Pierce County Dependency Court gives parents second chances

TACOMA, Wash. -- Joy Harris faced the possibility of years behind bars, and losing custody of her children, but with the help of Pierce County’s Dependency Court, Harris beat the odds and has turned her life around.

As any parent knows, it can be a challenge getting three small children ready for the day.  And when you’re doing it alone, sometimes it feels like there is more tasks than time to get those jobs done.

Which doesn’t really give Harris much time to take care of her own morning routine, but she says she wouldn’t trade her mornings for anything.

“What happened before, I’ll never go back to,” said Harris.

Because a year and a half ago, Harris faced the very real possibility of losing her children forever.

“I made bad decisions,” she said.

Harris says she and her husband sold and trafficked drugs. She says in November 2016, law enforcement raided her home.

“It was terrifying; flash bombs, loud speakers, ‘we have warrants for your arrest’. SWAT coming in,” she said.

Harris says she faced 10 years in prison and losing custody of both her children, as well as losing custody of her unborn baby who she found out she was pregnant with while in jail.

But there was a glimmer of hope for Harris, if she was willing to work for it.

Pierce County offered Harris a second chance to clear her record and get custody of her kids again if she went through its drug court and family recovery court program.

At the time, Harris says she didn’t realize the opportunity she had been presented.

“I was so far into everything. I just wanted to get out of jail, not even realizing the magnitude of the destruction I caused,” she said.

Drug addiction had a hold on Harris tightly, she says. But addiction is something she struggled with for a very long time.

“Human trafficking, that was something I overcame but not without scars; literally and figuratively,” said Harris.

Harris says she ran away with a boyfriend when she was 14. She says for the next seven years she was prostituted and abused.

When she finally got free, those scars eventually led to pain medication and addiction, she says.

“Nothing was important to me. I oftentimes could not decipher if I was dreaming or awake,” said Harris.

Harris says while most of the world, including herself, gave up on her, she he was not entirely alone.

“A lot of people have burned every bridge they have in life,” said Philip Sorensen, a Superior Court judge in Pierce County.

He gave Harris a second chance at life through drug and family recovery court.

Sorensen says he has worked with people like Harris for decades. He says he knew if she worked hard enough, she might find herself again.

“Addiction is a very powerful thing and it causes people to completely drift away from things that were important to them,” he said

But Harris would have a support system through the months of rehab and court proceedings.

“They deserve a chance just like everyone else deserves a chance in this world,” said Annette Lukinbill, an attorney for the Washington State Office of Public Defense in Pierce County.

She has worked with families like Harris’ since the early 2000s.

Lukinbill says these people, who are at their lowest point in life, could be any one of us.

She says the hours of time and energy she dedicates to cases like Harris are more than worth it.

“I just adore her, and I adore her kids. When I have the opportunity to see the life she wants to live with her kids, that makes it worthwhile,” said Lukinbill.

Harris spent three months in jail. She spent seven months going through the addiction treatment, all the while away from her family. But she says it took that time to realize why she was fighting.

“I’m still working on forgiving myself, the process will never be over,” she said.

Now she is reunited with her children and, maybe even more importantly, they are reunited with their mom.