Drug treatment court a second chance for youth

Kenneth Paul Boura
April 1, 2009
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Kenneth Paul Boura
April 1, 2009
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The Lafourche Parish Juvenile Drug Treatment Court conducted graduation exercises last month for its first two graduates.

It was a proud day not only for the high school senior and the 16-year-old who graduated, but also the men and women who run the treatment court. They see this as one more weapon in the fight to keep adolescents from becoming addicts.

“The kids in this program are more or less just experimenting and abusing drugs,” said Maggie Benoit, juvenile program counselor. “Our goal is to get them before it becomes a life-threatening use of drugs.”

Entering its second year of existence, the juvenile program is an offshoot of the adult drug treatment court program that has been in Lafourche Parish for 10 years.

The treatment court currently has 22 juveniles in the program ranging from ages 13 to 16. It can take youth as young as 11 and is designed to handle up to 30 clients at a time. Unlike the adult version, which focuses strictly on the individual’s drug problem, juvenile drug treatment court takes a holistic approach to treating substance abuse.

“With the juveniles, the whole family has to agree to drug court and to drug testing,” said Fred G. Duplechin, Lafourche Parish Drug Treatment Court administrator. “We’re not going to be effective with Billy if brother Johnny is strung out all the time or is into crime.”

The program is a post-adjudication court, meaning offenders can’t get in unless they accept responsibility for their offense. Only nonviolent, first-time drug offenders are given drug treatment court as an option.

Program participation is a year minimum, but there is no maximum time limit for a juvenile to complete the program. The pair that graduated last month were in the treatment court for 18 months.

“Their graduation isn’t based on when they enter the program,” said Laura Lamartina, juvenile program counselor. “Even though the program is a minimum of a year, some kids can be in for up to two-and-a-half, three years. They’re all on probation until they are 21. It’s a requirement of their probation that they complete the program.”

With 30 people running the juvenile program, counselors are trained to handle both the client’s treatment and case management.

Treatment focuses on the psychological aspects of the individual and the family. It consists of individual and group therapy – everything from parent counseling to group work with a single family or multiple families together

Treatment is broken down into four phases: beginning level, transition level, maintenance level and aftercare.

Case management concentrates on all the other aspects of life that makes things work or not work – school, employment, community activities, grades and family income.

“Our clients have to attend whatever is required of them at that time, according to where they are in treatment,” Benoit said. “They have so many group sessions per phase. They have to pass the drug tests, attend a required number of court sessions and keep up with school attendance. They are in the public schools throughout the parish, although one is in private school. Others are in the GED program if they are of a certain age. Everybody is required to come out with a diploma.”

The court partners with other community agencies, like the state Office of Mental Health, Louisiana Rehabilitative Services, and the Office of Juvenile Justice to get juveniles the skills needed to succeed once they complete the program.

“We utilize the resources like inpatient treatment facilities, halfway houses, job training and education,” Lamartina said. “Those types of resources that they have a choice of the best of what they have to work with. We try to empower them to make what we have work for them as best they can.”

According to Duplechin, it was former District Judge John J. Erny who brought the adult drug treatment court to Lafourche Parish.

Erny called together a group of community people, mainly the sheriff and the district attorney. They applied for a federal grant in 1998 and in 1999 got the grant and started taking clients.

The adult drug court started making a positive impact on the community, according to Duplechin. He said the recidivism rate of his graduates was very low compared to the national average based on two-years post graduation

“In the beginning, our recidivism rate was practically zero,” Duplechin said. “Over time, some people did get back into crime, but still it’s well below the national average. Our statistics proved we were reducing crime and providing treatment.”

In 2007, drug court officials decided they wanted to intervene earlier and started the juvenile program. Instead of having a very strict drug treatment model, they chose a more family-oriented model. Duplechin said the stressors that usually cause substance abuse are often family and community related.

On Monday afternoons, the drug court team meets a half hour before the court session begins.

In the chambers of District Court Division D Judge Bruce Simpson, who presides over the adult and juvenile drug treatment courts, reports are gathered about each juvenile who will appear in court that day. They come from the probation officers, school administrators and the drug treatment staff.

Benoit, who used to work for the Terrebonne Parish Adult Drug Court, said the difference between handling juveniles and adults is the level of addiction.

“The adults are more into their addiction,” she said. “The juveniles are not so much dependent on drugs, but you may have some that are on alcohol.”

One of the foundations of drug court is behavior modification – trying to increase the desirable behaviors with rewards and decrease the negative ones with consequences.

“When you do something wrong, immediately you get an imposed consequence for that,” Duplechin said. “You can throw all the temper tantrums you want, you’ll still have to do it. We also reward them by taking them on field trips, praising them, encouraging them, allowing them certain privileges and providing some material bonus.”

Juveniles are randomly drug tested at least two to three times a week. The range of sanctions for failing a screening depends on the number of positive tests accumulated.

“Sanctions can range from community service work, which increases the first few positives,” Lamartina said. “Then once Judge Simpson imposes jail (juvenile justice center) as a sanction, the length of time increases with each failed test.”

The first few weeks with a new juvenile in the program are always the most difficult, according to Lamartina and Benoit.

The offender is resistant, still in denial about having a substance abuse problem. His guard is up and he doesn’t talk much in therapy sessions.

There is no secret to breaking down the walls. Only persistence and consistency work over time.

“They’re ashamed. Their relationship with their family is conflicted. There is not much trust there. They’re not excited about being in school or pretty much anywhere,” Lamartina said. “By the time they’re ready to advance to Phase 2, they’re more open and honest with their parents. Conflict is somewhat diminished.

“They are being more honest with us about their past drug use, their friends, their struggles, their goals, their concerns,” he explained. “They’re setting goals for themselves.”

The mother of a juvenile still in the program said the treatment court had turned her child’s life around. (Confidentiality laws do not allow revealing the mother’s name or any information about the juvenile.)

“My child’s personality has changed a lot,” the mother said. “She was very down. Now she’s happier. She’s even doing well in school. I think if I had went another way, it wouldn’t have helped her because they have the one-on-one counseling.”

When the sheriff’s office arrested her child a year and half ago for possession of marijuana, the mother admitted she didn’t know her child was using drugs. This was her second child to have a substance abuse problem.

Since entering drug treatment court, her child has only tested positive once (for nicotine), therapy sessions have been reduced from twice weekly to every other week and she is about to enter Phase IV. She could graduate as early as four months.

“It does get frustrating. You might be like ‘Let’s hurry up and get this over with,’ but if you take your time, stick it out and really want it, it’s going to help,” the mother said. “If they had had this option when my older child was going through her drug problem, I would have put her in the program. I would certainly recommend it to anybody.”

Success stories like that make all the time and effort worthwhile. Drug treatment court officials understand they not only have to change the parish youths’ behavior but the atmosphere that produced them.

“That’s what makes it very challenging,” Lamartina said. “That’s why we work with them as long as we do to try and handle the family and change the environment.”

Instead of a revolving door between the juvenile justice center and the Lafourche Parish Detention Center, the drug treatment court hopes to turn out nothing but productive citizens.

“We’re going to continuously be adding and graduating students,” Duplechin said. “We have two graduates now and some that came in right after them will be ready to graduate very soon.”

Input from the drug court team helps Judge Bruce Simpson (seated, far left) decide whether a juvenile in Lafourche Parish’s drug treatment program gets praised or punished. * Photo by KEYON JEFF