Drug court offers challenge, but helps reunite families

By Janet Stevens / The Bulletin


“It’s a miracle,” Haley Fitzgerald’s mother told her daughter and a packed Deschutes County courthouse Monday, and in many ways, it was. The daughter, 35, had just graduated from the Deschutes County Circuit Court’s Family Drug Court, something even Fitzgerald thought, during more than a year in the program, that she would never see.

So-called specialty courts like the Family Drug Court, which is designed for parents who have lost or are at risk of losing their children, are all the rage these days, and with good reason. Considerable research shows that while they may be expensive by courtroom standards, they’re money-savers and life-savers in the long run. In Deschutes County’s case, only 7 percent of drug court graduates have re-offended.

Fitzgerald’s troubles go back years. After graduating from Central Oregon Community College with an associate’s degree in medical transcription in 2001, she went to work at a local clinic. A serious illness followed by financial ruin, among other things, made her a willing participant when a friend suggested she try methamphetamine.

“Meth made me feel great,” she says today. “It turned off every emotion.”

It also got her into serious trouble with the law, so much so that she went to jail in 2010, got out and received a 65-month suspended sentence. She re-offended quickly, and while she was waiting to go to prison, someone mentioned Family Drug Court to her.

Though she had no intention of completing the program at the time, Fitzgerald asked her lawyer to get her into it. It took several requests before the district attorney’s office would sign off, and even then, few expected she would succeed. Had she failed, she’d hardly have been alone. Half of participants drop out without completing the program, state Treasurer Ted Wheeler told the graduates Monday.

Fitzgerald nearly joined the drop-out ranks early on. Within an hour of being released from jail after being accepted into the program, she used meth again. Judge Alta Brady, whom she clearly admires, met her with tough love. Get into a residential treatment program within three days, Brady told her, or go to prison. A friend drove her to a program in Klamath Falls, where she stayed 69 days. The first 47, she said, were “just darkness.”

Family Drug Court may work miracles, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Participants have a team of as many as a dozen experts working with them, ranging from life-skills coaches to mental health workers to parenting experts.

Early on, Fitzgerald says, she hated it, all of it. The program laid out her every activity those first few weeks, and she balked. She questioned everything, she says, and it wasn’t until about six months ago that she actually began to see it and the people involved for what they were.

Take life-skills coach Patricia Stoneroad. She helped Fitzgerald get a job, despite a serious criminal record, even driving her to interviews.

“We have nothing when we come to her,” Fitzgerald says. “No experience, out of work for years. She always says, ‘You cannot lie, but I’m going to tell you how to word it a little bit better.’”

It was that kind of treatment that made Fitzgerald recognize one day that the court wasn’t out to punish her by keeping her there forever (she spent nearly two years in the program). When that happened, she says, she discovered that the people on her team were doing their jobs because they wanted her and the other drug court participants to succeed, not simply for a paycheck.

Fitzgerald was one of four graduates Monday. She has held a single job for more than a year. Her employer, she says, knows all about her past and worked with her to allow her to keep her drug court commitments. He is, she says, “wonderful,” a word she’s using a lot these days. Her probation was terminated three years early. Best of all, her daughter, now 13, is home.

Still, as Treasurer Wheeler told Fitzgerald and the others Monday, graduation is just the beginning. You are never done, never done, he said. There are times when you will be depressed and alone.

Those are the times to pull out the skills learned in Family Drug Court, to reconnect — if the connections have lapsed — with the skills learned and people met there. Doing so will let Fitzgerald and her three fellow graduates keep their personal miracles alive.