A couple off weeks ago, the head judge of the courts in Suffolk County announced the reopening of the Juvenile Drug Treatment Court in Central Islip. This court once was a shining example of success for young people fighting addiction, until the usual story of lack of state funds shut it down several years ago. Drug treatment courts for adults have continued successfully, but juvenile treatment courts were not to be found in Suffolk County anymore, until Jan. 24.
The Juvenile Drug Treatment Court’s goal is to reduce substance abuse and certain behaviors among non-violent, substance abusing youth (under 17) who have become involved in the family court system, where juvenile crime cases are heard. To be eligible as a JDTC case, however, these juvenile charges have to be for “minor” offenses, such as possession of controlled substance, loitering, petit larceny and the like.
And here’s where the drug treatment court concept really works for juveniles: the intense, team approach of a judge, probation officers, drug counsellors, therapists, and more, works not only with the juvenile but also with his or her own parent(s) or guardians.
What motivates the family and their child to go through this? Simply the chance to get the juvenile delinquency charges dropped and erased from the child’s record. Much more than that, it can spare a young person from the drug world’s unyielding finality of death.
With that incentive, the juvenile, along with at least one parent or grandparent, appears in court every week for two to three months. Between each court appearance, the work is intense, with group and individual therapy sessions, contact with the kid’s teachers at school, drug tests, even part-time job placement if academic performance allows.
The probation officer personally monitors this day-to-day progress, and appears with the juvenile at the weekly court sessions, reporting to the judge with recommendations. The judge will conference each week with the team players before the each juvenile is brought in to receive encouragement, or a reprimand, or a warning, or in those few cases, transfer as a failure back to the regular juvenile calendar. A combination of firmness and compassion govern this effort. Many kids do well, as their potential is given a solid chance. Others have a tough start, or do well and fall back, then rebound.
A failing outcome is rare. Not making it with Juvenile Drug Treatment Court means the substance-abusing youth will be set on a path for addiction treatment, including possibly in-patient placement. Then the odds for success tighten: according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with virtually identical data from the annual report of the NYS Office of Children’s and Family Services, the rate of relapse for drug addicts, juvenile and adult, who pass through standard treatment is very high, more than 80 percent.
Those who “graduate” from a juvenile drug treatment court, however, have a far better chance. Data is unfortunately not available as yet for Suffolk County, but when it was last operated here over an eight-year period, recidivism was remarkably lower, in the range of 15 to 20 percent. Why?
So much of the Juvenile Drug Treatment Court success rate, in the long-term, lies with the commitment and empowerment of the juvenile’s parents. With the probation officer and the judge at the helm, the team gets to the root causes of the juvenile’s behavior problems, guides the parent in taking the initiative, even removes the ever-present, errant peers in the kid’s life. Indeed, as positive influences replace the negative, and a constructive, daily routine emerges, hope returns. Inevitable relapse or recidivism is often no longer in the kid’s future.
Weaving through the otherwise constructive, team-driven approach of Juvenile Drug Treatment Court is a serious flaw: a kid has to be in trouble with the law and the courts to be eligible for it. What of the spiraling numbers of teenagers who are falling victim to the drug plague, but who keep one step ahead of the legal troubles that would bring them to family court, or who simply don’t get caught. So many families are either at their wits’ end, or feel helpless or overwhelmed, or are disengaged from their parenting roles, or are substance or alcohol abusers themselves.
There are options worth considering that could bring a child to warm the world again, rather than to fall to that apocalypse camped just over the horizon: one is a PINS (Person in Need of Supervision) petition, which will immediately enlist the Suffolk County Probation Office to your child’s case. Their office is in Yaphank, (Tel: 631-852-5000). Calling them can be for nothing more than advice – no commitment unless you make it. The probation officer will advise you in detail about the steps to take with the “PINS Diversion” program and other approaches. Consider also the Juvenile Aid Bureau at your town hall. A PINS petition could be a path to the Juvenile Drug Treatment Court as well.
A parent, grandparent, or guardian still has a role to play – a life-saving role, at that – for youngsters exposed to the depravity of drugs, crime, gangs and negative peers. It’s a far different and more cruel world today than most of us adults ever knew as children. Too many families right here on the North Fork have to take bold steps, or their teenaged son’s or daughter’s precious time may suddenly and tragically run out.
Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.
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