Specialty court, specialized problems

HOLLIDAYSBURG – The story of the Blair County Juvenile Drug Court begins with a lively, gregarious 18-year-old named Marissa.

She is on her own, living in her own apartment, working two jobs and complaining, like just about everyone else, how tough it is to make ends meet.

The Altoona woman has aspirations. She wants an education, and she said she wants to work with people because she understands the problems they face.

She also has a message. She wishes she had the chance to talk to other teenagers who are heading down the path she once took.

At age 15, she became involved with friends in a culture of drugs and alcohol. She didn’t go to school. She admitted that while she was on drugs, she was “mean.”

Then one night police confronted her and her friends in a car. She got busted when one of her friends dropped a pipe and marijuana in her purse.



Blair County, which began its Juvenile Drug Court in 2009, is one of 11 counties in the state that decided to detour from the traditional way of addressing teen drug problems.

The others are Erie, Philadelphia, Washington, Somerset, Mifflin, York, Bradford, Lycoming, Northumberland and Lackawanna.

President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva said that in the normal court setting, the judge hears a case and determines if the young person is guilty of a criminal offense. The judge then sentences the teen to a program that may include time at a treatment center.

In Juvenile Drug Court, designed for teens ages 14 to 18, the approach is different. The judge serves as the leader of a team that assesses each participant and decides what treatment may be needed.

“The judge is much more active and involved,” said Kopriva, pointing out that probation officers and an assessment team that includes representatives from the District Attorney’s and Public Defender’s offices, Blair County Drug and Alcohol Inc., Pyramid Healthcare and the schools review each child’s progress every two weeks.

The young offenders also appear before the judge in court every two weeks.

Judge Elizabeth Doyle oversees the county’s Juvenile Drug Court, and she personally addresses each of the kids in a courtroom setting, rewarding their successes with “incentives,” which can be as simple as applying money toward their costs and fines, to a more tangible reward that could include a gift card or money for the child and parent to go to dinner.

Each child is tested frequently to make sure he is “clean” or free from drugs, and those who remain clean receive applause from others in the court.

If a child has not done well in the two-week period, he does not receive a reward and may be sanctioned. But the idea is not to focus on punishment but encouragement.

Operation Our Town, a nonprofit, business-based group that is dedicated to addressing the area’s drug problems, has provided grants the past couple of years to help with the drug testing and the system of incentives.

“We don’t dwell on the past. We focus on the future. Every kid has strengths,” Juvenile Probation Officer Cathy Dickinson said.

The participants are encouraged to get jobs. And they are are urged to think about their attitudes.

Dickinson said one young man said he wanted to be a plastic surgeon, so she asked him to consider what steps he would have to take to reach his goal. She then asked him to consider how his continued use of drugs may affect his goal.

That’s an example of what the probation officers call “motivational interviewing,” where they ask questions to get the teen thinking about the consequences of negative actions. Dickinson said the probation officers are trying to create a “circle of change” in the youngster’s life.

She said the teens’ attitudes change slowly, step by step.

Like adults, children who are working their way off a drug habit, often relapse.

When that happens, the probation officers pose the question to the kids, “How do we get back?”

A new type of court

“They don’t teach you [about] being a juvenile drug court judge in law school,” Doyle said

In law school, students learn about an adversarial system designed to get at the truth in a case.

In the drug court, the emphasis is to work together to help a child rid himself of an addiction and get back on the right path.

While she has the last and most important word when it comes to the child’s treatment, Doyle said the key is for her to become involved in the life of the child and his family. That doesn’t happen in a normal court proceeding.

“We make decisions based on consensus,” Doyle said.

She noted the impact of drug court in the case of a young man who recovered from his addiction and today has a job and is raising a family. She said drug court in that case saved two generations – that of the young man and probably that of his child, who will now be raised in a stable home.

“Substance abuse is a symptom,” Doyle said, and her job is to determine what it is a symptom of – peer pressure, family problems, mental health issues or something else.

She said sometimes the parents themselves have problems and she asks them to consider if they use drugs, how that affects their teens.

Often the parents will say, “Now I get it,” she said.

Some kids don’t make it through drug court because it is hard work.

“They have to come here with a good attitude and want to try,” Doyle said.

No cookie-cutter case

Every case in Juvenile Drug Court is different. There are kids from poor families. One teen’s family lived in a car. Another family lived in a tent.

Some families are more prosperous economically: One participant came from a home where both parents were professionals.

“Drug abuse comes from every socio-economic background,” said Nancy Williams, director of the Blair County Juvenile Probation Office.

Dickinson recalled the case of a young boy who hung around older kids. He started using marijuana at age 7. At age 12, he started using heroin.

His first shot at rehabilitation didn’t work. He is now at a treatment center.

The monkey on his back is whether he can ever live without drugs, she said.

Another young man was on bath salts for months. Probation officers spent days in the hospital with him as he recovered. He eventually graduated from the drug court, has a job, is married and is a father.

He’s considered a success story.

Just about all the teens who have entered Blair County’s Juvenile Drug Court are boys.

Marissa said her friends, both boys and girls, were doing drugs so she did, too. She said she knew she was better than the decisions she was making. She didn’t like being mean.

“I was angry with my life. When you do marijuana and drink, it messes with you. You are not happy,” said Marissa.

She called the downturn in her life “young stupidity.”

“My family knew. They tried so hard every day. They weren’t mean to me. It’s you [being mean],” she said.

After the bust, Marissa was pointed toward the drug court, and that’s when her life began to turn around.

The positive approach

The drug court is considered a “specialty court,” meaning it is designed to address a particular problem. In Blair County, other specialty courts are Adult Drug Court, Truancy Court, Family Drug Court and Driving Under the Influence Court.

“In all specialty courts, the judge represents a person of authority, and when such a person takes an interest in what happens to you, it can be very motivational,” said Kopriva.

People who come into the specialty courts know they have made bad decisions, she said, adding that some may even “hate” themselves.

The judge becomes a key figure in the specialty court, Kopriva said, because if the participants see that the judge believes they are doing a good job in their steps toward rehabilitation, that helps them “pay attention.”

She said many of the participants don’t know how to deal with stress or disappointment. They typically haven’t done well in school. And many have problems they haven’t worked through.

“Growing up is very difficult and is made even more difficult if they don’t have healthy strong role models,” or parents who are not on drugs or in prison, Kopriva said.

Imagine, she said, a child from a home that is in turmoil, a family that has little money, a boy with no father he can look up to.

She said that is why the court requires that a parent, or even an entire family, is involved in the teen’s attempt to shake his habit.

‘Call me Deep Throat’

An 18-year-old man sitting outside a recent Juvenile Drug Court session with his father didn’t mind talking about his experiences, but he didn’t want to share his name.

“Just call me Deep Throat,” he said, referring to the inside source used by Bob Woodward in the 1970’s Watergate investigation.

While he had a sense of humor, what he and his family have been through is no laughing matter.

“You really don’t know. You wonder how it’s going to end,” his father said.

The boy had violated his probation and was completing his high school work at George Junior Republic, a treatment facility in Grove City. He will graduate in May and is planning to attend college.

His father said the drug court “really gives a kid a good chance.”

The teen said he tried to take advantage of everything offered to him, and he said his drug court experience “really helps a lot.”

Not far away was another father whose son is also at George Junior Republic. That father said what his family has been through with a drug-addicted child is “unbelievable.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” he said.

Court is something he and his wife never knew about until his son got into trouble. He called the drug court “great” and said it beats being in the regular system.

The drug court currently includes 11 boys, and Doyle cleared the courtroom to hear confidential reviews on three of the cases.

Most of the drug court time is spent by the judge talking to the other participants in an open court setting.

One boy is graduating from drug court, and Doyle congratulated him on his hard work.

“We are very happy about that decision,” she said. “You have a sharp mind. Keep it sharp.”

Another boy was told he was moving to the next phase of the drug court. Doyle gave him an incentive, and the parents and other teens applauded.

“Come on down,” the judge said to yet another boy who had been clean for a year. Doyle said he would be released from drug court at the end of the year.

Another boy stood alongside his mother and while he had remained “clean,” Doyle told him he wouldn’t be getting an incentive. Although she didn’t explain why, she told the teen, “Don’t be discouraged. The next time we’ll be shaking your hand.”

After an initial review of the cases, the participants heard from Michael S. Barnes, a former corrections officer who had experienced drug court on a personal level. After graduating from Penn State University, where he studied criminal justice administration, he now counsels people with drug problems.

Barnes works with those in Blair County’s DUI and adult drug courts, and his message was to both the parents and the kids.

Children don’t understand what they are putting their parents through, he said, but he urged them to “accept the fact where you are now in your life.”

He told the kids to reach out and allow the probation office and others, like their family pastor or Blair County Drug and Alcohol Inc., to help them.

If they get through this, he said, “You get another shot at life. Take what you get.”

He said he saw the stress in the faces of the parents and offered them some encouragement.

“We have to stand behind our children,” he said, adding that there is “a light at the end of the tunnel.”

What’s ahead

Richard D. Steele of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges Commission came to Blair County in late February to discuss what juvenile justice will be like in the future.

Traditional ways of dealing with juvenile lawbreakers are yielding to new ideas, where the system tries to deal with a teenager’s more serious problems by delving into their backgrounds and forging an individual plan.

Williams said it will take a few years before the new ideas are in place, but she said Blair County is on board with the use of evidence-based policy.

This means Blair County authorities assess each juvenile’s risk of reoffending and then use proven therapies to help each teen get his or her life back on track.

“Evidence-based policy and practice provides more assurance that community corrections professionals, such as probation officers, are using proven strategies and approaches, which will result in reduced recidivism and enhanced safety for all,” Williams said.

It does not mean, she added, that juvenile justice will be “soft on crime.”

Everybody agrees that Juvenile Drug Court is hard work. Participants must look at themselves. Parents must change their ways. And the justice system must intensively supervise the teens.

Williams said juvenile officers tries to pinpoint what Steele call “criminogenic needs” or those factors which lead a child to stray or to reoffend.

Studies say a child’s system of beliefs, his personal behavior, his relationship with peers and his family circumstances are the four “dynamic risk factors” that must be addressed.

It takes hard work

And that brings the Juvenile Drug Court story back to Marissa.

Her low point came the day when she decided to go to school and a teacher told her, “Why bother?” because she already had failed. She left school that day with a bad feeling.

She credits Dickinson and Molly Wink, supervisor of the Juvenile Drug Court, with bringing her back.

“Cathy [Dickinson] is an amazing woman, one of a kind,” she said.

She felt down, she said, but she was urged to go to summer school, which she did three consecutive summers. By working hard, she was able to graduate on time with her class.

“I appreciated they even gave me that opportunity,” Marissa said.

She said she relapsed once, but she had the continuing support of the officers and the court. She admitted she liked the praise she received for doing well. Some kids never got better, she said. Some didn’t change at all, but she did.

“I don’t look back on anything and regret it. I really learned a lot,” she said.

In a letter she wrote in December, Marissa said life has not been “all rainbows and butterflies.” But she said she owed a huge thank you to the drug counselors for their hard work and dedication.

“Every time I find myself doing something I’m proud of, I think of all of you and realize it’s all thanks to the drug court program,” she said. “You guys really picked me up when I was down and gave me hope. That’s something no one can or will ever replace.”

Marissa disagrees that marijuana is not addictive, and she sees drugs overall as destructive.

“When you are on drugs you don’t have any ambition,” she said. Then she added, “Drug court is not for kids who get in trouble, but for kids who need help.”

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468