For These Graduates, a Course on Sobriety

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008

For 10 years, Sharon Rispen smoked crack cocaine almost daily. For the mother of 11, getting high was one of the biggest joys in her life, if not the biggest. She didn't even stop when she became pregnant with her first child.

Then, last summer, the city charged Rispen with child neglect and endangerment.

Standing before D.C. Superior Court Judge S. Pamela Gray, Rispen was given a choice: Get off drugs, or the children would be put in foster care.

On Aug. 28, 2007, Rispen, of Northeast Washington, entered the court's family treatment program. It allows women to live with their children for six months during treatment at a Southeast Washington residential center, followed by counseling and court visits to keep them on track. Rispen took along her son Seanjae, then 2 weeks old; relatives cared for the other children.

Last week, Rispen and 15 other women dressed in caps and gowns received praise and certificates as they graduated from Family Treatment Court. They marched down the aisle at D.C. Superior Court to "Imagine Me," a gospel song by Kirk Franklin.

It was the ninth graduation for the program, which began in 2003.

Having Seanjae "with me reminded me that I had something to live for. It gave me back my sense of being a mother and why I needed to get clean -- for him," said Rispen, 40.

The idea of Family Treatment Court is to keep mothers and children together during rehabilitation. That way, there is less distraction, court officials said, and women can focus on their treatment.

The program, which is voluntary, has 18 slots and a waiting list. Eighty-eight D.C. women have completed it.

"There is a demand for treatment in this city," said Gray, who presides over Family Treatment Court. "These are some of the most courageous women I have ever seen."

Karen Christian, 48, graduated in 2005. She said she was "rarely sober" for more than 10 years and smoked heroin and cocaine. She was arrested in April 2004 after police found her with bags of heroin and cocaine at Seventh and T streets NW. Her daughter Asia, then 4, was with her when officers took her into custody.

Asia was sent to foster care, but a D.C. Superior Court judge told Christian she could have daily custody if she enrolled in the program.

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