New tactics for youth court

Published 11:41 pm Monday, November 10, 2003

By By JOHN DILMORE JR. Publisher
The Escambia County Youth Court has changed its philosophy on dealing with the troubled children brought before it by asking one simple question: "why?"
District Judge J. David Jordan, who presides over the youth court here, said that he realized the importance of asking that question after just a short time on the bench.
Most of the youth who wind up before the court don't get that way overnight, Jordan said.
In fact, their transformation from minor offender to felon often takes place within view of the judge's bench, as they appear in court over and over, charged with ever more serious offenses.
Normally, they begin their journey through the system with bouts of truancy, or they may be runaways.
But these relatively minor problems grow, and before long the kids are standing before the courts as full-fledged delinquents, charged with serious crimes.
And so the question is asked, "why?" More often than not, Jordan said, finding the answer to that question leads the court's representatives directly to the child's home.
In response to this realization, the court has implemented a pair of initiatives aimed at attacking the kids' problems at their source.
The first is a group counseling class for children who have come into the system and their families. There is a class that meets in Brewton on Thursday nights, and one that meets in Atmore on Friday nights.
Each class is made up of multiple sets of children and families.
Led by Dr. Nick Spring, a professional counselor from Mobile, the "group" component of the classes not only allows children and their families to interact in new ways, it also brings other children and families -- often with similar problems -- into the mix.
In addition to the classes, the court has placed stronger emphasis on one-on-one counseling with the children. Gloria Barton, a juvenile probation officer who is also a certified counselor, heads these one-on-one sessions.
The sessions often find that the anger and rebellion at the heart of a child's problems is the result of something that can be worked through, such as grief.
In a disturbingly high number of the cases, the children involved have terrible self-esteem, having had no feelings of self-worth imparted to them by their parents.
Recognizing the problems behind the problems in these ways is something the court is striving for now, Jordan said.
Jordan believes that most of the children who come through the system are either crying out for help or expressing extreme anger. The reasons for these situations, as stated earlier, can often be found at home.
Sometimes, counseling and other such measures can be effective on their own, and sometimes they have to be used in conjunction with other, more serious solutions.
The places the children in youth court call home are often the scenes of drug and alcohol abuse, spousal abuse, and child abuse -- including sexual abuse.
They are huge problems, requiring new and different approaches, something the youth court is committed to.
And the court is open to any help from the community in carrying out its mission.
Funding for any new efforts is another area the court has to come at from many different angles. The state -- which has cut funding to many public services, including the courts -- doesn't have any money to commit to the problem.
That makes the pursuit of grants a key area of focus, Jordan said.
The problem of kids in court -- and the Escambia County Youth Court's approach to tackling it -- is ever changing. But that simply calls on those fighting the battle to be open to new methods.

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