published Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

Hamilton County Drug Court graduate finds her way

Danille Fritts, left, hugs her sponsor, Lora Liles, as she graduates from Hamilton County's Drug Court on Monday. The ceremony took place in Judge Rebecca Stern's courtroom.
Danille Fritts, left, hugs her sponsor, Lora Liles, as she graduates from Hamilton County's Drug Court on Monday. The ceremony took place in Judge Rebecca Stern's courtroom.
Photo by Tim Barber.

In the darkened courtroom, a projector flashed mugshots of gaunt, angry faces on the screen, followed by a picture of the same person, smiling and healthy.

These before- and after-photos showed the transformation of 100 Hamilton County Drug Court graduates since 2005 to an audience that included five Drug Court participants who were to graduate Monday, more than a dozen people currently enrolled in the program and supportive family and friends.

Danille Fritts' photo wasn't on the screen but it may soon be after her successful completion of the program.

A crystal methamphetamine addiction that dragged on for a decade left her crying for help. Her teenage son, Austin Gamble, at times refused to let her in her own home.

They wrestled. She fighting to get in; he fighting to keep her out.

He won.

And then, nearly two years ago, she felt the cold steel of a police officer's handcuffs.

And relief.

She was lucky in many ways. Fritts used her first felony criminal charge to get the help she needed.

"I knew the minute I got arrested, I'll either go to prison or get help," she said.

She asked Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern if she could enter the Drug Court program.

Fritts admits that she wasn't an easy participant. Normal occurrences such as getting a job, others caring for her, family members trusting her, frightened her.

"Even though it was good stuff, it was scary," she said.

Fritts relapsed after only six months, but got another chance as many drug addicts need. This time, she succeeded.

The typical Drug Court participant takes 18-to-24 months to graduate, said Elaine Kelly, drug court coordinator.

The program requires participants to agree to submit to scheduled and surprise drug tests, attend addiction recovery classes, commit no new crimes and get a job, or look for employment. When participants graduate, their criminal charges are dismissed and they avoid jail.

Standing beside Fritts on Monday were her mother, Shirley Coleman, her aunt, Sassey Easton, her sponsor Lora Liles, her son and a close friend she met in Drug Court.

"My mom, she's been gone for awhile," Gamble said. "Ever since she got into Drug Court, everything changed."

On Monday he got his mother back. And instead of wrestling, they hugged.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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