One judge's community approach. Cooperation, involvement key to aiding troubled children in Ohio
Toledo, Ohio — Police Capt. Joe Herr spots two teen-agers at a dimly lit intersection, then checks his watch. ``See, it's nearly 2 a.m. and these kids are all around,'' he says. Twenty-seven years ago, when he joined the Toledo police force, he would have stopped any car moving at this hour, he says. On this Friday night, there are far too many to stop.
``My name is Beth. I'm an alcoholic and a drug addict.''
``Hi, Beth,'' the group says.
``I've had a very interesting week. There's this girl that wants to beat me up....''
``I'm Bob. I'm an alcoholic,'' says the boy to the left.
``This week started out rotten. It turned out OK.''
Eight Whitmer High School students sit in a circle talking about their struggle to recover from drugs and alcohol. Abuse runs rampant among students from all kinds of families and backgrounds. These teen-agers estimate that two-thirds of the school's 2,800 students use drugs or alcohol regularly.
There's a problem in Toledo, and everywhere, that no one wants to admit. The legal system, the school, and the family are steadily losing their authority over children. Faced with a deep-rooted rebellion, these traditional guardians are turning to a new breed of children's guardian. Private psychiatric hospitals for youths, drug- and alcohol-abuse clinics, and many other programs are moving in with their own structures to fill the void. In Toledo, Juvenile Judge Andy Devine has another idea. ``I think I'm onto something,'' he says, rubbing his hands excitedly.
Judge Devine used to accept the new guardians, shipping off troubled teen-agers to out-of-state institutions. ``On paper it looked so good,'' he says. ``But when they came back, we didn't see any change.''
Since then, he's worked on a community approach that's rare in the United States today. ``Parents are No. 1,'' Devine says, ``not schools, not treatment, not the court, not the police. Parents.
``We the community - the court, police, schools, and everyone else - have to support parents. Not to do it for them, but to support them. [But] you'll find, if you look closely, that the system works against parents.''
For example, when Devine came to the juvenile court several years ago, he found that a police officer might deliberately overlook drunk teen-agers or take them home. ``He's enabling the kid to continue his drinking without holding him responsible,'' the judge says. The court encouraged the practice by being lenient until repeat offenses got out of hand.
Devine's tough line changed the situation. Now, teen-agers caught drinking lose their licenses for a year, even if they are not driving or legally drunk. If a schoolchild becomes a truant, the Toledo juvenile court tries to find out why. If the parents have been lax, Devine has locked up the parents to send a message to the community.
``We've got to become what we used to be, when it was small and everyone knew each other,'' Devine says. In short, he wants to reenergize a community spirit.
In Toledo, that concept has taken on a momentum of its own. Over lunchmeat sandwiches, baked beans, and potato salad, 17 Toledo professionals gather to talk about the new cooperation. ``We were trying to do the best we could in our own little sphere,'' county prosecutor Tony Pizza recalls. ``But it won't work, no matter how good the people you have.''
Instead, the budding network has allowed the prosecutor and the police to crack down on drugs and alcohol by raiding a rock concert and, two years ago, conducting a 13-month sting operation in several high schools. One of the few such operations in the United States, the sting had the help of school authorities and netted 47 adult and 55 juvenile dealers, some of them from very good families.
The judge's hard line is controversial. His court has locked up more juveniles in state facilities than any other metropolitan Ohio county on a per capita basis. Critics call him idiosyncratic. ``He drives me nuts,'' exclaims one. But virtually everyone credits Devine with being a major force behind a whole raft of new programs for troubled teen-agers.
There are support groups for youths and parents, family counseling and drug education, a juvenile restitution program, new group homes, and even a two-week mountain climb in New Hampshire for very troubled youths.
The programs work, however, only because of the cooperation and involvement of many sectors of the community. Court-appointed volunteers serve as special advocates for children in the courtroom. Volunteers serve on a citizens' board that reviews each court placement of a child. When a youth has needs that do not fit into a specific program, a local consortium of treatment professionals meets weekly to see what resources can be used.
``Everyone's drawing together,'' says John Newton, medical director of the alcoholism treatment center at Toledo Hospital. ``The treatment programs wouldn't be worth a darn if it weren't for the support of the schools and the court and the rest of the community.''
Not all is harmonious in Toledo, however. The judge wants to build a local treatment center for juveniles, but the community has not decided who should serve as the gatekeeper to such an institution.
``We're kind of stalled at the moment,'' says Glenn Richter, president of the United Way of Greater Toledo. ``We've tried to push for clear criteria for what kind of kids need to be there. [The judge says] `I'll know 'em when I see them.'''
Still, the cooperation lives.
A fire in an abandoned house is the first call of the night for officers Reggie Schardt and Craig Keating. While the firemen extinguish the blaze, one boy points out two 12-year-olds who entered the house about the time of the fire. The two - a girl and a boy - deny they did anything. While Officer Keating interviews the girl's grandfather (her parents apparently abandoned her), the grandmother calls out to the girl: ``You get over here. I don't want you leaving this porch.'' The girl, already in the street, runs away.
Officer Schardt, a 15-year veteran of the police force, sighs at the worsening situation. ``The parents don't have control; the schools don't have any control,'' he says. ``There's one choice left; the legal system. From what I've seen, it's become a lot more intense in the last five years.''
Among the other calls on their 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift, the officers recover 38 pennies and other bric-a-brac from a glove compartment that four children apparently broke into. A little after 1 a.m. they pick up a 15-year-old girl for driving a car with expired license plates and no driver's license of her own. At the station the girl's father, a large man in a red windbreaker, eventually arrives. He looks at the carpet and doesn't say a word as Keating and Schardt explain the charges. He had no idea where his daughter had been staying that night.
If there are no signs of improvement on the streets of Toledo, there are at least a few hints of change and progress among families and schools. Carol Earl, coordinator of a parents' support group, finds that her family and others improved when they were challenged by a drug-using child. ``We just communicate at a different level,'' she says. ``[We] listen. We're not judgmental anymore.''
Ron Alvarez, Whitmer High School's drug counselor, has noticed a small change, too. When a speaker on drugs visited five years ago, ``it was so noisy, it was embarrassing,'' he recalls. When the same speaker returned last year, ``you could hear a pin drop.''
At this morning's drug-support group, two newcomers, both girls, appear. One of them fidgets and says little. The other, in blue jeans and jacket, says alcohol is ruining her life. The others, who have made a commitment to recover, talk about how tough it is to stay away from the drugs and alcohol and the friends they can bring. Beth, once arrested for robbery, says that getting high is fun. Bob says drugs and alcohol take away choices.
For some of these teen-agers, the new guardians - the private hospitals, clinics, and residential treatment programs - helped give them tools to stop abusing chemicals. But the cure is so individual and mysterious, they say, that none of the experts or the parents - or anyone - has really fathomed it. ``This is the only disease I know where the patient designs the cure,'' says Libbi, a policeman's daughter who has recovered from alcoholism.
The turnaround is a change in attitude, adds Jenny, ``when you're tired of banging your head against the wall and kicking yourself. Only you can decide it.''
Previous stories ran May 13 and 14