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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.

By having her daughter with her, Christian said, she was able to focus on straightening out her life, rather than worrying about Asia going into foster care. "I was able to focus on what I had to focus on. That was getting sober." It gave her peace of mind, she said, to have her child with her.

Sober since April 2005, Christian is an office manager for a D.C. church. She said the program is not an end-all. The real struggle comes when women resume living each day with friends and family members, many of whom remember when they used drugs and alcohol.

Not everyone who enters the program emerges a success. In the past three years, six women have relapsed since graduating, and two gave up legal guardianship of their children to family members because they were unable to remain sober, officials said.

"You have to never want to get high again," Christian said. "I even stopped cigarettes. I want to live. The whole thing is about living today. And having fun. I have fun."

"Being strong and not letting people break me down/. . . Letting go of all the ones that hurt me/'cause they never did deserve me/Can you imagine me?"

The graduation Sept. 5 was the final one for the program's founder, Judge Anita Josey-Herring, who presided over the family unit of D.C. Superior Court. She plans to take on another court assignment in January.

When Josey-Herring founded the program, she had reservations about having children live so closely with women with drug habits and arrest records, she said. But now, she said, "I am so proud of this program. I am so very proud of these women and what they have accomplished."

About 200 family members, friends, social workers and court personnel attended the graduation. Unlike at high school and college ceremonies, the tears and applause reflected years of struggle with drugs and alcohol and painful memories of often neglected children.

One graduate was Michelle Barnes, 29, the "most improved" participant.

Before she entered the program, Barnes would drink alone in her Southeast apartment each day while her children, Diamond, 9, and Robert, 8, were at school or played outside. She was devoted to vodka; Grey Goose, specifically.

In fall 2006, Barnes's gas was shut off for four months. That triggered a visit from child protective services. Soon after that, she entered Family Treatment Court.

"I didn't think I had a drinking problem," Barnes said, as her children ran around her legs. "But now, yeah, I feel better."

"Letting go of the past/And glad I have another chance/And my heart will dance/'cause I don't have to read that page again."

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