On Monday night, Ivory Joe Robinson of Cape Girardeau graduated. The people closest to him were there to cheer him on and wish him well. A speaker gave an address, and Robinson was given a certificate, a commencement coin and a bag of gifts.
He also walked away with more than that: a new-found dignity and respect for himself and for others. He walked into a new life he had to learn how to live. Robinson graduated from drug court.
Robinson is the 14th graduate of drug court, a program that saw its first clients in August 2001. It is administered through the 32nd Judicial District, which includes Cape Girardeau, Bollinger and Perry counties. Since its start, drug court has had 66 participants and seven commencement ceremonies.
What follows are the stories of Robinson and two other former drug users and the difference that "coming clean" has made in their lives.
Most drug court participants take between 12 to 16 months to complete their program, says Steve Narrow, drug court administrator. Robinson took 29 months after entering June 7, 2002. After more than 20 years of trying to get clean on his own, Robinson knew what he was getting in drug court was working for him, and he wasn't going to leave until he was certain he was ready.
"Ivory, you're outta here," proclaimed Judge Peter Statler, before handing him his certificate and sending him off with a bear hug. "Ivory paid some prices along the way, but he stuck with it."
Ivory Robinson is 41 and began smoking cigarettes and marijuana when he was 12. From marijuana he graduated to cocaine and heroin, and washed it all down with alcohol. He came by it naturally, he said. His grandmother and mother both were alcoholics. So is his brother. His sister is not addicted, and he never knew his father. There still isn't much family support. These relatives didn't come to share his special day with him, but if drug court teaches anything, it teaches acceptance. Some things you just have no control over.
It's all right with him, Robinson said. His drug court family was there with him. So was his girlfriend of 11 years and her family, and so was his son, 3-year-old Gabriel Isaiah Robinson.
"Today I have dignity, respect for others as well as myself," Robinson told his cheering friends. "If you had told me a long time ago that people would be saying things like this about me, I would never have believed it."
Robinson has learned acceptance. Narrow said he has always been impressed with Robinson's humility. He recalls the day when he met Robinson in jail, and he came to talk to him about drug court. He couldn't read the drug court contract. When Narrow told him that he could help him learn to read, "he started weeping. He said 'nobody ever offered to help me read in my life.'"
Narrow said he'll never forget the day Robinson came to drug court bragging that he had read a book to his son the day before.
"A dad with a kid on his lap reading a book is worth more than money can buy," Narrow said.
"It was awesome," Robinson recalled. "It was the best moment of my life."
Robinson said drug court taught him how to trust other people and share what was going on with him. He learned to like himself.
"I'm not as bad as I thought I was," he said, "A lot of it was bad choices."
With acceptance and a strengthened faith in the God he always prayed to, Robinson also has found the serenity addicts learn early on to pray for. He's planning to go to barber school and one day open his own business. Currently he works in Scott City for Botkin Lumber. He'll raise and continue to read to his son. And if he had anything to say to anyone about what life has taught him, he said he would want to say to his now-deceased mother that he now understands the best thing she ever gave him.
"She always gave other people on the street food," he said. "I didn't understand it when we couldn't feed ourselves. She said that 'someday somebody might have to feed you.' She did not mean food. She meant spiritually, mentally and guidance."
Today Angie Craft DeVore is a starry-eyed newlywed. Before she went into drug court March 22, 2002, police officers who had arrested her several times for drug possession and manufacturing swore she'd never get off drugs. She graduated from drug court last April.
"I'm comfortable in my own skin these days," DeVore said. "I never thought I would be this happy in my life."
Major milestones for her are things many people take for granted. For the past three years, she has had car insurance. She has a checking account. For the first time in her 42 years, she has held a job. She is manager of Tracy's Place in Jackson.
While she was in prison getting drug treatment, she began reading her Bible and praying. She credits her strengthened faith in God for keeping her clean for nearly three years.
When she was released to drug court, DeVore was upset to find out that 48 hours after her release, she was expected to show up in court, go for counseling, call her case manager and submit to regular and random testing. Narrow said drug court loads clients up for reason. They have to learn how to be normal people. They go through the motions because they have to, and eventually it becomes natural.
"All we look for in the first six to eight months is compliance," Narrow said. "We don't want people to have to think -- we just want them to do. They move out of compliance to acceptance. They do because they see changes, they feel better."
"I had to learn how to handle emotional things," DeVore said. "I had to learn how to cope, how to live. I really give my being clean to drug court, being held accountable."
DeVore said that her religious faith is filling the void she used to try to fill with drugs. She's learned to respect herself and she has learned how to be a friend. Drug court doesn't look at its clients as file numbers to be disposed of.
"It's a huge advantage," Narrow said. "We know you are a person. We know you have kids and parents. We can relate to you as a person."
When Robinson graduated Monday, his friends gave him a "goody bag" filled with things he likes: a huge Hershey bar because he loves chocolate, movie passes, some books of meditation. Narrow said those are more than just gifts -- they're testimony that his friends were listening to him, valuing him as a friend.
Narrow said he remembers vividly when DeVore graduated from drug court. She looked at the cake the court provides for the party after the ceremony. It had the names of all the graduates on it. She saw her name and started to cry.
"She said 'I don't remember the last time I saw a cake with my name on it,'" Narrow said. "She was either on drugs and high or in the middle of some domestic argument. Something as stupid as a name on a cake touched her heart. That's why we make a party and honor these folks."
DeVore said she was skeptical at first.
"At first I thought it was a big put-on," she said. "It's a totally different feeling. It's important to let people know they are important."
DeVore, like Robinson, learned to give of herself. She's a regular at other drug court graduations and meetings. But she gives back in other ways, Narrow said.
"It's not all about touchy-feely," he said. "It's about getting this lady out of the system. We addressed her addiction. We also make sure she stays out of the system. She's not on welfare, she's paying taxes, contributing to the community in a variety of ways. That's what graduates do. They stop being a drain on the community and start giving back. People come into the coffee shop and she lights up the place. People come back. It's giving back in a tangible way."
Dan Essner of Cape Girardeau said he was "smoking a lot of weed, doing coke, doing a lot of meth with a whole bunch of people." One day seven police officers knocked on his door with a search warrant and a drug dog.
"Me and another guy were smoking pot and watching a Michael Jackson tribute back in January of 2002," he recalled. "There was a knock on the door. I opened the door and got spun around and cuffed that quick."
He was arrested for possession of residue of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. Drug court offered a hand up and he took it.
"Before long you get kicked in the butt and don't have a life" he said. "Drug court gives you back your butt and gives you back your life. I used to think life was unfair. Everybody has hard shots. That doesn't justify criminal behavior."
Essner, now 45, spent 11 months in drug court, entering Feb. 15, 2002. When he finished, he felt the need, he said, to do some giving back on a large scale: He wanted to go to Africa with the Peace Corps and teach agriculture and English. The Peace Corps, noting that he just concluded drug court, said he needed to wait. It was wary about sending him to a place where there would be no support for him if he relapsed.
Essner has sold his house, his possessions, and moved in with his sister until he can join the Peace Corps. A carpenter by trade, he works with S&L Builders. He likes the work, but longs to go into the Peace Corps.
Narrow suggests gently that maybe God is telling Essner he is needed here.
"Peace Corps is a big step for you," Narrow said. "Frankly we need you around here. You've been valuable."
Narrow said that Essner leads the 12-step program for the juvenile drug court members. The youngsters like "Mr. Dan," and Essner clearly enjoys being with them.
"He lets them know there is life after sobriety," Narrow said.
Essner said he is aware of the difference his actions made when he was on drugs and now that he is off.
"Using drugs has a ripple effect on everybody," he said. "Recovery does the same thing. It has a ripple effect on everybody around you."
Narrow said that recidivism is only 10 percent statewide in drug court. Locally, it's too soon to see any statistics. Regular court sees a 30 percent return to court. Since drug court began locally, six women gave birth to drug-free babies. When a woman in drug court becomes pregnant, Narrow said, she stays in drug court until she has the baby.
"It costs $100,000 to get an addicted baby from birth in intensive care to home," Narrow said. "It costs $10,000 for a healthy baby from birth to home. That's $90,000 saved that you and I would have had to pay for on the Medicaid bill."
Narrow said that he and Judge Statler often argue about who enjoys drug court most.
"I can go to my grave on this stuff," Narrow said.
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