Burnie mum Sarah Young had two choices: stop using drugs or give birth in prison. One year on Ms Young's life, and that of her three children, has completely changed. IMOGEN ELLIOTT writes.
The pain of childbirth pales in comparison to drug withdrawals.
That’s according to Burnie mum Sarah Young, who used illicit drugs every day for about five years.
Fortunately, at 38 weeks pregnant with her third child, a magistrate ordered Ms Young to complete the court mandated drug diversion program.
Within 12 months Ms Young ceased all drug use and welcomed the birth of a healthy baby girl.
“My family didn’t really know the extent of my drug use until the last time I was caught and I already had a suspended sentence,” Ms Young said.
“It wasn’t until then that I realised I’m going to lose my kids if I continue down this path.
That’s when I actually said to mum ‘look, things are maybe a bit worse than you thought … I’ve been using ice and you don’t realise how bad it is. I’m willing to get the help I need or I’m going to prison and you’ll have to look after the kids’.
Ms Young was charged by police at least five times within a period of 12 months.
Her offences included driving with illicit drugs in her system, possession and selling of a controlled substance.
Ms Young said telling her parents about her drug use was one of the hardest things she had ever had to do.
She then faced the challenge of telling her children, who were aged six and nine at the time, and their school teachers.
“I had to not hold back the truth and say ‘yeah, I stuffed up, I’m facing court and I might not be here to pick the kids up’,” she said.
“It broke my heart – my daughter would go to school crying because she was so fearful I’d be gone when she got home.”
Ms Young said when she was using she’d be high from the moment she woke up to when she went to sleep. Using drugs, she said, changed the way her children approached her.
“The older two saw a lot – not that I smoked in front of them but they knew what I was doing,” she said.
“I used to not pay rent and get evicted or have arguments which led to noise complaints and that kind of thing.
“The kids started to understand my limits and they would push me because they knew I’d be too lazy to do anything.”
Ms Young said when she was facing court over her fifth driving-related charge she was sure she’d be sentenced to prison.
At the time she was heavily pregnant.
“When it came to sentencing day I was shi**ing myself,” she said.
“I thought that, because of my suspended sentence, right or wrong she was going to send me.”
Ms Young faced a custodial sentence of four months, but produced a clean drug test and was released to complete the program.
She said she knew complying would be a challenge.
“It showed [the magistrate] I had actually tried and they put me on the program,” she said.
“I truly believe I would still be a drug user if I didn’t have the program to help me out.”
Launceston-based Magistrate Sharon Cure began supervising offenders in the Tasmanian drug court in 2015.
She said drug diversion program participants needed to demonstrate long-term commitment.
“To qualify you must be facing an actual jail term and must have a demonstrable history of drug use and drug-related offending,” Ms Cure said.
“The decision about what a person is required to do [under the program] is made by professional case workers.
“The case worker writes a report and I do a review every few weeks.”
Ms Cure said there were three phases a participant would complete before graduating from the program.
She said participants could receive rewards and sanctions, which would be measured in days served in custody.
If a participant returns a positive drug test they can be sanctioned for one or two days.
Once the participant reaches 14 days they receive a custodial term.
Ms Young was required to provide weekly tests for the first three months of the program, then she progressed to proving tests on a fortnightly and monthly basis.
She provided 42 clean tests over 10 months and proudly graduated at the Burnie Magistrates Court in October last year.
“It was actually really cool… they pulled everyone into the courtroom who was on the program [for the graduation],” Ms Young said.
“I just wanted to turn around to the rest of them and say ‘and that’s how you do it’.”
Ms Cure said participants could be removed from the program for a range of reasons. Most people, she reflected, had a tough time advancing through the stages.
“As soon as someone changes everyone benefits,” Ms Cure said
“One of my favourite moments was when I was in a shop just before Christmas and someone was calling out my Christian name…
“I didn’t know who she was but she said she wanted to thank me because Christmas was going to be a celebration this year because of the changes her son had made and it wouldn’t be stressful because his serious addiction had gone.
“I said it’s not me who’s done this – it’s the caseworkers, the program and of course, his own effort.”
Ms Cure said there were many community-based service providers, agencies and organisations that could work with community corrections staff to assist program participants.
Ms Young said she once spent time at a Salvation Army women’s shelter and had used various counselling and support services on the Coast.
“I did a program called Bubs on Board for pregnant mums once a week … they tried to keep you busy,” she said.
“I tried not to lean too much on other people in the program because we were there for the same thing.”
Since completing the program Ms Young has begun volunteer work for her dad’s business.
She has had her driver’s license renewed and can feel the change in herself and her children.
“[Before], my life revolved around the drugs,” she said. Now it’s like ‘c’mon, let’s get up and get going’.
“Of course I’m not glad I got caught but it’s helped me better my life.
“I often look back and think ‘wow, how did I do that, how did I manage to live?’.”
Ms Young said she aspired to give talks to high school students about the damaging effects of ongoing drug abuse.
She said she now had the motivation, money and time to take her children to sports games, school events or family outings.
“When you’re an addict you feel like everyone is looking at you and everyone knows you’re on something,” she said.
“Now, I can just walk down the street normally knowing I’m not doing anything bad. It’s actually kind of weird.”
The court mandated drug diversion program was implemented in Tasmania in 2007 and was extended to include sentences before the Supreme Court in 2016.