Pubdate: Tue, 06 Mar 2012
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Carrie Teegarden
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)


Drug Court Gave Woman 'Stability' To Get Life Back

For many years, Charlotte Whitlock's bedroom was the most comfortable 
spot she could find under a city bridge.

She would break down cardboard boxes she found on the streets and put 
those on top of rocks or concrete, the way the other crackheads and 
bridge dwellers had shown her, then she would pad the cardboard with 
a lot of blankets and seek the sleep that would take her away from 
who she was. She saved bottles of water to brush her teeth, and she 
would get meals and clothes from charities around downtown Atlanta.

She knew her two sons were growing up not far away, in someone else's 
care. She even saw them a few times over the years and took the time 
to check out where they were living. But she never stayed long. Crack 
cocaine would always pull her away from her sons and back to the bridges.

"I was happy to see them and everything and know that they were OK," 
Whitlock said. "But in the midst of my mind being cloudy, and my body 
and my spirit toxic with the drugs, I had no sense of settling down. 
I know I would have been no good for them. I would have destroyed 
their life by being in their life."

Charlotte Whitlock has now been sober for more than a thousand days 
- -- the greatest accomplishment of her life. People who graduate from 
drug court tend to stay graduated -- the success rate is 93 percent 
- -- and Whitlock loves this unaccustomed feeling of success. She loves 
the fact that she is no longer a ghost in the lives of her sons and 
her sister but a person of flesh and bone who was there yesterday and 
will be there tomorrow.

Whitlock was in jail when she started thinking that the time had come 
to make a change. She heard other inmates talking about drug court. 
"I thought to myself, God, you know I have been praying and asking 
you to help me or send me in the direction to get some help," she 
said. "And this just may be the thing for me."

More than two years later, Whitlock was the last of 17 people to be 
called by Superior Court Judge Doris Downs during the graduation 
ceremony in Fulton County's Drug Court. Drug court is a rigorous 
accountability program of near-constant drug tests, courses, recovery 
meetings and going to work. As Downs read a one-page summary of 
Whitlock's life story -- a tale that began with being sexually abused 
as a child and ended with sobriety and survival of breast cancer -- 
her fellow drug court inmates loudly applauded. Drug court staffers 
cried and Whitlock's older son, Somorio, sat in the audience in 
support of a mother whose attention he had waited a lifetime to attract.

Gov. Nathan Deal has people like Charlotte Whitlock in mind with a 
plan before the Georgia General Assembly to save tax dollars and 
improve public safety by sending more Georgians to drug court. The 
programs are cheaper than prison and drug court graduates are less 
likely to commit another crime than those who are punished in prison. 
But there's something else about drug court: in almost every case, a 
drug court graduation is also the celebration of the return of a 
family member who had been completely lost to drugs.

While some drug courts around Georgia shy away from people like 
Whitlock -- hard-core addicts with lengthy criminal records -- Judge 
Downs does not. She has seen the transformation of longtime homeless 
crack addicts over and over again. She is one of the state's biggest 
supporters of Deal's proposal to put more Georgians in the programs. 
And those who appear before her in drug court sense that she has hope for them.

"Judge Downs wants to see you succeed," Whitlock said. "She wants to 
see you change. She knows you can do better."

Whitlock said she was locked up 21 times over the years -- mostly in 
local jails. She served time in state prison in 2004 for possession 
of cocaine. But the times behind bars were just pauses in her 
addiction, and nothing changed when she got out again. Drug court, 
Whitlock said, helped her get "connected to her higher power."

She took the highly regarded "Thinking for a Change" class, which 
helps offenders understand how to change the way they think and to 
make the right decisions. She got to live in a house with other 
recovering addicts, after committing to the program. Going to bed 
suddenly involved a mattress, sheets and a clean blanket. She went to 
recovery meetings. And while some in her group failed, she stayed sober.

"In the drug world you are into stealing and lying." But drug court, 
she said, "gave me a sense of stability to quiet my mind and my soul 
and put me back on the right track. . . . Being patient and taking 
your time and letting your higher power answer your prayers. That 
comes from drug court."

In the middle of the program, Whitlock was diagnosed with breast 
cancer. She went to live with her sister, with whom she had pretty 
much lost contact after their mother died of cancer when the girls 
were teenagers. At the hospital, Whitlock said, drug court staff 
members visited her and brought her a gift basket and flowers. "I had 
never got a bouquet of flowers in my life," she said.

To see Charlotte Whitlock today, it is a shock to imagine that for 
more than a decade she lived under bridges or in overgrown vacant 
lots. She is a sweet and engaging woman with a warm smile who looks 
more like somebody's grandmother than a former street person.

Whitlock's mother had been a stable matriach who raised her children 
in some of Atlanta's poorest neighborhoods. When she died, Charlotte 
and her two siblings scattered. Her sister also abandoned her 
children and become a alcoholic and drug addict. Charlotte worked and 
got married in her 20s and had her son. But the relationship didn't 
last. She says she got into crack cocaine through a man she met after 
her marriage broke up. She was in her early 30s and the mother of two.

Her addiction became so powerful that she started leaving her 
children with family members and friends. Before long, she was pretty 
much gone for good. Her sons were sent to live with a foster mother 
who was devoted to them and taught the boys to pray for their mother. 
Whitlock is now trying to build a relationship with both of her sons. 
That's easier with Somorio, who lives in Atlanta. Her younger son, 
Chuma, is in prison on an armed robbery and kidnapping conviction.

"It makes me feel sad sometimes when my mind wanders," she said. 
"What if I hadn't gotten into the drugs? If I had stayed there and 
been the mother I should have been? I thank God he gave me a second 
chance in life."

Today, Whitlock and her sister are close, bonded by their mutual 
recovery. "Charlotte is a very funny person," said her sister, 
Delores Johnson. "She will keep you laughing 24/7, all day. If 
Charlotte sees you are having a bad day she will try to make it her 
job to bring you out of that bad day."

Somorio, now 29, would have every right to be angry with his mother. 
But there's no trace of that in his voice. He said he knew, even at a 
young age, what was going on with his mother. With the help of his 
foster mother, he stayed hopeful.

"When she is at her best, she is beautiful," he said.

At a drug court dinner before the graduation, Somorio spoke to the 
group, directing his words to the other children of addicts in the audience.

He told the group about the arrival of the Christmas holidays last 
year. He was with his mother on Christmas and she was explaining to 
him that she couldn't afford to give him a gift. "He said she just 
didn't know the only thing he wanted was to be with her for 
Christmas," said Johnson, who was there too. "There wasn't a dry eye 
in the place. He was speaking to the children, telling them to learn 
how to forgive whatever goes on. Charlotte just sat there and tears 
were in her eyes."

Finally, Charlotte Whitlock was a mother again. And her son still loved her.
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