NEW PORT RICHEY — Dorothy Bourgeois sat in the back of the courtroom Thursday, listening to stories of lives nearly lost to addiction and crime, stories about prostitution and overdoses and ruined family bonds.
She hoped her 17-year-old son, sitting a few rows ahead of her, was listening, too. He has been smoking marijuana since he was 13 and has been arrested twice for stealing and fighting with his sister.
This teen and others like him are the target audience of a new program in Pasco County courts that puts juvenile offenders in front of adults who have battled — and beaten — drug addiction that led them into crime.
Circuit Judge Shawn Crane, who oversees both drug court and juvenile cases in west Pasco, wanted the teens to hear firsthand from people who have walked the dead-end path of substance abuse. The judge and Billy Major, who connects adults with social services for the Public Defender's Office, recruited people who have successfully completed drug treatment programs to tell their stories.
The Ambassador Program debuted on Thursday. About two dozen teens, including four currently in the juvenile lockup, and many of their family members crowded into Courtroom 2A. Crane ensured their attendance by making it a mandatory condition of their sentences. He warned them that he'd be watching for who was and wasn't paying attention.
Kenneth Taylor spoke first. He started drinking at age 8. By the time he reached seventh grade, he was arrested for bringing pot to school. In high school, he found cocaine, ecstasy and acid. Even after he got into trouble and was steered into treatment, he beat the system by using legal, synthetic forms of the drugs.
"I used the whole time I was in rehab," he told the teens.
Then last year, on his 28th birthday, Taylor overdosed. He said he lay in a medically induced coma while doctors told his father to plan his funeral.
When he beat the odds and woke up, he had to relearn how to talk and eat and breathe.
Taylor has been clean for four months now, but some parts of his past he still can't shake, he said.
"Right now, it's very hard to find employment with an eight-page rap sheet," he said.
A pretty young woman who identified herself only as Rebecca spoke next. She grew up in a typical home, taking horseback riding lessons and honors classes. When she hooked up with a boyfriend at 16, she started smoking pot and failing school.
Then there was cocaine and pills, and when the money ran out to support her habit, she sold her body.
She was pregnant when she entered a residential treatment program and said it's a miracle her son was born healthy.
"Every step of struggle was worth it for me," she said. "I'm getting back everything I lost."
The teens listened the way teens do. Yawns. Eye rolls. They laughed when the speakers described the scatological side of addiction, such as coming to treatment drooling and vomiting at the first taste of marijuana.
Bourgeois thought she saw her son nod his head at one point.
She didn't know he'd been smoking pot until he started seeing a therapist. Now he has the letters W-E-E-D tattooed on his fingers. She wonders what else he's doing that she doesn't know about.
The speakers' stories of escalating addiction were frightening, she said.
"It sounds like him," Bourgeois said. "I've been really worried that it's going further."
She's glad her son got caught early, before he was too far gone.
"I'm hoping that this hits a nerve with him, that he'll straighten out," she said.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @mmoorheadtimes.