Putting Troubled Moms Back on Track

It's springtime, and that means longer days, beach getaways and school graduations.

As high school and college students prepare to transition into the next phase of their lives, there's one school in Washington, D.C., that's granting not only certificates, but second chances.

Melissa Barret has been waiting for graduation day for a long time. There are the traditional caps and gowns, but the ceremony is held in a courtroom, not an auditorium.

That's because Barret and the seven other members of her class are graduating from the Family Treatment Court Program, a school for young mothers who have had legal problems that is administered through the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

Video: DC moms graduate to a second chance.
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As the music begins to play, Barret and her classmates march in. The front row is filled not with college professors, but local judges. They're judges providing Barret and her seven classmates another opportunity to be trusted with her own kids, after drugs turned her into what the court considered an abusive mother.

For Barret, it's a day to celebrate.

"I made it through. I got my baby back," she said. "I'm happy. I'm real happy."

One of Barret's classmates wanted to express her feelings through a poem.

"I was going down the wrong road," she started.

That was all she managed to get out before her emotions took over.

These eight women turned their lives around thanks to a program that got them off the streets and into a dormitory.

Once inside, they had just six months to do it all -- kick the drug addiction, receive therapy, go through parenting classes and prove they were ready for the responsibilities that come along with being a mother.

A key part of the rehabilitation process is bringing the children, who were at one point nearly in foster care, to the dormitory to live with their mothers once they've kicked their drug habit.

Once inside, the children go through enormous changes themselves.

The mothers and up to four of her children live together in suites. They sleep in the same area and there is a dining hall where the women and their children can eat together.

They are also allowed to eat alone in their suites if they choose. The children learn to get to know, trust, respect and respond to their drug-free mothers who are beginning to play with and nurture them.

"The children become part of the process, and they're healing along with the mom," social worker Jo-Ella Brooks said. "Before, [the children] could watch TV all night. Now, mom has some boundaries and some rules."

After a couple of months of being in the program, the mothers are given more freedoms and can be escorted "off-campus" to run errands or take their children for a walk.

The program has a pretty good track record. In six years, only a few women have relapsed. Most of the graduates have kept their lives on track and their children at home.

Magistrate Judge Pamela Gray, who is in charge of the program, said she knows firsthand why it is so important for the mothers and their children.

"I grew up in foster care," Gray said. "My mother was an alcoholic, so for me to work with the women, to work with the children, to let them see that there is hopeā€¦"

Now that Barret has graduated from the program, the real final exam begins. She will be moved into a halfway house where she'll be drug tested several times a week, a true test of whether she can handle life outside of the program.

The families live in the house for free, but their finances are closely monitored. The women set up bank accounts and deposit funds for necessities such as groceries and clothing for their families. They must also show financial statements to social workers and a judge to prove that they are putting their money to good use.

Despite the seemingly tight leash, Barret is grateful for the experience. Now that she is on the road to getting her life back on track, she's ready to give back.

"I want to be a certified addictions counselor," she said. "I can show women that are going through the things that I'm going through now that it does get better."

Better indeed, for a mother who first started using drugs at the age of 14, and is desperate to get it right the second time around.

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