Turning feuds into hugs

Mediation: The brawling kids might've been a matter for police, but one local program found a happy solution. Unhappily, it needs state money.

April 27, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

The seven kids were only in the fourth and fifth grades at Windsor Hills Elementary, but their neighborhood fights and nasty phone calls were verging on open warfare.

Rather than turn over the matter to the police, Assistant Principal Iris Murdock called the Community Conferencing Center, and three days later the students sat down with friends, family and others to hash out their problems. In 90 minutes, they progressed from shouts and finger-pointing to hugs and agreements, settling their feud without going to court.

Without the session, parent Lisa Robinson said, "I don't think we would have been able to come together the way we did, or been able to agree on how to resolve the situation."

But the ending might not be so happy for the Community Conferencing Center, which has set up and run about 500 such sessions during the past several years. Broken promises of state aid have left the organization on the verge of shutting its doors.

In January, the Department of Juvenile Services drew up a contract for a $750,000 grant, but the center has yet to receive a dime. Executive Director Lauren Abramson is considering whether to shut down local operations and accept work offered from out of state.

"Our chain has been yanked by that department now for four years," Abramson said. "The secretary [Kenneth C. Montague Jr.] made more progress than the last person [Bishop L. Robinson] did. But to issue a contract and then not have the money to follow through with it seems irresponsible."

On the face of it, the stalled contract is merely another example of Maryland's prevailing fiscal austerity. But to some juvenile justice advocates, it is also symptomatic of a lack of financial commitment to juvenile justice by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who often campaigned on the issue during his 2002 election campaign.

`Climate of uncertainty'

"Good programs like this can't survive in a climate of uncertainty," Sharon Rubinstein, spokeswoman for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, said. "It's high time for the department to put its money where its mouth is. Touting programs isn't the same as funding them."

Abramson hadn't expected much help from Juvenile Services, if only because the Glendening administration had never come through with any. But Ehrlich, boss of the new department secretary, Montague, had taken office promising to revamp the juvenile justice system, and in October, Abramson got word that Juvenile Services was going to approve a $750,000 grant for the 18 months beginning in January.

The state contract, but no money, arrived in January. Abramson signed it and returned it. She lined up four new employees, drew up plans for conferencing programs in Anne Arundel and Prince George's Counties, then waited. And waited.

"And on March 12, I was hearing word that all of a sudden the funding for it was not there," she said.

Juvenile Services officials say the conferencing center might yet get some state money this year -- perhaps $200,000 in July -- and that commitment isn't lacking, only the money.

Montague "really likes what they do," department spokeswoman LaWanda Edwards said of the center. "It is simply due to the budget."

The center's efforts are geared toward results that in the long run would save money, by keeping youths out of court and out of the state's troubled juvenile detention centers.

"We've seen 10-year-olds with eight prior convictions," Abramson said, "so what we're saying is, let us try something different. We're trying to prevent them from going deeper into the juvenile justice system."

The center's approach is pretty basic. It takes referrals from schools, police and Juvenile Services after incidents ranging from fights to vandalism to stolen cars. Then it gathers the youths in question, along with family members, and any victims and their supporters.

Usually there are about 10 people in all, and they all sit in a circle. They discuss what has taken place, sometimes heatedly, and victims describe how they've been affected.

"The young offenders get a chance to learn from this, and it's very emotional," Abramson said. "A lot of times people cry. And that's part of what needs to happen, too. Too often we ask people to bottle up everything."

The last step is for everyone to agree on a resolution -- restitution for victims, or steps toward a truce. It has worked well. Of the center's 500 cases, 99 percent have resulted in agreements, and in 95 percent the parties have fulfilled the terms, Abramson said.

Low recidivism

She tracked one early batch of 70 youths from a few years back and found that 10 percent to 15 percent had committed crimes later, a much better recidivism rate than that of the juvenile justice system.

In the case of the feuding children at Windsor Hills Elementary, Assistant Principal Murdock called the center after hearing that one of the children was talking of bringing in a knife. That session included 16 people, Murdock among them, and was led by Nel Andrews of the conferencing center.

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