Program to help troubled kids

It takes a village to raise a child, the African proverb goes. And when a child is in danger of becoming a serious, violent, chronic offender, it takes a village to get him back on track.

That's the philosophy of a group of 70 professionals from local courts, schools, social agencies and law enforcement that has spent the past 18 months studying ways to address juvenile delinquency in Bay County.

Bay County is one of five counties in the state selected for federal funds for devising such a plan, and leaders are hopeful they'll be included in the next grant cycle, with money to put the plan to action.

Bay County was selected to receive the $47,000 grant from the Department of Justice and the Family Independence Agency because of a local history of collaboration between groups, said Bay County Probate Judge Karen Tighe. Tighe said she was pleasantly surprised to learn from the study that Bay County has most needs covered, with just a few gaps.

"Getting children a prevention message in fifth, sixth and seventh grade, and then providing after-care after a juvenile's been through a residential program, are two areas where we fall short," said Tighe, one of the work group's leaders.

But as the judge who sees kids in trouble day after day, Tighe wasn't surprised by most of the other report's findings.

In 1999, Bay County's rate of people 10-14 arrested for drug and alcohol offenses was nearly three times the statewide rate of 1 per 1,000. And the arrest rates for youths in that age group arrested for violent crimes in 1999 was twice the statewide rate, which also was 1 in 1,000. "Although the actual number of these offenses is less than 25, the county rate compared to the state is growing," the report's author, a Washington-based consultant, notes.

The main risk factors that the group identified for Bay County's youth are availability of drugs and alcohol, early involvement in risky behavior, community norms favorable to drugs and crime, family attitudes and poverty.

"My own observation is that parental issues involving drugs, alcohol, firearms, domestic violence - children are exposed to these things and mimic inappropriate adult behavior," Tighe said. "We have parents partying inappropriately with children, tolerating drugs and alcohol in the home, and addiction in children can be very powerful."

When families fail to raise children to behave, it falls upon the schools, society at large, and, unfortunately, the court in some cases. nce a child has been found delinquent in the Family Court, the court may order treatment for the child and the parents as well.

The report found that Bay County youths have access to a variety of "diversionary" prevention programs, such as sports and recreation, but programs dealing specifically with substance abuse prevention were few and far between.  Programs are often out the grasp - financially or geographically - of families that could benefit from help the most: the homeless, the poor, or those who dropped out of school, the report states.

Jill Worden, who coordinates prevention and treatment programs for six counties under the Bay-Arenac Behavioral Health agency, was one of the community leaders who helped forge the strategy. She said all the substance-abuse education in the world won't prevent problems if youngsters are surrounded by family, friends and a society that endorses irresponsible behavior. "You can give somebody 20 years worth of driving lessons, but if you turn them loose on a street with no stop signs, there's going to be accidents," Worden said.

The collaboration among schools, social workers, criminal justice and family groups is the most effective way to nip juvenile delinquency in the bud, Worden said. "The cooperation is really wonderful to see," Worden said. "You can't solve the problem in separate little boxes."

The Bay County Youth Strategy is based on five key components: Strengthening the family, supporting core social institutions, promoting delinquency prevention, intervening effectively and controlling the small group of serious, violent offenders.

Toward that end, the Bay County group, with help of a facilitator, came up with eight strategies for Bay County, including adding programs aimed at preventing youngsters from engaging in substance abuse, helping youths returning from detention programs avoid their old destructive behaviors, sharing data more effectively between agencies and keeping an updated list of available programs around the county.

Tighe said finding a coordinator to put the plan in place will be first on the agenda if Bay County is awarded a grant.

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By Crystal Harmon




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