By Ashley Luthern
Each week, a team of case workers and treatment professionals meets to review juvenile-court cases for youths addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Magistrate Anthony D’Apolito, who also serves as court administrator, hears these cases. This summer, The Vindicator sat in on proceedings.
The first young man came forward, and Sonya Cole of the Mahoning County Treatment Alternative to Street Crime (TASC) said the agency has monitored his THC [from smoking marijuana]levels, which are coming down, and he has attended all courses and shown up to all random screens.
“We’re trying to get him into a new summer program to earn credits. He has 17.5 credits and needs 21 to graduate,” Brown said.
Rex Dell, director of clinical services at the court, said the young man was “a pleasure to work with” and that they’d had “useful and fruitful discussions.”
When the young man addressed the court, he said: “I’m trying to get this dealt with and hopefully I’ll graduate and go to college and study engineering and just make my parents proud.”
Treatment court is a selective and highly intensive docket that takes about 10 months if individuals do it perfectly.
“These are the kids that have not had a lot of involvement with the court until this point. A lot are referrals from the diversion program,” said Nicole Cline, a probation officer who works with the treatment-court team, composed of professionals from the court, TASC, Neil Kennedy Recovery Clinic and Meridian Community Care.
If a youth successfully completes treatment court, charges can be dismissed.
Dell said treatment court, formerly called drug court, has evolved and now has two tracks: youths who primarily have a substance abuse problem, and youths who primarily have a mental health issue and are trying to treat it on their own with drugs.
Many of the youths smoke marijuana as their drug of choice.
“It’s frustrating how many juveniles just discount the effects [marijuana] has on life. They’ll say ‘I just smoke a little here and there,’ but really it’s all day, every day,’” said Maureen Coughlin, of Neil Kennedy.
Now the court is seeing an increase in narcotics use among young people.
“We used to ask kids about other drugs, like cocaine, and they used to say, ‘No, that’s stuff’s crazy and dangerous. I just smoke a little pot,’ Now they are using the hard drugs,” Coughlin said.
Nikunj Patel of Meridian Community Care said he’s noticed a significant change from referrals to self-identifying and 50 percent of his clients are coming in with heroin or opiate addiction.
“With a kid, it’s not about forcing them to stop but to make choices again, to make the choice to be sober. I want to be an adult-like figure, but not an adult to them,” Patel said.
Treatment court is one of the numerous specialty programs at the juvenile- justice center. About five years ago, Sharon Fischer and Jim DeLucia began the Adolescent Sexual Abuser Program (ASAP), which in some ways is modeled after treatment court.
“It’s part of a probation requirement, and they’re placed in the program and docket. There’s intensive individual and group counseling,” DeLucia said.
Like the treatment court docket, the sex offender cases are reviewed regularly, usually every other week. If treatment is going well, sex offenders can petition the court to be reclassified.
Ten sex offenders now are in the county program and most have already received treatment at state-level DYS facilities, DeLucia said.
“If there’s a drug problem, they deal with that. We want them to have a clear head,” Fischer said.
In counseling, sex offenders try to re-connect with their families, but that can be difficult, she said.
“Sometimes the victim is part of the family. The family wants nothing to do with [the offender]. Often the families are really damaged even when the victim is not a relative,” she said.
DeLucia said the biggest consequence is the social stigma.
“Sex offenders are considered sort of the lowest of the low in our society,” he said.
Wrapped up in many juvenile cases is an underlying mental health issue, said Judge Theresa Dellick, who is serving on a statewide task force on mental health and juvenile justice.
During an August interview, the judge said of 511 current youth cases in DYS, 264 are on the mental-health case load.
“DYS is to house delinquent youths and here we are housing mental health youths. ...If mental health is driving the behavior and if the mental health unchecked creates new behaviors, then had that student been properly diagnosed and treated, that student never would have entered the juvenile-justice system,” she said.
Mental health issues are prevalent in female youths who make up a small percentage of the total DYS case load.
“Around 60 percent of male case load is mental health and nearly 100 percent of the female case load is mental health,” Judge Dellick said.
Laura Lonardo runs the Kids in Need of Direction (KIND) program in the Mahoning County juvenile-j ustice system, which includes help for young women.
“With girls, 80 to 90 percent of them are here because of domestic violence and simple assaults. There are relationship issues, fighting with family and often a long history of abuse,” Lonardo said.
Mental health and substance abuse also play large roles in how young women end up in the juvenile justice system.
“It’s like peeling an onion,” she said.
About 150 female teenagers take part in the KIND female-specific program and “Girls Circle,” which involve group sessions. Lonardo uses “The Wizard of Oz” as a metaphor to guide her programming.
“Dorothy’s living with relatives, but not her mom and dad, and she runs away. Then she says ‘I overreacted and I want to come home.’ In order do that, she needs adult figures, like the Scarecrow to work on education and the mind, the Tin Man to help her calm down and the Lion to get the courage to face her fears,” she said.
The journey “can be ugly,” but at the end, it’s completed, Lonardo said.
Ashley Luthern is a reporter for The Vindicator and a 2012 John Jay College Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow.