Monday, January 11, 2010

Juvenile Court Helps Kids Kick Tough Addictions

MANSFIELD -- Cassandra Douglas was 12 when she was first arrested, after breaking into a Mansfield laundromat with her friends. Seven years and numerous painkillers, opiates and rehab centers later, she said she finally is clean.

"Everybody in my family pretty much has a drug of choice," Douglas, now 18 and living in Bloomville, said recently. "I just got sick of the lifestyle."

For a while, by her own admission, Douglas was on her way to becoming another statistic. She was one of the scores of teens (and younger) who are charged in Richland County each year with some kind of drug-related offense, from getting caught with a dime bag of marijuana at school to more serious crimes, such as selling. Authorities filed 305 such charges in 2003; last year that number dropped to 178. Yet, in that same time the number of those assigned to the county's juvenile drug court -- about 40, yearly -- has remained the same.

Like its adult counterpart, local officials save juvenile drug court for the most hardcore cases of drug abuse; recreational users and those smoking their first joint in the bathroom at a weekend high school party need not apply.

"It's merely a recognition that there are a significant number of kids that have entrenched addictions," Juvenile Court Judge Ron Spon said. "We see a lot of kids that are simply self-medicating."

Douglas was one of the tougher cases. Abandoned by her mother as an infant and with a father in and out of state penitentiaries, she began smoking marijuana before she was a teenager. She would disappear from her grandparents' home, where she was staying, for long stretches. At one point she escaped from Maryhaven, a treatment center in Marion, by scaling a fence.

"I mainly went to school through the court system," Douglas said.

At age 16, Douglas cleaned up long enough to get her GED, but the death of her grandfather that year led to a relapse. Now, three rehabs and three felonies later, the county went for one of the last resorts: state committal. She was sent to Ohio Department of Youth Services' Freedom Center, a 24-bed facility for habitually-using females in Delaware, where, after six months of treatment, she finally was released last year.

"A lot of it was Amy," Douglas said, referring to Amy Bargahiser, the probation officer who often deals with the tougher cases the court sees. "She'd always tell me, 'You're not going to die on my watch,' and come back and cry with me in my cell.' "

Judge Spon said most often personal success depends on commitment.

"Kids can do well if they don't give up," Spon said. "(Douglas) was one of the ones that didn't."

Spon has been at the helm of the juvenile drug court since its inception, in 1998, thanks to a state grant. He said the court has been a success, with consistently 60 percent of participants not testing positive for drugs for the average 12-month stay in the program. About 80 percent of participants don't backslide within three months after graduation.

"I get to develop a relationship with the kid," Spon said. "For one thing, we don't automatically hammer on them if they fail. We're looking for progress."

Rudolph Alexander, who has studied drug courts and their effectiveness as a professor at The Ohio State University, said when dealing with kids or adults, the approach is generally the same.

"It works because it's specialized," Alexander said. "The emphasis is on treatment."

Despite the experts and recidivism numbers, a majority of teens who enter drug court will fail, at least the first time. In 2008, for example, 8 of the 13 juveniles who entered eventually had their participation terminated. Spon said that's par for the course.

"I tell them that the bottom line is that continued use is not acceptable," Spon said. "If they do not fully engage themselves, I'll give them all the trouble I can."

Now living in Seneca County with a boyfriend and his family, Douglas' ongoing struggle to stay on top of her addictions has been helped by the boyfriend and the change in scenery. Now she's an evangelist for treatment and volunteers her story to other teenagers. She freely admits she's not totally free from treatment, seeing a therapist once or twice a month.

"You're still a human being," Douglas said.

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