For many years, Charlotte Whitlock's bedroom was the most comfortable spot she could find under a city bridge.
She would break down cardboard boxes she found on the streets and put those on top of rocks or concrete, the way the other crackheads and bridge dwellers had shown her, then she would pad the cardboard with a lot of blankets and seek the sleep that would take her away from who she was. She saved bottles of water to brush her teeth, and she would get meals and clothes from charities around downtown Atlanta.
She knew her two sons were growing up not far away, in someone else's care. She even saw them a few times over the years and took the time to check out where they were living. But she never stayed long. Crack cocaine would always pull her away from her sons and back to the bridges.
"I was happy to see them and everything and know that they were OK," Whitlock said. "But in the midst of my mind being cloudy, and my body and my spirit toxic with the drugs, I had no sense of settling down. I know I would have been no good for them. I would have destroyed their life by being in their life."
Charlotte Whitlock has now been sober for more than a thousand days -- the greatest accomplishment of her life. People who graduate from drug court tend to stay graduated -- the success rate is 93 percent -- and Whitlock loves this unaccustomed feeling of success. She loves the fact that she is no longer a ghost in the lives of her sons and her sister but a person of flesh and bone who was there yesterday and will be there tomorrow.
Whitlock was in jail when she started thinking that the time had come to make a change. She heard other inmates talking about drug court. "I thought to myself, God, you know I have been praying and asking you to help me or send me in the direction to get some help," she said. "And this just may be the thing for me."
More than two years later, Whitlock was the last of 17 people to be called by Superior Court Judge Doris Downs during the graduation ceremony in Fulton County's Drug Court. Drug court is a rigorous accountability program of near-constant drug tests, courses, recovery meetings and going to work. As Downs read a one-page summary of Whitlock's life story -- a tale that began with being sexually abused as a child and ended with sobriety and survival of breast cancer -- her fellow drug court inmates loudly applauded. Drug court staffers cried and Whitlock's older son, Somorio, sat in the audience in support of a mother whose attention he had waited a lifetime to attract.
Gov. Nathan Deal has people like Charlotte Whitlock in mind with a plan before the Georgia General Assembly to save tax dollars and improve public safety by sending more Georgians to drug court. The programs are cheaper than prison and drug court graduates are less likely to commit another crime than those who are punished in prison. But there's something else about drug court: in almost every case, a drug court graduation is also the celebration of the return of a family member who had been completely lost to drugs.
While some drug courts around Georgia shy away from people like Whitlock -- hard-core addicts with lengthy criminal records -- Judge Downs does not. She has seen the transformation of longtime homeless crack addicts over and over again. She is one of the state's biggest supporters of Deal's proposal to put more Georgians in the programs. And those who appear before her in drug court sense that she has hope for them.
"Judge Downs wants to see you succeed," Whitlock said. "She wants to see you change. She knows you can do better."
Whitlock said she was locked up 21 times over the years -- mostly in local jails. She served time in state prison in 2004 for possession of cocaine. But the times behind bars were just pauses in her addiction, and nothing changed when she got out again. Drug court, Whitlock said, helped her get "connected to her higher power."
She took the highly regarded "Thinking for a Change" class, which helps offenders understand how to change the way they think and to make the right decisions. She got to live in a house with other recovering addicts, after committing to the program. Going to bed suddenly involved a mattress, sheets and a clean blanket. She went to recovery meetings. And while some in her group failed, she stayed sober.
"In the drug world you are into stealing and lying." But drug court, she said, "gave me a sense of stability to quiet my mind and my soul and put me back on the right track. . . . Being patient and taking your time and letting your higher power answer your prayers. That comes from drug court."
In the middle of the program, Whitlock was diagnosed with breast cancer. She went to live with her sister, with whom she had pretty much lost contact after their mother died of cancer when the girls were teenagers. At the hospital, Whitlock said, drug court staff members visited her and brought her a gift basket and flowers. "I had never got a bouquet of flowers in my life," she said.
To see Charlotte Whitlock today, it is a shock to imagine that for more than a decade she lived under bridges or in overgrown vacant lots. She is a sweet and engaging woman with a warm smile who looks more like somebody's grandmother than a former street person.
Whitlock's mother had been a stable matriach who raised her children in some of Atlanta's poorest neighborhoods. When she died, Charlotte and her two siblings scattered. Her sister also abandoned her children and become a alcoholic and drug addict. Charlotte worked and got married in her 20s and had her son. But the relationship didn't last. She says she got into crack cocaine through a man she met after her marriage broke up. She was in her early 30s and the mother of two.
Her addiction became so powerful that she started leaving her children with family members and friends. Before long, she was pretty much gone for good. Her sons were sent to live with a foster mother who was devoted to them and taught the boys to pray for their mother. Whitlock is now trying to build a relationship with both of her sons. That's easier with Somorio, who lives in Atlanta. Her younger son, Chuma, is in prison on an armed robbery and kidnapping conviction.
"It makes me feel sad sometimes when my mind wanders," she said. "What if I hadn't gotten into the drugs? If I had stayed there and been the mother I should have been? I thank God he gave me a second chance in life."
Today, Whitlock and her sister are close, bonded by their mutual recovery. "Charlotte is a very funny person," said her sister, Delores Johnson. "She will keep you laughing 24/7, all day. If Charlotte sees you are having a bad day she will try to make it her job to bring you out of that bad day."
Somorio, now 29, would have every right to be angry with his mother. But there's no trace of that in his voice. He said he knew, even at a young age, what was going on with his mother. With the help of his foster mother, he stayed hopeful.
"When she is at her best, she is beautiful," he said.
At a drug court dinner before the graduation, Somorio spoke to the group, directing his words to the other children of addicts in the audience.
He told the group about the arrival of the Christmas holidays last year. He was with his mother on Christmas and she was explaining to him that she couldn't afford to give him a gift. "He said she just didn't know the only thing he wanted was to be with her for Christmas," said Johnson, who was there too. "There wasn't a dry eye in the place. He was speaking to the children, telling them to learn how to forgive whatever goes on. Charlotte just sat there and tears were in her eyes."
Finally, Charlotte Whitlock was a mother again. And her son still loved her.
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