By Ashley Luthern
The conference room at first looked ready for a business meeting, with a large paper roll on an easel and a projector set up at the end of an oval table.
But then came the pizza, pop and a goodie bag of incentives — candy, mini-footballs, toiletries — and the teens.
This summer, the Mahoning County juvenile justice system began a program called Choices to target young men who are on high-risk probation or thought likely to re-offend.
It’s one of many programs designed for special populations that enter the juvenile-justice system, and it’s the newest.
“The kids have to qualify. It is very intensive. A probation officer checks on them at night. They have wrap-around [comprehensive] programming, and those that need to are beginning drug treatment and taking part in drug screens,” said court Administrator Anthony D’Apolito.
The young men, who all have felony adjudications, the juvenile equivalent of a conviction, met every Monday and Wednesday. Instructors used a goal-oriented systematic approach known as cognitive behavioral therapy to help the teens analyze their decision-making process, attitude and beliefs.
The Vindicator was permitted to sit in on one group session with about a dozen young men. [Usually youths on probation are not allowed to be with youths or adults on probation or parole, but an exception is made for court-sanctioned programs.]
Sheets of paper were taped on the walls, and on each a youth identified the situation that got him into trouble and the “risk thoughts” that led to the situation.
One young man got in trouble for driving in a car with a fugitive and weapons.
With the help of the other group members and Nicole Cline, a probation officer who instructs the sessions, he said his risk thoughts were: “He’s like my brother,” “I grew up with him,” “I can’t leave him hanging,” “He’d do the same for me” and “He helped me before; I owe him a favor.”
As the teens shouted out suggestions or talked, an incentive would be tossed to them in return.
After risk thoughts, the young man identified his feelings in the car as “worried” and “paranoid.” The attitudes and beliefs that led to his decision were “I’ve known him my whole life” and “the cops don’t like me.”
The latter was found on several of the papers.
The group chose “He’s like my brother” as the key risk thought and came up with alternatives to think about: “He was in jail. I don’t want to go to jail. He will still be like my brother.”
The young man said this afterward about making a bad decision: “You know you don’t think about it. You’re in the moment. You don’t think about consequences.”
Experts say that’s common in adolescent- brain development.
The program’s curriculum has worked in other parts of the country and aims to keep teens out of state-run Department of Youth Services prisons, said Paula Clarke, who is in charge of programming for young men at the center.
“Most of the kids we’re working with in Choices would originally go to DYS. We are working them in our own communities to try to rehabilitate them,” Clarke said.
Cline said case managers work with the young men in Choices to make sure that they are getting treatment, education and reaching job goals, if applicable.
Families must agree to have the youth in the program.
“They’re usually in poverty, many relying on a lot of help through the system, and there’s a generational involvement with the system. ... But we hope by involving the families, you’re getting to the environment. You can impact [a] child, but if you’re not impacting the environment, the changes are harder to sustain,” Cline said.
Some of the young men in Choices come from stable families. One wrote about arguing with his mother and his risk thought was “she’s just overprotective.”
When he tried to see things from his mother’s perspective, he wrote: “She says her prayers so she knows what’s going on,” “She loves me,” “Respect your elders” and “She doesn’t want me to end up dead.”