One judge's community approach. Cooperation, involvement key to aiding troubled children in 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.Skip to next paragraph
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``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.