Drug Court grads: “We are all miracles”

Portland Tribune, June 6, 2014

Tiare Mathews

Tiare Mathews

Tiare Mathews, 36, spent 20 years addicted to drugs and alcohol. She committed property crimes, sold drugs, and was in and out of prison.

“I did bad things, I was a bad kid. It was my identity,” said Mathews.

But on May 19, Mathews graduated from Washington County Drug Court after 994 days — a little over two and a half years. A Hillsboro courtroom was packed with family members, friends and supporters there to applaud her success.

Plaudits came from the offices of U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, as well as Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey, county sheriffs, parole officers, attorneys, recovery-house moms, treatment specialists, fellow Drug Court participants and her parents. Then Mathews’ longtime girlfriend — Gina Orozco — stepped to the podium.

“We’ve been together 10 years,” said Orozco. They met in prison in Arizona and, through a series of relapses, moved to Hillsboro. Over time, they pulled each other in and out of sobriety; in and out of trouble.

“When Tiare started Drug Court, I came in later, kicking and screaming,” admits Orozco, who was homeless and using at the time and didn’t want to quit. Orozco is set to graduate from Drug Court in a few months.

“It’s an amazing program. Thank you so much for giving us a chance at life. I’m so grateful,” Orozco said.

Orozco produced a gift for her partner — a ring with the words “Never again” and the “clean date” of Mathews’ sobriety. The women hugged and cried, knowing how difficult the road had been and how critical Drug Court was to their recovery.

Silver anniversary

Drug courts around the country are celebrating the silver anniversary of the creative sentencing approach, which started with a single Drug Court in Miami, Fla., in April 1989. There are now thousands of drugs courts nationwide and more than 20 abroad, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Tiare Mathews hugs her probation officer, David Cadd.

Tiare Mathews hugs her probation officer, David Cadd.

In Washington County’s Drug Courts, substance-addicted property felons appear each week before Judge Thomas Kohl to speak about their progress — or regression — in the multi-step program.

“Did you work this week? How many hours?” Kohl asked recently, in a voice both stern and supportive.

“You missed a UA (urine analysis). What happened?”

“You were pulled over three times in your car. What was that about?”

To the last question, a dark-haired man faced the judge and explained.

Each time, he said, a sheriff’s deputy approached his admittedly sketchy-looking car, with matte gray primer that made it “look like the Batmobile.” Each time, the encounter started out with serious questions about car registration, a driver’s license, insurance. The deputies knew the driver as a troublemaker, but were pleased to find out he was enrolled in Drug Court.

All the deputies ended their interrogations with congratulatory hugs.

“When’s the last time you were hugged by a cop?” said Kohl, raising his eyebrow in amusement. A public defender and district attorney offered hugs too, and then Kohl himself leaned over the bench to do so to a fresh round of appreciative laughter from the gallery.

To those who question the wisdom of an apparently “soft on crime” approach, the majority of participants and officials say Drug Court works — and saves tax dollars, too.

“It’s an upside-down court,” said Kohl, the only judge to preside over the local court in its nine years of existence.

“These are people who’ve generally been unsuccessful their whole lives,” he said. “We try to give them incentives, such as applause for the number of clean days, getting a job, or finally getting a diploma. There are five phases to Drug Court, and as they move from one phase to the next, we acknowledge them. It may be the only award they’ve won in their lives.”

Phases of the program include living clean and sober; attending Drug Court; participating in three or more Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings per week; passing random urine tests; staying out of legal trouble; getting a job; paying restitution; and performing community service.

“Our mission statement is to change people’s lives, break the cycle of addiction, reunite families and promote community safety,” said Kohl.

Judge Thomas Kohl gives Drug Court graduates a key, representing the doors now open to them.

Judge Thomas Kohl gives Drug Court graduates a key, representing the doors now open to them.

Kohl knows the unyielding grip of drug and alcohol addiction. His daughter, Megan, was a methamphetamine addict who was murdered in 2006.

“Addiction afflicts all ages, all ethnicities, all social classes,” said Kohl, who will do almost anything to help participants succeed.

One young addict who had attended beauty school and started Drug Court needed a spark to get her going, said Kohl.

“I said I’d let her dye my hair when she graduated. It was in the court record, so I had to do it,” Kohl explained. “On graduation day, she brought all her materials and she dyed my hair and soul patch blue. I had to be in regular court later and the defendant said, ‘I’m having a hard time taking you seriously, judge.’ ”

Chuckling at the memory, Kohl said, “I get great joy out of seeing people change from hopeless and helpless to clear-eyed and hopeful. I love to see them come in as caterpillars and go out as butterflies.”

Drinking and meth

Mathews’ troubles started in her home state of Hawaii. Her father was a daily drinker, she said, and she had vowed to herself she wouldn’t do the same.

In high school, she smoked marijuana. After graduation, she worked the night shift at a WalMart store, where some co-workers offered her crystal meth.

“From the first time I got high, I wanted it again,” said Mathews. “I didn’t know what was going on for about a year. I started selling drugs, thinking I could sell and not use, but it doesn’t work like that.”

Things got so bad she talked to her parents.

Tiare Mathew embraces longtime girlfriend Gina Orozco.

Tiare Mathew embraces longtime girlfriend Gina Orozco.

“My dad and I thought it would be good for me to go to my family in Arizona,” to get away from her habits in Hawaii. But when she moved in with an uncle, it started all over — drinking, meth.

“I was in and out of prison, and every time I got out, I did the same thing,” she said.

Mathews met Orozco in an Arizona prison.

Both women had struggled with addiction, imprisonment and relapse.

“We thought we wouldn’t get out of the cycle,” she said of herself and Orozco, whose family lived in Hillsboro.

What makes Mathews believe this time is different?

“I feel very confident,” said Mathews, who has become a leading mentor and advisor to her friends in recovery, many of whom spoke lovingly at the graduation.

“I’m in NA (Narcotics Anonymous) and AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). You’re never cured, but just retain (your sobriety) day by day,” she said. “Be honest and help others. That’s what helps me stay clean.”

Mathews’ community service in her last phase of recovery was to provide a series of paintings for children at Doernbecher Hospital. When she visited the hospital with her artwork, a boy lit up at the sight of a painting of Spiderman, which she gave to him.

After the overwhelming show of support at graduation, Mathews said she feels “more inspired and hopeful than ever.”

Drug Court helped her achieve small goals that built into bigger ones.

“I wanted to go to school, so I went to PCC part-time. I wanted to be a manager at work, so I became a shift leader, then assistant manager,” said Mathews. “If I put my mind to it, I can do anything.”