Julie Marlett of Roaring Spring was excited last month, having just completed 17 months in Blair County's Family Drug Court.
The former heroin user was looking to her future with enthusiasm and to being reunited with her 2-year-old son and her husband, who stood by her when others told him not to.
Her goal was to pursue a degree in psychology so she could ''work with other moms like me.''
(Mirror photo illustration by J.D. Cavrich and Tom Worthington II)
Mary Lou Hoover (left) and Janice Toguchi of Blair County Children and Youth Services meet with Judge Tim Sullivan to give him a progress report on one of their clients.
Janice Toguchi, her caseworker at Blair County Children and Youth Services, said Family Drug Court ''was quite a journey for Julie,'' but she said Marlett was a good role model as she worked through problems and stayed away from drugs with the goal of getting her son back.
Family Drug Court is one of the specialty courts in Blair County. It was started by Judge Tim Sullivan to address the needs of drug-addicted parents, with the goal of getting them off drugs and reunited with their children, who were taken away because they weren't being cared for properly.
Toguchi said Sullivan's drug court ''is very, very hard.''
There were daily phone calls between Marlett and Toguchi, frequent drug testing, drug counseling at Home Nursing Agency and family counseling through the Dolminis Methadone Clinic.
''I felt like a kid,'' said Marlett, who said the program forced her to look deep inside to confront her ''issues,'' including the loss of a child at birth.
On the day of her graduation from Family Drug Court, Marlett, her husband and her toddler gathered with Sullivan, Toguchi and others associated with the court, including attorneys Larry Lashinsky and Amy Rosensteel, in a small room on the fourth floor of the courthouse to celebrate.
''I have a strong family now,'' Marlett said.
But the story doesn't have a happy ending - at least not yet. Sullivan said since Marlett's graduation, she relapsed.
-- Getting past relapses --
''What our training has taught us is that relapse is part of the recovery process,'' Sullivan said. ''We still take any and all steps to make sure appropriate safeguards are in place. This is why we conduct drug tests several times a week. We don't look the other way if there is a relapse.''
Renee Bambocci, drug and alcohol treatment coordinator with Home Nursing, said people often relapse because they don't follow up treatment by attending 12-step meetings or having a sponsor or a person they can contact when they feel a craving for drugs.
Some have underlying mental health issues. Others continue to use alcohol, which tends to lessen their resolve to avoid illegal drugs, Bambocci said.
''These are the folks who are not doing what they need to do, ones who don't take advice,'' Bambocci said.
Blair County Drug and Alcohol Coordinator Judy Rosser, one of the founders of Blair's Family Drug Court, said relapse can be addressed swiftly.
Children and Youth steps back in to make sure the child is safe and that the drug issue is addressed again, Rosser said.
Heroin is a lifelong problem. Relapse, she said, ''is not a finality.''
-- Children must be safe --
Marlett said while she never sold drugs, ''I bought them, and I did them.''
When Children and Youth became aware that Marlett had a drug problem, the agency intervened.
Toguchi said her agency's job is to protect children, seeing that they live in a safe, stable home.
A child growing up where drugs are prevalent faces danger in a number of ways, she said. Strangers with varied backgrounds come and go, and the child is in danger from drug paraphernalia or the drugs themselves.
Drug addicts may neglect basic needs of a child, such as medical care and schooling.
''It's about abuse and neglect,'' Toguchi said, referring to why child welfare steps in.
Children and Youth deals with hundreds of families each year, many of them dealing with drug abuse. Toguchi doesn't know exactly how many families are experiencing drug abuse, but she said it's ''a lot.''
She also said the agency provides services to most families without removing the children. Under Pennsylvania law, however, a child placed in foster care must be placed for adoption if the biological parents cannot provide the safe environment the agency requires.
-- Steps in the process --
Sullivan, who began Family Drug Court about a year and a half ago, said participants come before him for review every two weeks.
Those who are doing well are rewarded with less structure. Those who are not meeting the tough standards set by the court are given sanctions designed to help them, such an writing essays about how drug abuse has affected their lives.
For those who cannot meet the standards, shake their drug habits and become good parents, the ultimate sanction is expulsion from the program and permanent loss of their parental rights.
Since the program began, Sullivan said two mothers have graduated and regained custody of their children.
Two mothers did not make it, Sullivan said.
''They were discharged, their parental rights were terminated, and their children were placed for adoption,'' he said.
Sullivan said he doesn't look at the discharge of the two mothers as failures.
The goal is to bring ''permanency'' to the lives of children, he said. In the cases of the two women who were discharged, the judge and child welfare officials determined ''sooner rather than later'' they were not fit parents.
Sullivan's court is now working with four mothers in their attempts to regain custody of their children.
''The greatest challenge has been to develop a trust relationship with our participants and to open up a line of communication with them,'' Sullivan said. ''We try to help them see and understand the choices they have made put them where they are.''
The program is intrusive in many ways. The court wants to know who participants associate with and wants access to their progress with counselors.
Sullivan said representatives of the court, members of an oversight board and others are constantly looking for individuals who may be good candidates for participation in the court.
''Every time there is a drug sweep, we look for potential candidates for the program,'' Sullivan said.
-- Julie's struggle --
Marlett said it took her time to realize that if she didn't wake up and participate in drug court, she may never really have a family.
She experimented with marijuana in school and tried pain pills, but her fall really began when someone gave her heroin at a Memorial Day picnic.
When she and her husband married four years ago, her first attempt to get clean failed. She attributed that to being forced to attend a methadone clinic and work with a local agency whose suggestions she resisted.
That agency, she said, advised her husband to divorce her. He didn't, which she said was key to putting her on the road to recovery.
He stood by her, as did those involved in Family Drug Court.
''These people fought for me,'' she said.
Along the way, she had to deal with her past. Her first child to a former boyfriend is being raised by that man's family. Her second child died at birth. Her third child was placed in a Mennonite community foster home. Her fourth child was in the CYS system.
''You have to do it, look deep inside. You've got to ask, 'Why?''' Marlett said. ''There's no reason why. I don't know if I enjoyed the high, or wanted to drown my sorrows. It's been a long road for everybody.''
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.