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GAIL WHITE Program seeks to lead kids to the right path



Published: Wed, May 30, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



"Do you know why you're here?" Benita Forest, Juvenile Diversion Officer for the Youngstown Police Department, asks the third-grader sitting across the table from her.

"Behavior," he mumbles through his hands that are covering his mouth.

"What about your behavior?" Benita presses.

The third-grader shifts in his seat, eyes to the floor and responds incoherently.

"Sit forward. Face me," Benita instructs.

"I don't want to listen," the boy finally admits.

"Do you think you want to work on that?" she continues.

The question is met with a half-nod, half-shrug.

Grandma, sitting next to her third-grade grandson, describes a history of failing grades, fights and disrespect for teachers.

"That's gettin' you nowhere," Benita states firmly.

To this, the third-grader responds freely with a resolute nod of his head. He seems to know where he's headed. He has no clue how to change directions.

"Let me tell you a little bit about the Diversion Program," Benita explains. "Our program is for people [who] we believe can be helped."

She pauses and waits for the boy to look her in the eye.

"Do you want to be helped?"

He stares, defiance still in his eyes, but now they are shaded with a glimmer of hope.

No response comes from his lips, but he is still looking at her. That's a good sign.

On the right path: The Juvenile Diversion Program, created in October 2000, is part of the Juvenile Division of the Youngstown Police Department. The goal of the program is to educate and counsel 7- to 17-year-old first-time misdemeanor offenders and lead them on a path of noncriminal behavior.

The program is voluntary and serves, in many cases, as an alternative to formal criminal charges.

"Locking them up doesn't solve their problems," says Alice Garro, Director of the Diversion Program. "YPD ends up seeing them again in 3 months."

Though involvement in the program is voluntary, compliance is not.

"We have a waiting list," Alice explains. "Three strikes and you're done."

Another aspect of compliance in the program involves parents.

"We don't work with a child unless the parent is involved," Alice continues. "It is very, very difficult to be successful in diversion if the parent is not involved."

Benita is one of four Juvenile Diversion Officers involved in the program. Each officer handles 20 cases and works with each individual up to 90 days.

The diversion officers assess if a youngster can be helped by the services they provide. Then, they develop a program based on the specific needs of each juvenile.

Role models: "We are not counselors," says Dan Barwick, a diversion officer. "We utilize services in the community for that. But we do become a positive influence for a kid."

Dan relates a success story from the program.

"I had a kid that came in with a bad attitude and behavior problems. I brought the reality to him about where he was headed. It opened something up in his head." Today, that reformed youth is interviewing for a job.

Dorina Shine, another diversion officer, is working with a young fifth-grader who is nearing the end of her diversion experience.

Clearly adoring of Dorina, the young girl explains what she has learned. "I am learning to do the right things and not the wrong things."

Dorina adds, " And there [are] consequences to everything we do, right?"

The fifth-grader nods her head vigorously. "This has helped me change my behavior. I don't have the 'I don't care' attitude anymore," she proudly explains. "I'm doing better."

As if to summarize her diversion experience, she adds, "I understand that doing the right thing is good and doing the wrong thing is wrong."

Diversion in a nutshell, YPD style.

www.gwhite@vindy.com




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