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Second chances: Denton County Family Drug Court celebrates first graduate

Amber Climer didn't think she would ever see her 2-year-old son after Dec. 6, 2016. 

She and her boyfriend had picked up methamphetamine with her then 1-year-old child in the car. The man later fell asleep at a stoplight as a Denton police investigator, who had been watching them, approached the vehicle.  

The couple were eventually charged with possession of a controlled substance, and Child Protective Services removed the child from the home. 

"We were both in the depths of our addiction," Climer said. 

Amber Climer, 33, wipes away tears on Thursday as she becomes the first graduate of the year-old Denton County Family Drug Court in Judge Tiffany Haertling's 442nd Judicial District Court.DRC
Amber Climer, 33, wipes away tears on Thursday as she becomes the first graduate of the year-old Denton County Family Drug Court in Judge Tiffany Haertling's 442nd Judicial District Court.

A year and three months later, Climer wiped tears from her face as the first graduate of the Denton County Family Drug Court, which aims to help parents who are suffering from addiction. Her drug charge from December 2016, which had been elevated because of two previous drug charges, will be dismissed. And more importantly, she's been reunited with her son. 

"I'm looking forward to just being able to, for the rest of my life and his life, be his mom and be present," she said.  

The nearly year-old drug court aims to help parents whose children have been removed from the household related to a heavy substance use issue. Currently, 15 mothers participate in the program and meet every two weeks in Judge Tiffany Haertling's 442nd Judicial District Court.  

Funded mostly by drug seizure funds from the Denton County Sheriff's Office, the court offers classes on parenting, finding stable housing and budgeting. Participants are subject to three to four drug tests a week in the first part of the program and random drug tests in the latter stages. Participants also enroll in other local treatment facilities and work 12-step recovery programs. 

The court treatment team, which consists of attorneys, recovery experts and social service providers, also helps find stable housing for the parents.  

The goal is to stop the cycle of addiction that ultimately becomes a generational problem, Haertling said. Several court participants were products of the foster care system, and their run-ins with law enforcement usually result in the same circumstances for their children, she said. 

In other cases, children were born addicted to methamphetamine or cocaine, Haertling said. 

"I decided to start this drug court to try to resolve those issues," Haertling said. "Then also to try to give parents who had had older children removed an opportunity, if they want to be clean and sober, to raise those children." 

When Haertling got the program's approval from county commissioners in February 2017, she said only about 30 percent of cases in Denton County end with parents reunited with their children.  She said counties with family drug courts, including Tarrant and Collin, have a 60 to 65 percent reunification rate, according to earlier reports in the Denton Record-Chronicle.  

Scott Wisenbaker, founder and executive director of Solutions of North Texas, is an integral part of the court treatment team who helps screen potential participants. He said the court addresses an issue that people tend to oversimplify. Uprooting an addiction with a child in the picture doesn't just impact the family, he said. It also affects taxpayers. 

"A lot of people are going to look at a problem, and they're going to say, 'Maybe the parents don't need to have their kids. Maybe the kids are better off without them.' But the reality is, who's going to raise that kid? Because as taxpayers, we all are," he said. "Those kids will grow up in the system and then graduate into that system as adults, whether it be from entitlements or criminal charges." 

Climer, who now works at a law firm in the county, has since left the man she was arrested with in 2016.  She said he was abusive and contributed to her addiction, but it was still a difficult process to separate from the father of her child, she said. 

She was reunited with her child five months ago, and she plans to continue her 12-step program. She knows her recovery will be a lifelong commitment, but she now has a network of support in Denton. 

"The program can be kind of daunting," she said. "There's so much that you have to do, but you just reach a point to where you have to decide, 'I'm going to do this or I'm going to make excuses.'" 

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882. 

FEATURED PHOTO: Judge Tiffany Haertling, left, congratulates Amber Climber, holding her 2-year-old son, on becoming the first graduate of the Denton County Family Drug Court, which helps treat parents suffering from drug addiction.