SALT LAKE CITY — Not long ago, Tara Roweton didn't have the luxury of being awoken by the small hands of her young son.
She smiled, talking about it Thursday, recounting the way the 18-month-old likes to cup her face in his hands and greet her with "Hi!" She also smiled knowing he was there Thursday when she graduated from family dependency drug court — sober for 11 months after an ongoing struggle with drug addiction.
"It feels great," Roweton said of being able to graduate with the support of her family. "I don't want to say all the hard work is paying off, but it is. It's kind of a confirmation that things are going right and that things will work out. It's kind of an overwhelming, joyous type feeling."
Roweton was one of nine graduates who were awarded certificates for completing family dependency drug court, along with two others from juvenile drug court.
The event is usually the culmination of up to a year in treatment and court hearings in which parents who have temporarily lost their children to drug use are able to make their way back to them.
Approximately 140 parents participate each year, according to Don Leither, drug court coordinator for the 3rd District Juvenile Court. Sixty percent of the parent participants complete the program. Of those who complete the program, 90 percent are reunited with their children.
"It's really exciting," Leither said. "You see parents and kids reunified. That's what it's all about."
Judge Christine Decker said that while the theme for the 2013 National Drug Court Month emphasized the budget solutions the drug courts provide, she felt Utah's theme should be something different.
"I propose today's theme should be, 'Drug courts: a proven solution to save lives and families," Decker said. "It's exciting to hear from family members about how wonderful it is to welcome members they thought were lost back into their families."
Roweton's attitude is one of fervent gratitude and she said she appreciates the way the drug court emphasizes family involvement. When she stood to comment at the graduation, her thanks went to the drug court, those at her treatment facility and to her family.
"I learned who I was again and that I was worth it and that I could be a good mom to that beautiful boy," she said as her irrepressible smile faltered momentarily. "(To) my family that has been there, you have supported me through thick and thin. We are very lucky to have that and I couldn't be more grateful for where I'm at in my life."
Roweton first came into contact with drugs when she tried marijuana at age 14 while she was living in Arizona. She did little but dabble with the drug but experimented more in high school once she returned to Utah. Still, she felt in control. She broke up with one boyfriend because he was a heroin user, but when she met the man who would eventually father her son — a heroin addict — it was different.
"I don't know what made me want to try it, but I tried it (and I) went downhill so quickly," she said.
She soon landed in jail and then felony drug court, from which she eventually graduated. When she found out she was pregnant, she got clean and stayed that way until after her son was born.
"I had this life growing inside of me and I didn't want to harm it," Roweton said. "I can't explain it, that feeling you have, but I wanted to do everything right when I was pregnant. I wanted him to be healthy and happy and didn't want to do anything to endanger that."
Jaxon was born in January of 2012. She graduated from felony drug court two weeks later. In the months after her son's birth, though, she didn't feel like herself. Telling it now, she describes it as "an empty shell feeling."
"I had postpartum depression," she explained. "I didn't know. I just thought I was a hot mess."
She felt disconnected from everything. She would go days and nights without sleeping, worrying about her son. Looking back, she thinks the depression led her back to drugs.
It was April 28, 2012, when she decided to get high with a friend who was using, a friend she had told before to not use around her. "I totally shouldn't have put myself in that position, but I did," she recalled.
The Division of Child and Family Services responded and Roweton said she lied to them. Those from the department tried to work with her, but she said she was "out of control" and wanted to keep using. After a positive drug test, the decision was made that her son needed to be placed with someone else and she lost custody.
"I had a total and absolute mental breakdown," she said. "It was really bad, probably the darkest I've ever been."
Her continued drug use kept her from seeing her son until she made the decision to enter a rehabilitation facility in Fairview. She wanted a place far away from the drugs that were so accessible to her and stayed there for more than a month before being placed in House of Hope in Salt Lake City.
She signed up with the Family Dependency Drug Court.
"It seems kind of selfish, but really at that point, to find myself again, I had to make it about me," she said. "I had to learn to take care of myself before I could take care of Jaxon."
She graduated from residential treatment in March and is now in day treatment. She just started classes at Paul Mitchell. She is now able to see her son every day.
"My long term goal is just to have a happy and healthy, stable life for me and Jaxon," Roweton said. "I want to be a good mother to him in all the ways that he needs (me) to be."
Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant honored Roweton and all of her fellow graduates, applauding them for choosing to tackle their problems instead of losing hope or giving up. He urged all of those present to withhold judgment and forgive.
"The fact that you're sitting (here) today, the fact that you're graduating today is an amazing achievement, because if you had not shown courage, if you had not shown strength, you would not be entitled to sit here today," Durrant said. "Derive strength from the memory of what you've accomplished."
Roweton said she does not see the point in dwelling on the past, knowing that she cannot change what is done. Instead, she chooses to focus on the positive and what's ahead.Comment on this story
"I know a lot of people have told me it's crazy I'm grateful for the experiences that I've gone through, because it's made me the person I am today," she said. "It's made me so much more understanding to everyone and less judgmental."
Roweton's mother, Holly DeForest, said she is proud of her daughter and the choice she made to change. The greatest part has been getting her daughter back and seeing the determination she has to be a mother.
"A year, two years, three years ago, I never imagined," DeForest said. "It was such a roller coaster. To see how far she's come and what she's done it's amazing."