Knowing someone cares can make difference for teens
By Shavonne Potts
SALISBURY — In 2008, law enforcement agencies in the United States arrested more than 2 million people under the age of 18, according to the FBI.
The best way to address youth crime, experts say, is to get to the heart of the problem — be it substance abuse, family issues or mental health problems.
“An indicator that a child is headed for trouble, or triumph, is what occupies his or her mind,” said Phil Wertz, a guidance counselor at Knox Middle School.
Are teens filling their minds with good things, he asks, or frivolity?
He said teens have lots of distractions and many just want time — time spent with whoever is in their lives that can help them triumph in life.
What guarantees a teen’s success are the positive connections made with parents, teachers, mentors and other teens.
“When we are involved in a young person’s life, we have an effect,” he said.
Wertz said if children know someone cares, they will listen — maybe not at first, but adults should care enough to speak up.
He’s tried to dissuade students from a life of gangs and criminal activity, but in some cases, ultimately the students chose a life of illegal activity.
He remembers one in particular.
“I had put a lot of personal time into the student, trying to guide him straight. Two years after going on to high school, he ended up deeply involved in gang activity,” Wertz said.
His warnings may not have kept the student from becoming a gang member, but Wertz believes a connection was made.
“We are losing way too many our students,” he said.
“We will never save them all, but we need to find ways to make as many positive connections as possible.”
A key to making those connections, officials say, is to reach children early.
An indicator or “alarm” that makes Salisbury Police Chief Rory Collins realize a child is headed for trouble is being behind in math or reading by the third grade.
Statistics show that a large number of those who are behind in those two subjects, won’t graduate, he said.
“We can typically predict youth who will have a difficult time, many of which have to deal with family structure or lack thereof,” Collins said.
Often, children who are arrested have had parents and grandparents involved in criminal activity.
“We find ourselves dealing with generational problems,” he said.
A lot of the problem, as Collins sees it, comes from a lack of something positive in a teen’s life and a lack of spiritual grounding.
This isn’t true in every situation, he said, but he has seen it proven true many times through the years. Collins believes providing teens with mentors is a great a way to create a positive influence in many teens’ lives.
Even in his own life, Collins has had mentors who’ve had a positive affect on him.
One of Collins’ goals is to gain a commitment from certain officers who he’d like to see mentor youth.
“It’s something I hope to implement this coming school year,” he said.
Nearly six years ago, following several community meetings, the city developed programs that targeted youth, one of which was allowing city employees time from work to connect with youth, many at-risk, and become mentors.
There are three phases to police work, Collins said, and mentorship is high on the list of ways to reach out to the community, especially the youth.
• Suppression involves getting officers on the street who are vigilant in their efforts to fight crime.
• Prevention includes mentorship and programs such as D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), G.R.E.A.T. (Gang Resistance Education And Training) and P.A.L. (Police Athletic Leagues). The programs encourage positive relationships among law enforcement, the community, parents and the schools.
Collins said he sees one-on-one mentoring as one of the best ways to provide a positive influence in a teen’s life. It’s the one that can help more than anything else, he said.
Mentoring programs give teens the opportunity to refocus on something positive, he said.
He believes sports, church youth groups and other after-school/extracurricular activities are vital to steering teens in the right direction.
Collins said he intends for officers to become more active because it allows children to see officers in a different light.
“So kids aren’t seeing us as the person coming to arrest their parents,” he said.
• Intervention is the last phase of police work where in law enforcement reach out to teens who have already begun to have problems.
“That’s the toughest one and this one is the most challenging,” Collins said.
Youth Services Bureau
Intervention sometimes starts after teens have already been arrested and gone through the court system. Often as part of their sentence, they have to enroll in a program that will help them address the underlying issues that brought them to court. Rowan County Youth Services Bureau, a United Way agency, is one of those programs.
“What we provide are a variety of prevention and intervention programs for court-involved youth,” said Karen Carpenter, director of the agency.
Many participants in Youth Services Bureau landed in juvenile court after they committed a nonviolent offense for the first time. Other participants have not been involved in the juvenile court system, but a teacher or parent has referred them to the program.
And still other teens, as a condition of their court sentence, must complete community service or pay restitution to the victims of a crime — and they can do so through the program.
There are identifiers within the Youth Services Bureau program that help work toward a particular outcome for each teen. For instance, children are assessed before enrolling in the program to ascertain if their needs fall into a problem with school attendance, drugs or a need to maintain good grades in school.
“If a child has behavior issues, we may target the prevention at anger management,” Carpenter said.
In Rowan County, programs are becoming much more focused on individual needs, she said. The cornerstone of area programs is “more treatment, better treatment and beyond treatment,” Carpenter said.
The emphasis is to look at what is available in the community and provide teens with those positive programs.
There are successful programs in this state that reduce recidivism for juvenile offenders, but the challenge is finding them, she said.
Those programs are labor intensive and time-consuming to track, Carpenter said.
Youth Services Bureau officials track formally up to a year after program completion, but informally, participants are tracked beyond a year.
In Carpenter’s experience, the successful programs are those that apply the best practice models, which are those that have been proven successful elsewhere.
Carpenter acknowledges Youth Services Bureau, like any other program, isn’t always as effective as it could be, but staff and volunteers are definitely “planting a seed,” she said.
“If we find ways to redirect them, there’s no end to what they can do in the community,” Carpenter said.
The teen court program is very successful, she said, but that includes first-time offenders, many of whom are in court for misdemeanor offenses. Teen court does not take into account repeat juvenile offenders.
There is a new way — the Reclaiming Futures Model — which aims to reduce the number of teens who return to court.
District Court Judge Beth Dixon is the presiding judge in Rowan County’s Juvenile Drug Treatment Court and the judicial fellow for Reclaiming Futures Rowan County.
Reclaiming Futures is a substance abuse recovery management model. It’s a pattern for the way “we do business in juvenile court,” Dixon said.
There are three keys to success — having an authoritative parent or adult figure, making friends and being a friend, and connecting to outside activities, Dixon said.
These hallmarks are what Dixon looks for when a troubled teen enters her court.
The way the model works is to make changes to the way the court system identifies and assesses teens and then connects them to community resources. It also connects parents with resources like parenting classes. Parents are powerful role models, and not always in a positive way.
“The biggest obstacle is they look to their parents. It’s hard for us in the court system to battle that influence,” Dixon said.
The goal for the juvenile court system is to break the cycle and treat the problem at an early age. The court system must first determine if there is a problem.
Every youth that enters the court system is screened for substances and mental health issues.
“This has been a huge benefit at reducing recidivism,” Dixon said.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.