By Shelby Schroeder
The loss of the diversion program means one less option for troubled teens.
HOWLAND — School officials say the end of Howland Township’s juvenile diversion program could lead to more teens’ ending up in the juvenile justice system.
At the end of 2008, after the township kicked in additional money to keep the program afloat a few months longer, Karen Len-Hinely was notified that the state grant money she needed was denied. The 11-year-old juvenile diversion program she founded and operated in Howland was flat broke, and her job was eliminated.
It also meant Howland’s troubled teens and children will be without her help.
Howland’s juvenile diversion program, modeled largely after one that once operated in Austintown, was meant as an intermediate step between school discipline and incarceration. Len-Hinely kept in contact with the police department, school principals and parents who had a child acting out or shirking responsibility.
“If a parent needed to restore the authority, I would help them do that. I was making sure the kid was doing what they were supposed to in school and at home,” Len-Hinely said.
A licensed social worker, she stepped in where overburdened teachers, school counselors and resource officers couldn’t, managing students like clients and working directly with families to secure outside help.
Without the program, she said, “The schools are basically going to have to refer the kids to the truancy officer or the courts.”
And the cases of delinquent teens aren’t going away.
“I’ve probably gone through close to 2,000 police reports on juveniles in 11 years. That tells you that activity is up,” she said. “I worked with about 150 cases, and out of those families, I kept close to an 80 percent success rate [keeping] kids out of the juvenile court system.”
When the last of the state funding that accounted for two-thirds of her salary was spent in September, the township made a final contribution intended to last through December.
Len-Hinely’s schedule was cut down to 20 hours a week, and her benefits, vacation and sick days were all revoked. By late December, the program’s end was near.
And that’s unfortunate for students, said Dave Mock, the assistant principal at Howland Middle School.
“The dynamics of schools have changed. There’s more to do for the teachers than just teach, [so] it was helpful to have that type of assistance from her,” Mock said of Len-Hinely.
He said the juvenile diversion program was only one of a few solutions for children with problems in school and at home. The others include a school resource officer — typically a uniformed police officer — and the Trumbull Academy.
Linda Daugherty, a supervisor of Trumbull Academy, says that in the academy program, teens are bused from their own schools to the former Our Lady of Mount Carmel school in Niles for class. Two classrooms seat about 15 students each — a total of about 30 chairs for the entire county — and, as Daugherty said, “We’re pretty full at this time.”
The Struthers school district has maintained its program for nearly a decade on local funding, said newly appointed Superintendent Robert Rostan.
He explained that Struthers has kept the program for one important reason: to keep teens from tarnishing their records.
“The basic idea of diversion is that kids, primarily teenagers, screw up in one way or another. With [the program], you’re able to keep them out of the juvenile [justice] system,” Rostan said.
Even so, having the township pay Len-Hinely’s full salary of around $45,000 was not an option for this year, said Darlene St. George, Howland Township administrator.
So now Len-Hinely is looking for another job in the field of social work. And her absence leaves an unattended need in the district’s student body.
“I don’t think Howland is any different from any other school,” she said. “They need someone there.”