Drug court grad Frankie Ward: 'I've never been so excited for the future'

PAXTON — Prior to a hearing in Ford County Circuit Court in April 2017, Frankie Ward was sitting in Judge Matt Fitton’s courtroom, laughing and joking with a person next to her.

State’s Attorney Andrew Killian noticed. Killian was “a little annoyed” by Ward’s behavior, he admitted, since he was about to ask that Fitton revoke the Gibson City woman’s bond and put her in jail for violating her probation.

“That was my first interaction with Frankie, and I thought, ‘Well, there’s a voter I’m never going to get back,’” Killian recalled.

In the hearing that followed, Killian was justifiably skeptical about public defender David Rumley’s request that Ward be screened as a candidate for Ford County’s drug court — a rigorous program that allows offenders to avoid prison by staying sober, employed and out of trouble with the law, among other requirements.

Ward, who had an extensive criminal history, Killian said, ended up seeking treatment for her addiction to drugs prior to a June resentencing hearing. Reluctantly, Killian agreed to allow her to give drug court a try.

“It was one of those (situations) where I thought, ‘Well, as a last-ditch effort, we’ll try,’ but in the back of my mind I was kind of already thinking, ‘How long do we go before we pull the plug and decide that we’ve given her as many chances as she is going to get?’” Killian said.

In the months to follow, Ward “outperformed all expectations,” Killian said. Not only did she complete drug court, she did it quicker than anyone before her, “crushing the record of the former (record) holder, Josh Henderson, by several months,” Killian said.

“Frankie is a true model drug court candidate,” Killian told an audience in the second-floor courtroom during a drug court graduation ceremony for Ward last Wednesday. “I’m a very competitive individual — I do not like being wrong ever — but in this case I’ll make an exception.

“Congratulations, Frankie.”

Fitton said Ward’s determination to change her life shows by the person she is today. She is now employed full-time, has strengthened her relationships with her family and friends, is anticipating the return of her son who has been out of her custody for some time, is living a crime-free life, and, perhaps most important, has been sober for more than a year — one year, two months and 13 days, to be exact.

“The person I see today is not the person who came before us (last year in court),” Fitton told Ward. “You have made tremendous progress. I think you’ve done it for a number of reasons — No. 1, for yourself. With the help of a number of professionals — people on the drug court team and elsewhere — you’ve learned that for you to do well for the others who you care for — your family — you have to take care of yourself, and I think you’ve learned a life-long lesson.”

Killian called Ward an “inspiration and a model for those who will come after her” as drug court participants.

“I know Frankie intends to continue to be active in the sober community and will help those who will come after her,” Killian said.

Before presenting Ward with her certificate of graduation from drug court, Ford County Probation Director Ellen Maxey recalled the progress that Ward had made in the past year.

“When I was reviewing my notes in preparation for talking to you all today, there was a theme that kept coming up over and over again — and that was ‘running and honesty,’” Maxey told the audience. “That was kind of our theme in our early relationship.

“You spent a lot of time running, and I spent a lot of time chasing you — both literally and figuratively,” Maxey told Ward. “I was struck by how many notes there were about me begging you to be honest. And there were a lot of times that I remember sitting across from you and saying, ‘OK, we’ll try tomorrow,’ because there were a lot of days that you would tell me that you had never used drugs.

“Addiction had you believing that you did not need drug court, that you could continue your life and you would be fine. I’m so glad that you were stronger than that voice in your head. At some point in this process you surrendered, and things started to get better.

“I can remember the day that you came into my office and plopped down in the chair, and you said, ‘Fine, I’m ready.’ I tried not to show you my excitement, but I had so much confidence in you, and I knew that you were capable of anything.

“Over the last several months, we’ve had a lot of conversations in the very small back room (in the basement of the courthouse). We’ve talked about honesty and parenting and our hatred of driving in the snow. A few weeks ago, I got to see you take a huge step toward the return of your son.

“Frankie, you never backed down, and your positive attitude has never wavered.

“As a mother, I’m in awe of your focus and your strength. As a community member, I’m pleased to see you succeed. As a probation officer, I could not be more proud. Thank you for your hard work and the example that you have set.”

Ward said she decided to give drug court a try because she knew she “had too much to lose” if she would have been sent to prison. Ward, however, was not confident at first that the program would end up changing her life.

“I knew I wanted a new life and I was ready to change, but I never thought drug court would have any part in that,” Ward said. “I was so wrong.”

Initially, Ward was “a little overwhelmed” with the demands of drug court, but she still knew she could complete it if she tried.

“The most overwhelming part was learning how to manage my time,” said Ward, noting that, in addition to being a mother of two children, she had to attend classes at the Prairie Center in Urbana four days a week, worked full-time Monday through Friday, had two or three court hearings each month, and had to submit to drug tests every day.

“But my determination was and is strong, and the support I had was indescribable,” Ward said.

Ward said she never could have imagined how much drug court would change her.

“I’m a reliable and dependable employee. I’m a trustworthy sister, an outstanding citizen, a confident and independent person and a loving and caring and protective mother,” Ward said. “And for that, I’m very grateful to drug court.

“I have never been so excited for the future. I have actual goals for my life, which is something I’ve never really had. I am ready for my new life to continue on the path that is laid in front of me. And I am so thankful to all the people who have been involved in helping lay that path.

“Something that people keep telling me these days is that they’re proud of me. For the first time in a long time, I can say I’m proud of myself and how far I’ve come, and I have faith in how far I can go in the future.”

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