Drug courts criticize Md. plans

Funds expected to be used for juvenile social workers

But officials say posts not needed

November 03, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has trumpeted the $750,000 he allocated for juvenile drug courts this year as proof of his dedication to juvenile justice, and of his commitment to treatment over incarceration for youthful drug offenders.

But some local juvenile drug court organizers are worried that the Department of Juvenile Services, which will hand out the money, is planning to use that money in a way that is not particularly useful to the fledgling county programs.

Specifically, some local drug court officials have said they do not need the juvenile social worker positions the department is planning to fund with the money.

"In all of our planning, we never identified juvenile social workers as a resource we needed funded," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge Kathleen G. Cox, who presides over the county's juvenile drug court. "We were looking for money for increased counseling, we were looking for money for incentives, we were looking for money for addiction services."

Four Maryland jurisdictions -- Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties -- have juvenile drug courts. Two others -- Montgomery and Prince George's -- are in the process of starting them. The oldest is the city's, which started in 1998. Baltimore County's program began six months ago and is the newest.

Because the programs vary from county to county, each has a slightly different wish list of how they would like to see state money spent. Some involved with drug courts say that if the money doesn't go toward each county's specific needs, the programs won't be able to increase the number of youths they treat.

Although the county drug courts use a variety of people in their programs -- from addiction counselors to juvenile probation officers to school representatives -- none uses a juvenile social worker.

"The coordination is not there with the locals," said Del. Robert A. Zirkin, a Democrat from Baltimore County who is the chairman of the House Judiciary's juvenile law subcommittee and has been a critic of the Department of Juvenile Services. "We want juvenile drug courts that are properly funded, properly coordinated."

Baltimore County is scheduled to receive funding earmarked for a social worker, said LaWanda Edwards, a Juvenile Services spokeswoman.

Program underfunded

Most local drug court officials did not want to openly criticize the Department of Juvenile Services for fear of putting their funding at risk. But some questioned the wisdom of creating what they saw as unnecessary positions while the basics of the program, such as juvenile probation officers and drug testing, remain underfunded.

The department says social workers fit in perfectly with the drug court's mission of becoming involved in all areas of a child's life.

"These are social workers who will work with the families, too," said Lee Towers, a Department of Juvenile Services spokesman. "Sometimes kids learn the problem behaviors in the home."

Towers said the department plans to fund addiction counselors and juvenile counselors -- also known as juvenile parole and probation officers -- as well as the social workers. He said he could not give specific numbers until the department presents its funding proposal to a legislative subcommittee this week, but said the department is working with the county programs.

"If we overall didn't feel there was a need for the social workers, they wouldn't be there," Edwards said. "That need has been identified, that's why they're there."

Programs differ

Juvenile drug courts are county-based programs, typically for nonviolent youthful offenders with drug problems. While they differ from county to county, the programs are almost always intensive and individualized.

In Baltimore County, youths meet with a judge every other week, have twice-weekly drug testing and go to counseling regularly, among other requirements. In Anne Arundel County, therapists who work for the court regularly visit the youths and their families at home.

Because of the different ways the drug courts try to help the youths, coordination between local and state agencies is crucial. And for the most part, drug court officials around the state say that synchronization has been stellar.

Gray Barton, executive director of Maryland's Drug Treatment Court Commission, said that the Department of Juvenile Services has done "a very good job of collaborating" and that "they ask for regional direction."

Cox, the Baltimore County judge, said that her contact at the department, Deputy Secretary Denise Sulzbach, has been helpful and responsive.

But Cox and some other drug court officials still said they do not need the positions the Department of Juvenile Services seems intent on funding.

"I would hope that whatever money we get from [Juvenile Services] and the state goes to treatment services that are needed, and not infrastructure, not duplicative services," Cox said.

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