Back up the calendar a year or so, and it would have been next to impossible to find someone who believed in Stephanie Brown. No one saw her as a candidate for recovery. She had gone to prison, lost custody of five children and suffered every extreme of poverty and abuse — yet still the drugs came first.
Brown didn’t think much of her chances, either.
“Yet here I stand,” she said, nervous but beaming before an audience at the Franklin County courthouse.
Brown, 39, is an against-all-odds graduate of Franklin County Family Recovery Court, one of four parents honored this week for their perseverance and success in the intensive, months-long program. The participants, their children, other family members and supporters joined court officials to celebrate both the accomplishment and the ideals behind it.
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“With every step forward you take, you bring hope to this epidemic that is ravaging our nation,” court program director Cyndi VanCleve told Brown and the other graduates. “You show us what we always need reminded of: that everyone — I mean everyone — is worth fighting for.”
Franklin County Family Recovery Court started more than 16 years ago as the first in the state designed for parents who are struggling with drug addiction and have open cases with the county’s child protective-services agency. The goal is to oversee treatment and recovery for the parents so that they can be reunited with their children.
Not all make it through before dropping out, relapsing or seeing their cases transferred to another court. But at least half graduate, VanCleve said. That’s probably no small victory in a state awash in addiction.
Federal officials reported 5,111 drug fatalities in Ohio last year, a toll of about 14 a day. The state had the nation’s second-highest rate of overdose deaths, behind only that of neighboring West Virginia.
“The disease is chronic, progressive and fatal,” Brown said of addiction.
The West Side resident and mother of nine said she “hit rock bottom more than once” to get where she is today. “I am tired of slowly committing suicide,” she said.
Family Recovery Court also links pregnant women with doctors skilled in addiction services to help them deliver drug-free babies. Brown’s youngest, 2-month-old Savella, was born healthy, which surprised even the hospital staff.
Because of Brown’s history, preparations had begun immediately to take custody of the infant, said Pam Makowski, Brown’s court-appointed attorney.
Makowski had been at Brown’s side when she gave birth, and the attorney hurriedly pulled up her client’s drug-screening history. “Fortunately, I had all the clean screens on my phone,” Makowski said, so Brown was able to go home with her daughter.
Makowski was with Brown and Savella and Brown’s three sons during court graduation.
“I didn’t think she had the personality for it,” Makowski admitted. “Now she’s one of their most successful graduates.”
And, she said, smiling, “I am Savella’s godmother.”
During the event, court officials also honored longtime volunteers Babette Feibel and her husband, James Feibel, who died in October. Just weeks before, Babette Feibel had received The Dispatch Media Group Everyday Hero award for her years of community service — the Feibels were foster parents to more than 100 young children — and for her dedication to helping families reunite.
Continuing her work with the parents in Recovery Court “has pulled me through a very tough time in my life,” Feibel, 81, told the audience.
Her husband, a lawyer who regularly donated his time on behalf of the court, was 85 when he died.
Feibel wiped away tears as her husband’s smiling face appeared on the screen during the graduation program.
“He was a wonderful man,” said Domestic Relations and Juvenile Court Judge Dana Preisse. When James Feibel received a $5,000 grant through the Ohio State Bar Association for his outstanding pro bono work, he named the specialty court’s assistance program as the recipient.
“He was part of the Recovery Court team,” Preisse said.
Brown said she had never felt the kind of support and consistency she received during her months in Recovery Court.
“No one, none of us, thought I could make it,” she said. “But this program works if you want it to work.”