It’s been almost two years since the Juvenile Drug Court program was started in Pettis County, and it continues to be successful in helping young people turn their lives around.
Twenty-three people have participated in the program since it began in January 2014. Eleven have graduated, three came into foster care, four aged out — once they turn 17 they have to leave the program — one moved, and one had to be dismissed because of too many mental health issues. Right now six are participating in the drug court, with one of them graduating in about a week.
From struggles to success
“The kids initially struggle with the program because it’s so much — they meet with the group once a week and with their juvenile officer once a week, but typically if they’re 16 and in drug court, they all manage to get jobs, juggle drug court, school, all that stuff,” said Chief Juvenile Officer Erica Cox. “It starts out a little rocky but once they figure it out and get the self-esteem that they need, they really figure out that I can work, I can go to school, I can get good grades and I can still do drug court.”
Unfortunately, three out of the 23 have been sent to the Division of Youth Services.
“Those are the ones who couldn’t succeed in drug court,” Cox said. “They just wouldn’t do it, so we had to do the next step, which is the division of youth services, Cox said. “They just wouldn’t do it, so we had to do the next step, which is the division of youth services.”
A few changes have been made since starting the program, such as improving communication and offering additional counseling services if the participant needs it. Sanctions have also been implemented for when someone skips class or group meeting, or doesn’t pass a drug screen. Depending on what happened, the student may be required to wear an ankle monitor or do community service.
“We really try to make it equal for everybody, so if someone has a bad screen, they know they’ll have to do something extra,” Cox said. “… Between our office and the judge we try to really make sure it’s not ignored that they did something. We want the whole team to know if you don’t do this, this is what’s going to happen.”
On the flip side, the kids are rewarded from time to time for doing well as a group, such as getting gift cards or going on group outings to the movies or Royals games.
“It’s a good program,” said Deputy Juvenile Officer Tim Carr. “It’s beneficial for me because I worked on the other side with adults doing narcotics investigations, so ironically, in the five years I’ve been here, I’ve seen some kids I remember as babies. It’s kind of nice to do something different about it.”
Strength in numbers
The group aspect of juvenile drug court has proven to be helpful in “empowering” the participants to feel they can succeed. Kayla, a program graduate, said that part of the program was the most helpful in changing her bad habits.
She said being in constant contact with her juvenile officer and other group members was helpful. Kayla also still keeps in touch with a girl she met while in drug court.
“I have one friend that I went through court with. She wasn’t my friend before and then we met and we’ve been keeping each other up and doing good,” she said. “She recently graduated too, so I’m proud of her too.”
The program incorporates help from juvenile office staff, Judge Jeff Mittelhauser, Pathways Community Health counselors and Sedalia School District 200 officials. All entities work together to provide the best possible support for the kids.
“It’s successful individually for the kids because they have the resources other kids don’t have, the sheer number,” Carr said. “We could have a kid on observation, they have a juvenile officer. With this they have the juvenile officer, school officials, Pathways counselors. It builds a much stronger foundation for these kids.”
Cox said she’s spoken with some of the graduates, and she said they continue to do well once leaving the program. Some buy their own car, continue with their jobs, and join extracurricular activities at school. A few even come back and talk to current members about how drug court has helped them, and support fellow members by attending graduation.
Carr said he even received his first invitations to high school graduation this year from program graduates.
For Elizabeth, the juvenile drug court program has been life changing. Before joining the program, she was dealing with family members addicted to pain killers, which started her down a path of smoking marijuana, drinking, fighting in school and skipping classes. After a fight at school, she was referred to the juvenile office.
Elizabeth said she wanted help, so she was open to the drug court process. After a tough start, she graduated from the program almost a year ago.
“At first I had the mindset of whatever, I didn’t want to be there. I wanted help but it was something I didn’t want to look forward to,” Elizabeth said. “After I got to know people and know their stories and realized people were there for me, I got serious about wanting the help and I started to open up.”
Elizabeth is now in college after graduating from high school early and has a part-time job. She has big plans for herself that she hopes to see through.
“Once I graduate college I plan to move to UCM and continue studying criminal justice,” she said. “I want to be a homicide detective or a social worker because I feel like I want to help people the way Tim Carr helped me. And I want to try to maybe prevent things and children from going through the same things that I did. I want kids to know they are not alone and that things do get better.”
Kayla was in a similar situation before entering drug court. She said her problems were largely because of the new group of people she was hanging out with, and she was getting in fights, skipping class and stealing alcohol.
For Kayla, the program was difficult at first, but being able to stay with her mom motivated her to succeed.
“I dropped all my friends I was getting in trouble with so I could be with my mom. It made it easier,” she said. “And seeing other kids go through (helped). For some it was hard because they didn’t want to lose their friends or stop doing what they were doing, but I just completely stopped.”
Since completing juvenile drug court in February, she has obtained a part-time job, purchased her first car with her own money, and will be graduating from high school early. After she graduates from high school, Kayla hopes to become an art teacher.
Learning from mistakes
When asked to sum up what they had learned from juvenile drug court, Elizabeth and Kayla had similar answers.
“The things I was doing before weren’t the right things; (drug court) taught me there are consequences for every thing you do, all the actions you make. You should think twice before doing something; before, I would just do something, I didn’t care,” Kayla said. “The program has pushed me farther in life, I’m actually graduating.”
“I learned how to forgive and how to find yourself,” Elizabeth said. “I learned how to pretty much not let things get to me anymore, move past things, and I learned how to open up as a person and not be scared of what life throws at you. I learned that people care because when I first started I felt like nobody cared, and there are some people out in the world that want to see you happy and see you better.”
HOW TO HELP
The Juvenile Office will host its second Halloween-themed 5K at 8 a.m. Oct. 24 on the Missouri State Fairgrounds. Prizes will be available for the best costumes and best times for male and female in several age categories. Cost is $25 per person, which includes a T-shirt, and proceeds go toward drug tests, graduation and group outings for drug court participants. For more information or to register, call Erica Cox at 660-827-1062 ext. 522.
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1482 or @NicoleRCooke.