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Graduation a sign of success for drug court

Lawrence Pierce
Kanawha Family Court Judge Mike Kelly presents a juvenile with a certificate commemorating his graduation from the county's drug court program. Only about seven have graduated from the program, which started a little more than a year ago.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A teenage boy walked to the front of the courtroom Tuesday and was met with a round of applause.

"Grab yourself a handful of candy," Kanawha County Family Court Judge Mike Kelly told him.

It wasn't long ago that the juvenile was turned down from participating in Kanawha's juvenile drug court program.

"He surprised us all," Kelly said before the teen's graduation ceremony.

The county's pre-trial diversion program for juveniles, which started in April 2012, is one of only about a dozen in the state. As court officials and probation departments deal with rising levels of juvenile offenders, the program is an avenue for teens who face low-level criminal charges to obtain treatment and counseling instead of prosecution.

"Pills and marijuana are the big things we see [juveniles] using," said assistant Kanawha County prosecutor Erica Lord, who is part of the treatment team. "One child, while he wasn't using it at the time, had a history of methamphetamine use."

Every week, a team made up of probation officers, attorneys, school counselors and psychologist, among others, meets to review each juvenile's case.

"Is his problem with grades primarily due to his absences?" Kelly asked the group, who said it was. "His mom needs to be told to do a better job of getting him there."

The program, which has had about 20 juveniles participate since it began, has had about 7 graduates, according to Kelly. Four phases of the program must be completed before graduating -- and it's not easy, the judge said.

"They are repeatedly drug tested," Kelly said.

"There are so many counseling sessions, so many drug screens required to move on to the next phase," Lord explained. "Assignments that haven't been turned in, a new charge or trouble in school are all factors that can keep them in a phase."

Counseling sessions are routinely held with a juvenile's family members, which Lord said is particularly helpful.

"A lot of times the family dynamic is contributing to their drug use. You really see that there is so much more to it than just these teenagers wanting to smoke pot and get high. They have major stressors at home and this is their way -- while an unhealthy way -- to cope with psychological issues," Lord said. 

But getting the family to participate is also part of the challenge, according to Kelly. During the group's meeting Tuesday, a probation officer described one juvenile whose family wouldn't agree for him to take part in the program.

"It's because they have to participate too," another probation officer said.

Whether the parents will be involved is part of the criteria that determines whether a juvenile is accepted into the program. Also, a juvenile's chances at success are considered.

"There are all kinds of factors," Kelly said. "Some attorneys won't refer their clients, they realize it could result in the juvenile getting into more trouble because we monitor them so closely."

 As the program progresses, team members, who are all volunteer, are coming up with new strategies to get through to the juveniles, Lord said.

"One day it hit me that we expect these kids to tell us everything -- everything that's going on in their lives, but they really didn't know anything about the team. They didn't know me from Adam," Lord said.

"Now, what we started is every time we get a new group of kids we'll stand up and tell our life story and tell why we decided to participate in the drug court."

Lord stood before a new group Tuesday and described growing up not knowing her father. She went on to tell the juveniles about the sudden death of her newborn son several years ago.

"The first thing the doctors do is hand you Xanax," Lord told the group, at times speaking through tears. "I could have drowned my pain in alcohol and drugs -- and to be honest there were times that could have been an easy decision."

Lord said before the meeting that she hopes the juveniles will understand that no matter their circumstances they don't have to turn down the wrong path.

Kelly said he wished officials had the resources to check up on the juveniles after they leave the program. "We do, but I wish we could more," he said.

"It's simultaneously the most rewarding thing, but it has great capability to break your heart," the judge said about the program.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.

 

 


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