Drug court alumni give judge a graduation ceremony of her own

2013-11-21T19:38:00Z 2013-12-11T16:33:42Z Drug court alumni give judge a graduation ceremony of her ownBy MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

On Thursday, it was State District Judge Susan P. Watters’ turn to graduate from family drug court.

Things got emotional as traditional graduation ceremonies sometimes go, as one drug court graduate after another — many fighting back tears — stood in Watters’ courtroom to thank her and other members of the family drug court team and congratulate Watters on her appointment to the federal bench.

Watters, 55, awaits U.S. Senate approval for a U.S. district court judgeship in Billings following her nomination in May by President Barack Obama. The Senate Judiciary Committee has already approved her nomination; a vote in the full senate could be held as soon as mid-December.

During a 45-minute ceremony held in her packed fifth-floor courtroom, Watters, who’s presided over the family drug court since it was founded 12 years ago, answered some of the questions she has program participants answer upon their graduation:

The biggest challenge has been having participants give up before they can achieve their goals, or to, as she put it, “self-sabotage”

She’d tell an incoming participant “the sooner they start surrendering to (family drug court) programs, the sooner they will start moving toward their goals”

She’s learned that “compassion really does have a place in the courtroom.”

“Participating in and presiding over family drug court has been the hardest, most rewarding thing I have done in my judicial career,” she said. Early on, the court experienced “growing pains, but we persevered because we believe in drug court and we know what we could do for participants.”

After Watters spoke briefly, it was time for colleagues and family drug court graduates to tell her how much the family drug court experience — a treatment-based alternative to prison — had meant to them.

“We made it strictly because you are a fair judge,” Donita D’Ambrosia, a Billings mother of five, told Watters. “Here (in this courtroom) I was able to be honest, even though it was scary to tell you the things I was doing wrong. Without family drug court, I wouldn’t have my kids or my home back, and I wouldn’t have been able to get on my own two feet and accept responsibility. I am a whole different person, and that is because of you and the team.”

Heather Thompson, a 2006 graduate who’s now a lab technician, reminded Watters that “we bumped heads every time I walked into this courtroom. The only reason I graduated,” she added with a laugh, “is that my folder couldn’t hold any more.”

The skills she’s gained “by fighting through this program have been unstoppable,” Thompson told Watters. “It’s given me the chance to have a wonderful walk as a parent and a decent community servant.”

Steve Peek, a parole and probation officer, told Watters she has “far more patience than I do. I would have my doubts, but some of those people are in the courtroom today and are doing quite well.”

Curtis Norton, another graduate of the program, remembered initially entering family drug court “walking on a cane, pretty strung out. It took a long time for me to get it right, and I owe a lot to you. You never gave up on me, and you never give up on anybody. I wish you well.”

While graduates and their children mingled with drug court team members and nibbled on sandwiches following the ceremony, Watters called it “a little overwhelming to see everyone and hear their comments, the good they think I’ve done for the community. In the trenches, you don’t realize you’re making a difference because you don’t hear all the positive. It was really nice to have everyone telling me I have done a good job leading family drug court.”

If and when Watters receives senate approval, District Judge Gregory Todd is set to take over family drug court.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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