Mother's Little Helper

Drug court is now in session. Pipe down and pass the cake.

I Am Sam
Together at last: Sharnell Carnegie and family. - Walter  Novak
Together at last: Sharnell Carnegie and family.
The social workers put their heads together. Today's million-dollar question: Why won't Tammy get her butt in gear? She wants her kids back, but hasn't made a move beyond moanin' and groanin'.

Whether she's clinically depressed or just spectacularly lazy, one thing's for sure: Tammy (not her real name) has a whole roomful of people worrying about her. She's enrolled in a new court program operating on the theory that it takes a village to get Mom off drugs, especially if she's a junkie from way back.

Heavy on hand-holding, Cuyahoga County's moms-only drug court was started last year by Judge John W. Gallagher as an alternative to the usual labyrinth of social workers with monster caseloads. The women get months of inpatient drug treatment; help with housing, schooling, day care, and establishing paternity; and a team of people checking up on them. In exchange for all the attention, they have to take parenting classes and random drug tests, as well as attend scores of recovery group meetings.

If they screw up, they answer to Gallagher, whose blend of gentle good humor and fatherly reserve puts him somewhere between Oprah and God on the presence scale.

"If you slack off, you know you've gotta hear that judge ask why you messed up," says Sharnell Carnegie, who just graduated from drug court, regaining custody of her children. "He will get on you. You've gotta keep coming back and hearing the same thing."

Carnegie's 11-month-old daughter, Journey, tested positive for marijuana at birth and was put in foster care. Her six-year-old son, Dwayne, a little man whose shy smile barely contains a devilish streak, was taken away, too.

When Carnegie started drug court, "I was very stubborn. I wasn't following directions, nothing. But the county told me to do it. They put me on the hot seat. Once I'd broken down, I admitted a lot."

Few women glide through the program, any grace they acquire being hard-won. Some simply vanish, losing permanent custody of their kids. A lot mess up royally at first, only to redeem themselves with battered determination.

Peggy Isquick and Michelle Myers -- two attorneys adept at both untangling red tape and baking chocolate-chip graduation cakes for the women -- get plenty of mileage out of moms' recovery stories. One of their favorites is the Great Urine Test Caper, in which a tranquilizer addict who'd relapsed made a valiant attempt to smuggle in a friend's urine.

"Unfortunately, that urine tested positive for cocaine," says Isquick, who can laugh about it now, since the woman eventually made good on her recovery. "At first, she wouldn't admit what she'd done, but we cornered her, and she broke down and confessed." With about 10 social workers and 5 lawyers in the room at any one time, even a good liar hasn't a prayer.

According to their job titles, Myers and Isquick are supposed to be at odds -- Isquick is an assistant public defender and Myers an assistant county prosecutor for the Department of Children and Family Services. But in drug court, Isquick has been known to perform like a true hard-ass while Myers pleads Mom's case.

"A lot of what makes this program go is Michelle and I work exceptionally well together," says Isquick. In regular court, "we've had some pretty loopy cases, and she's been very fair with me."

Yolanda Cummings's pale complexion is just starting to regain its healthy flush. The 33-year-old mom was abusing crack, alcohol, and pot when she had her first two children, now ages 12 and 13.

Only last year, after the birth of her third child, was she treated like someone with a serious problem. Oh, she'd once spent 10 days in Glenbeigh Hospital, but that was only long enough for the accounting department to find out that insurance didn't cover her stay.

"As soon as I left, I went right to the crack house," she recalls. The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book she'd been given came in handy. "I was cutting my dope up on it, using it for a beer coaster."

Her baby is now in an early intervention program at Metro hospital, going through withdrawal. As for her middle-schoolers, they're good students, but have problems with anger -- a lingering reminder that they were born addicted to crack. They live with their maternal grandmother, just as Cummings was essentially raised by her mom's mom. "So it's a tradition in our family," she says. "My mom worked two jobs and didn't have much time to spend with me."

A whole generation of crack babies was born before the state got around to requiring treatment for addicted moms. As a result, some of these women are "starting over" with six or seven kids, each of whom comes with a passel of problems. And Tammy, pregnant with her seventh child, doesn't have the will to get out of bed yet, let alone care for somebody else.

Last week, the DCFS saw three new cases of babies born under one pound. Hospital costs for each of the infants born to addicted moms add up to about $100,000.

Even if they've been clean for a while, moms can't graduate until they've nailed down a decent apartment. Finding housing for such big families is a task that tests the resourcefulness of everybody involved, from lawyers and counselors to the court stenographer who knows somebody who knows somebody.

Recovering crack addict Klemye Carey, for instance, has six children, all under age 11 in foster care. Although she's only 29, she already has a mouthful of missing teeth offsetting her soft, pretty features. Her husband is a welder who makes $30,000 a year, but credit problems have prevented them from finding a place to live. Carey's almost done with the program, except for housing, and then what does she have to look forward to?

"Having a job. I'll definitely have my kids back and be in a house. Maybe one day, I'll be an advocate or a social worker, helping someone like me." If she can draw strength from this experience, she just might get there.

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