Grace: Special drug court hangs in there with families, helping reunite parents, kids -
Published Thursday, November 7, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 10:31 am
Grace: Special drug court hangs in there with families, helping reunite parents, kids

The graduate rose from her chair in the front row of a Douglas County courtroom and cried.

She stood in her worn jeans and T-shirt, the steel of her steel-toed boots showing through the worn boot fabric, and tried to say what this graduation day — her first ever — had meant.

“I'm just grateful,” Melissa Dixon, 34, said through tears.

“You guys didn't give up on me.”

No, this special drug court designed for parents of young children, didn't give up on Melissa.

The compassionate judge, the teddy bear of an attorney, the bevy of seen-it-all helpers who offered rides, drug treatment, counseling and whatever she needed, over and over and over again, hung in. And because they hung in, so did she.

It's why, Melissa said, she was even standing here on Tuesday, among the other parents graduating from the Zero to Three Family Drug Treatment Court getting accolades and cupcakes and a formal goodbye from the child welfare system.

This is a special court, begun in 2005, that provides services to drug-abusing parents who have lost their children to state care. The court is more carrot than stick in its approach, offering gentle redirection and every service from intense psychotherapy and drug treatment to bus passes. But parents have to attend hearings far more often than they would in regular court.

The program's architect, Douglas County Court Judge Douglas Johnson, said it allows parents to more successfully reunite with their children, forming bonds that are crucial to cognitive and other development. And children can spend less time bouncing around in foster care.

Of the 73 families that have entered this court since 2005, 53 completed the requirements and got their children back. Just one of the 53 families has since re-entered the foster care system.

Each time a family completes the court requirements, Zero to Three Family Drug Treatment Court holds a graduation ceremony. It is a formal court hearing removing the State of Nebraska as caregiver and placing children back with their parents. It is also a happy occasion where people take pictures and the judge steps off the bench to hug participants and offer them a gift.

On Tuesday, Melissa's family was among four that graduated.

Now a full-time welder in a job she's held since March, Melissa showed up in her work clothes and those steel-toed boots, symbolic of the way she'd had to press forward.

Born in Omaha and raised in Council Bluffs, Melissa had the kind of throwaway life that would seem to lead right into the social services system.

Her dad killed himself when she was 6. She left home at age 12, taking off with a boyfriend twice her age who took her to parties where she pretended she had done meth before and drew the drug into a syringe and then into her vein and then into her life.

This first hit began a 23-year addiction to the powerful drug.

She lost her childhood. Melissa stopped going to school after the fifth grade and was pregnant by age 15.

She lost her four older children. The State of Iowa took over their care in 2005.

She lost her freedom. She served jail time for a check scam in South Dakota.

She lost her teeth, she lost jobs, she lost placements at treatment centers and she nearly lost her life.

And Melissa was in danger of losing Mia and Makayla, her two youngest children.

In October 2011, Melissa had overdosed on meth, gone to a hospital for help and then left against doctor's orders.

Within a week, the girls were in foster care and Melissa had entered the local social welfare system, where she was told to clean up. She didn't.

For the next year, Melissa bounced from clean to using. The girls bounced from home to home.

In January 2012, Melissa tried to take her life, purposely overdosing on meth. That attempt landed her in a hospital emergency room, then a psych ward and then a residential drug treatment program that eventually kicked her out.

By then, Melissa's attorney, Duke Drouillard, had successfully lobbied to move Melissa's case to the family drug court.

The court coordinates its service through the nonprofit Safe Babies Court Team, which provides another layer of monitoring — both of families and the safety net that is supposed to help.

Offenders have to show up to court weekly at first.

Judge Johnson often says the point of the Zero to Three Family Drug Treatment Court is not to give children back to their parents but parents back to their children. Johnson said the court works hard to keep families intact and prepare them for the road ahead. Johnson orders community service, sobriety help and even, on occasion, this heartbreaker of an assignment: Write a letter to your child about what kind of parent the child deserves.

While some judges are big on punitive measures to correct behavior, Johnson says he finds support to be the best motivator.

“You don't want to create more trauma,” he said. “We found this compassionate, therapeutic justice works best.”

The drug court gave Melissa the support she needed to finally steer straight.

She'd like to say she gave up meth for the girls. But really, she gave it up for herself. What made Melissa finally quit was this: Meth no longer was an escape. It stopped giving her that high. It stopped feeling good and started feeling really, really miserable.

She checked herself into detox and then, with money fronted by Drouillard, into the Stephen Center's HERO program, which had kicked her out once before.

By March, Melissa had landed a full-time, $13-an-hour welding job in Council Bluffs. By June, she was back living on her own and, according to court records, had “made great progress.” By July, Mia and Makayla were cleared for overnights with her.

Here she was on Tuesday, sitting with her estranged husband, Michael, who had also cleaned up his act. Michael Dixon was out of prison and also working as a welder.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Mia, now 4, snuggled on Melissa's lap and Makayla, 3, played with her dad's nose. The girls were quiet and well-behaved during their hourlong court hearing.

Melissa sat in the front row, her face crumpled in emotion as others talked about her journey.

They used words like “stumbling blocks” and “skinned knees,” “resistance” and “tough road.”

Then they talked about Melissa's strengths.

“You kept fighting and you fought and you fought and you fought. You never gave up,” said Kati King, the program coordinator.

“Once (you) came back and completed the Campus of Hope program, (you) were on fire,” said Archie Scott, the case manager.

“Watching (you) change into an entirely new person in two years, it's kind of like watching a butterfly being born,” said Drouillard.

“I'm happy for you,” said Judge Johnson. “I'll tell you one thing. You make me want to be a better judge.”

There was applause and certificates of achievement and copies of the Dr. Seuss classic, “Oh, the Places You'll Go!”

Melissa reflected on the direction her life has taken.

“I feel like I'm living,” she said, “not just surviving.”

Melissa gave a lot of credit to the drug court, saying that when she screwed up, “they wouldn't bash me for it.”

“They'd say, 'Keep going, Melissa. You're worth it.' ”

I asked Drouillard how he and others can keep supporting someone who falls down repeatedly.

“What are your alternatives?” asked the attorney, old enough at 60 to be Melissa's father. “Do you break up this family and put the children somewhere else? Do you leave them on the streets? Do you wait until they wind up in a jail cell? These people are going to be with us. They are going to be out here, on our streets, in our city, and they can either be doing something productive, like putting their family back together. Or doing something unproductive.”

Melissa gets this second chance; so do her daughters.

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

Man, 21, shot in ankle while walking near 30th, U Streets
State Department moves to delay Keystone XL pipeline decision
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
Friday's attendance dips at Millard West after bathroom threat
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
High court denies death row appeal of cult leader convicted of murder
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
Man taken into custody in domestic dispute
Omaha judge reprimanded for intervening in peer attorney's DUI case
Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
Police seek public's help in finding an armed man
Saturday forecast opens window for gardening; Easter egg hunts look iffy on Sunday
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Last day of 2014 Legislature: Praise, passage of a last few bills and more on mountain lions
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
A voice of experience: Ex-gang member helps lead fight against Omaha violence
Church is pressing its case for old Temple Israel site
OPPD board holding public forum, open house May 7
The thrill of the skill: Omaha hosts statewide contest for students of the trades
A recap of what got done — and what didn't — in the 2014 legislative session
When judge asks, Nikko Jenkins says ‘I killed them’
Nancy's Almanac, April 17, 2014: Trees save money
'The war is not over,' Chambers says, but legislative session about is
PAC funded by Senate candidate Ben Sasse's great-uncle releases Shane Osborn attack ad
< >
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Kelly: Creighton's McDermotts put good faces on an Omaha tradition
A comical roast Wednesday night in Omaha brought fans of Creighton basketball laughter by the bucketful. This time it was McJokes, not McBuckets, that entertained the Bluejay crowd.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »