the nation.2 The problem is a national epidemic with prescription drug-related deaths outnumbering those from cocaine and heroin combined. The loss in productivity, medical, and criminal justice costs is estimated at more than $53 billion nationally every year. Nine out of ten people in America with drug problems don’t receive treatment.3
From Sherri’s perspective, she did not have a “problem.” She just needed “help handling things.” When she wasn’t under the influence of the drugs, she felt the crushing weight of the knowledge that she had never been good enough for her parents or her husband and had never fit in, despite being one of the “popular” girls in school. She brushed off her children’s demands for attention, unable to deal with them.
The first time she lost her job due to her addiction, she went through a treatment program. She and her husband divorced and, for three years, she was clean and employed. Then she fell and broke her leg. It was a complex fracture, and the doctors prescribed opiates for the pain. She relapsed.
This time she couldn’t afford the treatment program. Reluctantly, she surrendered her professional license. Now she was an unemployed, single mother with two teenage girls, living on child support from her ex-husband. She got clean and stayed that way for a month, but despair, anger, and bitterness ate at her, and she descended into a dark place where all she cared about was alleviating the pain with drugs . . . any way she could get them.
The “medicine cabinet” drugs were just the beginning. She ended up seeing a man who shared cocaine with her, only to find out it was actually methamphetamines, “speed”—a dangerous drug that can cause physical or mental breakdowns, hallucinations, psychosis and, over the long term, irreversible brain, liver, or kidney damage . . . or death.
A knock on her door set in motion events that would change her world. On her doorstep stood a woman from DHR, the Department of Human Resources. She sat on Sherri’s couch and told her there were reports that methamphetamines were being manufactured and used around her children. “Get your fat ass out of my house!” Sherri ordered furiously.
The next day, while Sherri smoked marijuana at a friend’s house, DHR took her children. At Family Court, Stephanie Galbreath, the caseworker in a new court program, offered Sherri a place as the first participant. Family Drug Court wanted to focus on families dealing with drug involvement (but no reported violence) and child welfare issues, engaging a team that consisted of a case manager for the parent(s); a DHR worker, who represented the child’s welfare; and Judge Alan Summers. It was a non-adversarial court, meaning that there were no lawyers arguing; rather, it was a voluntary program using a combination of treatment and positive reinforcement.
When Sherri heard she could not have even a single beer on the new program, she declined. “My children were devastated,” she says, “but my addiction was stronger than their pain. Any drug addict or alcoholic will tell you that the disease is cunning, baffling, and powerful. Believe it, because it is. So I went home without my children, had me some pity parties and sponged off friends.”
Without her children, the money from child support stopped. The bank foreclosed on her house. Her uncle sent her funds, and she fixed the air conditioning in her car, rented a storage facility for her furniture and a house trailer, and “blew the rest buying Lortabs (prescription pain medications) off the street.” Unable to pay the looming rent, out of drugs, and no longer welcomed by “friends,” she was desperate. Pieces of a broken glass lay on the floorboard of her car like the shards of her life. “I thought about using them to kill myself, but I called Stephanie [Galbreath] at Family Drug Court.”
Galbreath found an inpatient placement for Sherri at Aletheia House, a local drug treatment program. She went, but was kicked out days later for breaking house rules. “I was arrogant,” Sherri admits. “I thought I was better than everyone else.”
After a trip to the dentist, she was back on painkillers, and had to face an angry Judge Summers at Family Drug Court with her “dirty” urine test report. “If you fail another test,” the judge warned, “I will send you to jail.”
That is a strategy he doesn’t like to employ and uses only as a last resort with the toughest cases. In his court, it is all about building relationships. He assigns each participant the task of writing a six-page essay on his or her life and presenting it. If he feels they haven’t made an honest effort, the assignment goes to 10 pages. “It’s therapeutic for them and gives me a chance to know them and their situation,” Summers says. “It’s a boot camp. It’s a very intense court. About 95 percent of the women have experienced sexual trauma in childhood, most often by someone in their family. Before this, I had worked in the system for more than 20 years, and I started seeing the third generation coming through with the same problems—the ‘Family Court wheel of life.’ With the Family Drug Court, we’ve stopped that wheel spinning.”
Sherri didn’t know how she could live without drugs, but the judge’s threat scared her. She hid it with angry bluster. “Sherri’s attitude worried me for the program,” says Galbreath, her caseworker. “I never dreamed our first case would be so combative!”
Out of the blue, an older woman Sherri barely knew invited her to sleep on her couch. “I want you to succeed and get your children back,” she told Sherri. Her house rules included two days working at her business for $10 an hour from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the requirement that Sherri come home right afterward. “I come home and so will you,” she said.
In Alabama, without insurance or plenty of money, it takes time to get a place in a drug treatment program. The demand far exceeds the supply. For a month, while her caseworker tried to find another treatment facility for her, Sherri worked part-time, reported weekly to group sessions at Family Drug Court and to Judge Summers, and visited her children.
When a slot opened at Fellowship House, Sherri turned up her nose: “That’s where homeless people go.” But she had little choice. Slowly, she began listening to the people she had looked down on, and she realized that they were not born homeless; they had families; they came from all walks of life. “I started understanding that we were all alike. I was no better than they were and, but for God’s grace, I would be on the streets, too,” she says. Unlike other inpatient treatment programs, Fellowship House made everyone work, cleaning everything from toilets to kitchen grease traps. “I learned humility there,” she says.
“People have to hit rock bottom,” Summers reflects. “For some, rock bottom is having their kids removed. But for some, it is not. Drugs are a powerful, powerful thing and some can’t do it. But no one who has completed this 18-month program has come back in my door. Our recidivism rate is 0 percent.4 Before Family Drug Court, we were putting a Band-Aid on the problem; now we are fixing it. Most people want to succeed and need someone to support them and believe in them, to give them something as simple as hugs and love. These people have never had that. We give them that; we don’t give up on them.”
Sherri’s sobriety date was Sept. 20, 2010, a date she always keeps before her to mark her time in recovery. She was the first person to graduate from the 18-month Family Drug Court program, but data from the first approximately four years (2010–2014) echoes her success. During that period, 37 adults completed the program with 82 children:
•The 82 children achieved a stable home situation 28 months sooner than a group of comparison children. The average length of time a child is in foster care in Alabama is more than 30 months (although that includes children who will never return to parental custody). According to Courtney Hall, Assistant Director over foster care at the Jefferson County Department of Human Resources, the longer a child is in the custody of DHR, the more difficult it is to reunite the family.
•Estimated average cost savings realized keeping children out of state custody was $12,688 per child ($1,040,416 total).
Drug testing of parents:
•Family Drug Court parents had a 99 percent negative testing rate by 12 months in the program and had a continual decline in positive test rates from intake to 12 months, compared to non-Family Drug Court clients, who had a steady positive test rate of around 25 percent over the same period.
•Fifteen drug-free births occurred. From a financial standpoint, that is a savings to the State of $324,630, as each drug-addicted child costs the state approximately $21,642.
•Self-reported factors for success were caring and competent case managers and a caring judge.
•All clients interviewed indicated that the Jefferson Family Drug Court Program was the single largest factor in their success in becoming drug-free and becoming reunited with their families.
It should be noted that only 20 percent of the parents who voluntarily entered the program made it through the 18 months to graduate, but how do you put a value on the lives of those who did and their 82 children? As one anonymous respondent to a program survey said, “This program saved my life . . . I tried other ways, but couldn’t do it before. My life was unmanageable. I’d be dead.” Even if the program is evaluated from a strictly financial eye, the dollar savings to the state is many times more than the Family Drug Court operational costs, which consist of the salaries of two caseworkers from TASC (Treatment Alternatives for A Safer Community).
Hall was originally “on the fence” about the program when he first observed the court in action. As the assistant director of the county’s foster care program, he wasn’t sure about the concept, but that first visit sold him. “That day a woman who knew she was going to have to serve time in jail came in voluntarily. The judge took off his robes and talked to her like a father, telling her he was disappointed in her. To my surprise, she owned up to her behavior and said she was disappointed in herself, too, and wanted to do better,” he says. Hall summed up his enthusiasm for the program by adding, “The kind of intensive, wraparound, and continuous support Family Drug Court provides is the model that the child welfare system strives to attain.”
Despite the significant savings and results produced, the program’s primary funding comes from federal grants, with only a very small amount from the state and no funding from the county. TASC manages other specialty courts (Drug Court, Veteran’s Court, and Mental Health Court), but since the county’s financial crisis, TASC has relied solely on grant monies for its specialty courts.
Three months later, after completing treatment at Fellowship House, Sherri moved into her own apartment. Three months after that, she was permanently reunited with her children and her benefactor hired her fulltime, as well as her two girls. She regained her professional license after four years of sobriety. She practices Alcoholic Anonymous’s “Twelve Steps” on a daily basis, stays in touch with her beloved sponsor from Fellowship House, and speaks publicly about her journey. “I want to be held accountable,” she says, adding, “and I want to be a face for addiction. I want to open conversations if someone wants to talk about their problems. Maybe I can help.”
“The transformations amaze me,” Summers says. “The before and after. You don’t recognize the person as the same one who came into this courtroom skin-and-bones, more worried about finding dope than keeping their children. I’m a big ole country boy from Clay-Trussville, but it affects me.”
“In the beginning, I hated to see Sherri coming,” her caseworker says, “but in the end she helped shape what Family Drug Court has become. I learned more from her than most clients in our program. We laugh now about it, and when we go out and speak, I always say ‘the people you want to help the least need it the most.’”
T.K. Thorne drew on both her master’s degree in social work and her background as a Birmingham law enforcement officer in writing this story. Additionally, her husband, Roger Thorne, works for Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities (TASC), an outreach of UAB’s substance abuse program.
Jefferson County reinstated funding for Mental Health Court in FY2015. TASC has a commitment from the County to fund all specialty courts for FY2016.