Troubled youths get home counseling BALTIMORE CITY

July 14, 1993|By New York Times News Service

At 9 o'clock on a Saturday night, in the Brooklyn neighborhood, 16-year-old Ben Santos sat on his Baltimore living room floor, fielding questions about the trouble he had gotten into the day before.

Sitting above him were his mother, Eden Santos, and Cynthia Florio, a 23-year-old who is part of a team of caseworkers assigned to help Ben and other delinquent 9- to 17-year-olds keep from getting into trouble -- again.

Several years ago, a youth like Ben, who was recently charged with minor assault and petty theft, might have been put in an institution such as the Montrose training school, which Maryland closed in 1987. But, because of a growing belief among juvenile justice experts that detention homes encourage criminal behavior, Maryland and other states are turning to a broad array of programs, including "boot camps," group and foster homes, and community-based programs.

Instead of being sent to a detention institution, Ben was enrolled in the experimental Choice Program, which is run by the University of Maryland Baltimore County under contract to the state.

Experts point to Choice as one of the most successful of the growing number of untraditional programs that keep youths at home, providing them with constant supervision, tutoring and, in some cases, job training and psychiatric counseling.

Founded in 1988 by Mark K. Shriver, the son of Eunice Kennedy and Sargent Shriver, Choice seeks to saturate the youths with attention and provide their lives with the structure they often lack at home.

Working in teams of three and on rotating schedules, Choice caseworkers act as round-the-clock probation officers as well as counselors and mentors, visiting their charges face to face three to five times a day, seven days a week for the full three to six months the youngsters remain in the program.

Based in some of Maryland's most depressed neighborhoods, the program's four offices approach delinquents less as young criminals in need of punishment than as victims of violent, crime-ridden environments where the easiest job to come by for a teen-ager is selling drugs.

Though some families of youths in the program, like Ben's, are headed by two working parents, most are headed by single mothers. About 75 percent of the youths come from families that are on welfare, and some of the youths' parents have drug or alcohol addictions, said Craig Dempsey, director of Choice.

The caseworkers, each of whom works 60 to 70 hours a week with eight to 10 youths, are all recent college graduates who are hired for one year. In addition to writing progress reports on the youths, the caseworkers act as guardians, making medical appointments for them and providing transportation.

Much of the caseworkers' days are spent visiting the youths in school and at home, and finding them if they are not where they are supposed to be, even if it means venturing into dark alleys or dangerous hangouts like Veronica Street, a barely lighted street where drugs are sold openly on the front steps of housing projects.

"Choice helps these kids make it in the community by working with their families," said Barry Krisberg, director of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit research organization based in San Francisco. "It gets them back into school, back into the community and functioning."

Mary Ann Saar, director of Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services, said that violent offenders who pose a serious threat to the public are still put in Maryland's 290-bed Hickey School for boys or the 30-bed Cheltenham youth center for girls.

"But, the vast array can be dealt with in either group homes, residential settings or in community-based programming that have intensive services like Choice," she said.

Some youths are enrolled in Choice after serving short terms in detention homes, like Usamah Ibn-Said, a 14-year-old who was sentenced to two months in Boys Village for shooting a man in the leg.

As he sat doing his social studies homework during a tutoring session in the University of Maryland's library, Usamah said Choice had taught him to "control myself better. It keeps me busy and helps me with my learning skills."

Similar programs exist in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah. The first such program was set up by Massachusetts in the early 1970s as part of an overhaul of the state's juvenile justice system, experts said. Choice itself is modeled after Massachusetts' Key Program.

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