After a decade presiding over the Circuit Court for Charles County’s Family Recovery Court, Senior Judge Helen Harrington oversaw her final graduation ceremony on Friday, an emotional event that saw lots of laughter, hugs and even some tears.
“Family recovery court looks at the whole person,” Harrington explained to a courtroom filled with judges, religious leaders, counselors, family and friends in attendance. “There is not a single track that works for everybody.”
“There’s no quick way to do this,” she said. “If I had a magic want to make it go faster, I would.”
The recovery court has been Harrington’s passion since she established it not long after being appointed an associate judge in 2009. It is one of only five such courts in Maryland that help parents who have lost custody of their children to get clean, find stable employment, pursue educational and career training opportunities, tend to their physical and mental health and improve their parenting skills so that they can reunite with their children. Since its founding, the court has helped over 400 children reunite with their families.
According to Families in Recovery Inc., a nonprofit that supports Charles County’s recovery court, participants are 20% to 30% more likely to complete their addiction treatment programs. So-called “drug court” programs like the Family Recovery Court are also highly cost efficient, saving an estimated three times as much in criminal justice costs as is invested in the program.
Family law magistrate Doug Cooley, who himself ran a juvenile drug court for six years, has been appointed to succeed Harrington as the county’s recovery court judge.
Friday’s graduation ceremony honored a young mother who had been in the program for 18 months, during which she got sober, got a full-time job and now has an apartment and a car.
“Your mom never once lost track of what she wanted to do, or how much she wanted to be your mom and take care of you and be the best mom that she could be,” Harrington explained to the graduate’s young daughters during the ceremony.
As she presented the graduate with a proclamation from the Maryland General Assembly signed by Del. Edith Patterson (D-Charles), Harrington praised the graduate’s persistence and dedication to improving her life.
“You’ve got the tools, you’ve done the work, and you’re ready to go,” Harrington said, beaming with motherly pride.
Scott Travers, the Anne Arundel County and Southern Maryland regional director for U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D), presented the graduate with a citation signed by the state’s congressional delegation.
“I’m so happy for you and your family,” Travers told her.
Following the ceremony, attendees convened in the lobby of the circuit court building for refreshments, including twin cakes in honor of the graduate and Harrington.
“I’m feeling a lot of mixed emotions,” said the graduate, who asked that her name not be used. “I’m definitely very excited, but I was very nervous on my way here. It’s a huge accomplishment.”
“Everyone is very proud of me that I made it and where I started from and all the bumps in the road I had to go through to get here,” she said. “It wasn’t easy. My recovery crew always told me, ‘It gets harder before it gets easier,’ and that stuck with me this entire journey that I went through because it most definitely got harder before it got easier.”
Cooley said that he was honored to be following in Harrington’s footsteps, but he was also a little apprehensive about the task of keeping the program rolling even though it has widespread support among the county’s legal and child care communities.
“I am excited with a capital ‘E,’ and I am scared with a small ‘S,’” he said with a laugh. “When you’re dealing with people’s lives and you’re trying to make a difference in extremely difficult circumstances, if you don’t go into it with at least a little bit of apprehension, then you don’t know what you’re walking into.”
“But at the same time ... it’s a great program,” he added. “[There were] a lot of great people that I saw around the table in the staff meeting today. A lot of people who I saw [at the graduation ceremony] today I’m familiar with and I know they are pillars of the community.”
The court also provides referrals to counseling, transportation, medical care and housing services, among others. In addition to the presiding judge, the court team includes a court coordinator, case managers, an addiction specialist and a parole/probation specialist. Attorneys for the participant, child and the Department of Human Resources also participate.
Characteristically low-key about her pivotal role in the success of the program, Harrington politely declined to make a speech, preferring to let the graduate be the center of attention. But in conversation, Harrington said that it has been a privilege to work with the recovery court for the past decade.
“It was the most satisfying and fulfilling work I was able to do as a judge,” she said. “It really doesn’t seem like 10 years. It went pretty quickly. It’s been a very, very busy time.”
She added that she is confident that the program will be in good hands.
“Doug will do a good job,” she said. “His heart is in the right place. He’s had experience working with the juvenile drug court, so he knows the general principles of running an alternative program like this where you’re not locking people up, you’re trying to patch their lives back together and trying to find services to support them.”
Harrington also spoke highly of the parents who commit to the Family Recovery Court program.
“When they come in, they’re very suspicious,” Harrington said. “It takes coaxing, bit by bit by bit, to get them to come on board and be engaged. At the same time, they’re beginning treatment for substance abuse disorder and trying to come to terms with the fact that they’re not in control of their lives, that the drug is.”
“And then, months down the road, something seems to finally catch hold,” she said. “It’s almost like an overnight turnaround. It’s just fantastic when you see that. And then from there on, they’re full-steam ahead. They’re willing to do everything they possibly can to get their lives back together.”
Harrington was promoted to senior judge in January 2018 when she stepped down from a full-time position on the bench.
Since then, her duties had been primarily focused on the recovery court — counseling participants, meeting with program staff, organizing and attending events with families and educating people about the value and benefits of the program.
“It feels like all of a sudden it’s coming to a screeching halt,” Harrington said of her second retirement. “I’m thinking, ‘OK, now what?’”
As for what is next, “That remains to be seen,” Harrington said. “I’m still a senior judge, subject to recall if needed. I’m just going to take my time and decide what I want to be when I grow up.”