Shelley stands in the courtroom of Magistrate Scheherazade Washington on a recent Tuesday, apologizing.
“I know that once you do plant that seed of doubt, it’s tough to get trust back,” she says.
It has been a trying month for the 50-year-old single mother, whose easy smile gives no clue that she survived a near-fatal overdose of fentanyl last spring.
Since that time, she’s been working to claw her way back from addiction with the help of a special Hamilton County court program designed to keep families together. As Shelley and others have found, it’s a hard road — but one that beats the grim alternatives.
On this day in court, part of the process is atonement.
Shelley’s recovery had been off to an auspicious start — her son, Chance, moved back in with her after spending seven months in foster care — but things quickly soured after her then-boyfriend, Rich, assaulted her and Chance. To cope, she started drinking again.
Shelley, who has requested we only use her first name, misled the court about her drinking and whether or not the abusive Rich was still in her life.
Washington, the presiding judge, is sympathetic to Shelley’s plight, but remains serious about the rules of the program.
“Drinking and drugging is not an option,” she says. “Period.”
THE OTHER VICTIMS OF THE OPIOID CRISIS
Tucked away on the sixth floor of the Hamilton County Juvenile Court building, Family Treatment Drug Court is a voluntary program designed to help those suffering from drug abuse stabilize themselves and reunite with children who were removed from their care.
The court has been repairing broken families since 2001, when a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration funded its inception. Lately, there have been more parents like Shelley who are struggling with addiction and in need of help.
As the opioid crisis escalates, the court’s work is more important than ever. Drug overdoses in Hamilton County rose for the third straight year in 2017, kids have flooded the foster care system and, according to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, more babies are being exposed to opioids in-utero, prompting a higher risk of developmental delays.
Prior to the crisis’ current extremes, Hamilton County Job & Family Services data shows in 2006 there were 1,920 children in the foster care system countywide, a number that grew by only 200 over the next eight years. Then, between 2014 and 2016, that number ballooned to 2,918 children in state custody — a 20-year high. Since then, nearly 700 more have entered the system.
At a recent conference on childhood trauma, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine confirmed that the number of children entering foster care in Ohio has skyrocketed and that about half of those kids need help “due to abuse and neglect associated with parental drug abuse.”
Some parents don’t make it long enough to seek recovery. Last year, drug overdoses in Hamilton County claimed 529 lives — a big increase from the 403 people who died in 2016. Most of those deaths last year — 373 — were due to opioids.
The crisis’ especially deadly turn of late is one reason an increase in drug users has not translated to more people in the Family Treatment Drug Court program.
“(They) can’t get through the door if they die,” says Magistrate Washington.
But if a parent can survive and get clean, it can make all the difference. According to a study by the Institute for Family Studies, kids who stay with their parents or other family members have better outcomes than those who idle in foster care. Drug court is committed to permanency for the child — the staff works to give parents structure so they can get their kids back and keep them.
“If we can help that parent gain sobriety and stability, addressing their needs, then that’s ultimately going to impact the child and their needs,” says Deanna Nadermann, a specialized coordinator who oversees Juvenile Court dockets like drug court.
Currently, only seven clients are enrolled in Family Treatment Drug Court. Nobody has graduated since last March and average time in the program — nine months — has shot up thanks to the brutal and protracted nature of opiate abuse withdrawal.
Washington believes neither the court’s size or graduation rate reflect its true impact.
“We are a necessary tool in the arsenal of our community,” she says.
Maintaining sobriety is, of course, a major goal. But drug court also pushes clients to find a community to nurture and support their ongoing recovery; families cannot always bear the added burden of meeting the myriad needs of someone in recovery.
“Back in the day, with weed or crack, it was an individual choice,” Washington says. “Now, families are fragmented to the point of nonexistence.”
SURVIVAL BOOT CAMP
The drug court program isn’t easy.
All clients must complete weekly drug screenings and attend 90 Alcohol or Narcotics Anonymous meetings within the first 90 days. Caseworkers from Hamilton County Job & Family Services and lawyers from the public defender’s office help them and their children navigate the deluge of appointments and jump through the requisite legal hoops.
The schedule sounds excessive, but it provides a backbone that clients can use to create a framework for their lives.
Adjusting to the world’s time rather than the drug’s time is difficult. According to social worker Amanda Constantino, it’s really about changing everything in your life. Sobriety is more than the absence of drugs; it also demands a lifestyle populated by people who encourage recovery and a community that welcomes that process. Maintaining associations with other addicts or dealers is often untenable.
“They have to adapt with not having their best friend (the drug) and having to live life sober and trying to find things to and people to spend time with who are sober,” Constantino says.
Drug court helps clients work toward that goal. It mandates those AA or NA meetings because they are a quick and easy way to find like-minded peers. They also encourage clients to look beyond the recovery groups to different churches or recreational sports leagues — activities that occupy time and encourage interaction with others.
“We try to put enough external success or possibilities in front of them until they can internalize that themselves,” Washington says.
The program has evolved over the years, too. The court’s former policy of no tolerance has shifted as science has shown the promise of medically assisted addiction treatment. While methadone is still forbidden, clients are permitted to enter programs that use opioids like Suboxone and Vivitrol.
Most important of all are the courtroom hearings. Held every Tuesday morning, these sessions hold clients accountable for the grueling, drab work of recovery — going to therapy, getting a job, finding an apartment — necessary to maintain sobriety and regain their kids’ trust.
Hearing one another’s progress fosters a sense of community among the clients, says court coordinator Nadermann. They are invested in and encouraged by each other’s success.
Which is why Shelley apologized to everyone. She had been doing well, staying clean since her overdose last March. Her son was living with her again. Court officials were optimistic she would graduate soon.
Unfortunately for Shelley, her relationship with Rich went south quickly after her son returned.
WHEN PARTNERS ARE BARRIERS
The day after Shelley’s son Chance moved back in, Rich got drunk.
“He and I had an altercation and he just open-handed me across the seat,” she says. “That’s when Chance came in, and (Rich) had Chance in a headlock and bit him in the cheek.”
Shelley called the police and filed charges, but they were dropped. Shelley didn’t testify against Rich, she says, because she had to be at work that day.
Eventually, Rich was arrested because his abusive behavior violated his parole. He will be released in April if the charges are not re-filed.
Shelley has begun that process, but only after Gretchen Boone, her caseworker and Chance’s legal guardian, pushed her to do so. She is determined to keep Rich locked up, even if Shelley — who still texts Rich and talks to him on the phone — is less willing.
“It doesn’t bode well with me that a man bit your child and you do not want to pursue him to the full extent of the law,” the 26-year-old caseworker says about Shelley.
Drug abuse and domestic violence often go hand in hand. Numerous studies show increased risk of physical, sexual or psychological abuse to all parties, but mothers especially. According to one study from the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, opioid-dependent fathers were more likely to be physically, sexually and psychologically aggressive toward the mother of their youngest biological child over the course of the relationship.
Partner abuse crops up often in drug court. Most clients are single mothers, a population subject to higher rates of abuse than other groups. Getting sober and piecing their lives back together is hard enough, but many of these women do so while mired in unhealthy or even dangerous relationships.
Rich has now assaulted Shelley three times in the past six years. One time he even threw her through a glass table. She says she stayed in the relationship because it’s what she felt she deserved.
“I’m already wounded, I’m already damaged goods, so therefore I can only have somebody that’s damaged as well,” she says.
According to social worker Constantino, this sentiment is common among recovering drug addicts.
“They are afraid of leaving and being alone,” she says. “They don’t know that there is help out there.”
Rich also had financial leverage over Shelley.
The gas and electric bill at her apartment was and still is in his name because when she moved out of her old place — the home of the drug dealer who sold her the nearly fatal fentanyl and a place the courts refused to let Chance live — she could not foot the utilities bill.
That’s when Rich, an alcoholic who Shelley thought had cleaned up his act, entered her life with a little bit of money and a whole lot of baggage.
“My therapist said until a year after being sober, you should never be in a relationship, you need to get a pet goldfish,” she says with a laugh. “Well, mine turned into a piranha.”
PASSING DOWN PAIN
This relationship is not just harmful to Shelley — Chance suffers, too.
Boone is sympathetic to Shelley’s situation, but her first responsibility is Chance.
“I care about you, but my job and my main priority is the child,” Boone says she has told Shelley. “It’s not my job to protect you against that relationship, but if you won’t keep him out of the house, I can’t guarantee Chance’s safety.”
The 13-year-old already lost his father and another father-figure to opioids, and almost lost his mother. All that pain adds up.
Chance skips school regularly, recently set an abandoned building on fire and has had several stints in juvenile detention — most recently for writing “fuck the police” on a trash can at school.
“It’s like I got this damaged kid back,” Shelley says. “He was already damaged, but he got more appointments than I do and together it’s like holy, good God.”
If she wants to regain full custody of Chance, Shelley is going to have to make it work. In April, Juvenile Court will evaluate whether Shelley is fit to be Chance’s guardian. If she fails, she will have another year to tidy up before she permanently loses custody.
Boone says the decision will rely heavily on where Rich is.
“If he is out, that level of trust has been broken about if she can protect Chance,” she says. “If that’s the case, we would have to ask for an extension for another year.”
Shelley may still talk with her ex-boyfriend, but she says she is serious about protecting Chance. She is filing a stalking order against Rich and looking for a new place so she can escape his financial leverage.
“I don’t want to live the rest of my life having to do this,” she says. “I need to work, I need to find a place, I need to do everything, but I need to fit all these people in my life from (Chance’s) point, from my point, therapists, doctors.”
A MORE POTENT ANTI-DRUG COURT
Currently, Washington’s drug court is going through the process of being officially recognized by the Ohio Supreme Court. Accreditation will allow them to apply for more state and federal grants and in turn add more clients and staff. The process should wrap up within the next year.
Hamilton County specialty court coordinator Nadermann hopes that surplus funds will allow them to expand services and help more people like Shelley. The original Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant was large enough to accommodate 15 clients and allow the court to sponsor zoo outings, passes to the YMCA and hold evening sessions. They even brought in a healthcare and exercise specialist.
“We’d all be exercising for 30 minutes in the big ol’ courtroom,” says Washington.
After the money ran out, Hamilton County Juvenile Court stretched the budget to keep the court afloat, but could not cover the costs of the additional services. However, the absence of these perks over the past few years has not diminished the court’s impact.
Earlier this year, a former client visited the court with his kids.
“I want you to thank Magistrate Washington,” the visitor told his children, “because she’s the reason you’re here today.”
Shelley feels similarly.
“She really cares about everybody there,” she says. “Her heart is there for us.”
Nadermann says that is by design. Unlike most courts, the structure of drug court allows the magistrate to actually build relationships with the clients.
“You’ve got to build those relationships,” Nadermann says. “If they trust you, then you can find out what’s going on and you can change behavior.”
Washington is an unabashed optimist, having watched former addicts beat the odds for decades.
“If you can be a successful drug addict, you can run the world,” she says. “The skill set that is required to be a successful drug addict, if you can transfer that to something positive in life, you would be unstoppable.”
Shelley would settle for some normalcy. She’s no longer drinking, but the avalanche of responsibilities is hard to bear. All she wants is a stable life with regular responsibilities and people who care about her.
“Does all this crap ever really end?” she muses. “Even after all the legal part of it’s done?”
As the opioid crisis wears on, more and more people like Shelley risk losing their children due to their addictions. In the face of the trauma, however, Washington is optimistic that families can be repaired.
“You never know where the switch is, but we hope we’re planting seeds,” she says of those who come through the program. “When it takes root, they may come out of the weather.”