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.
|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.