Mediate this

May 04, 2004

IT'S UNFORTUNATE that people at the state Department of Juvenile Services and with the early intervention program Community Conferencing Center cannot resolve their own differences. They should try again.

DJS praises the Baltimore-based center's work, which takes youthful troublemakers headed for court (and worse) and places them in a circle of victims, family and community where a mediator helps resolve their problems. The department sends about 50 children each year to the conferencing center; city police send another 40, kids diverted even before they get to DJS. School administrators, neighborhood residents and others also refer children to the program, which seeks not only to solve today's problems but to lessen the chances that kids will fall into the "deep end" - DJS detention, monitoring or confinement.

The center posts a 99 percent success rate in getting all parties to agree on a resolution, and 95 percent of them fulfill the terms of the agreement. Of 70 youths who went through the process in the first year, 10 percent to 15 percent committed crimes later, compared with the estimated 70 percent to 80 percent recidivism rate for all DJS kids. DJS has never paid for the service, which subsists on short-term grants.

Center founder Lauren Abramson had given up asking for funding during the previous administration, but then-new DJS Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. called her. He said he was committed to the program; he reassured her that the money was there.

Yet when it came right down to it - actually two months after the money was to arrive - the center got nothing. Not a phone call explaining why, just a letter saying money wasn't there and her program wasn't so special anyway - the department already has one diversion program, DJS says.

But that diversion program handles only a few hundred of the thousand or so kids who might be diverted, and treats them using individual and group counseling. What about all the other kids, some of whom who could well do better with the externally oriented mediation process?

This disconnect bodes ill for DJS's plans for reform. The small-scale, community-based, progressive programs that advocates and this administration favor are likely to be more difficult to fit into the square pegs of state procedures and rules. They may need a bit more hand-holding than the national brands.

If officials really want such programs, they should lend that hand, and be more forthcoming about the process. And when the department meets again with the center in a few weeks, it should consider using the center's own method to resolve this difficulty: Sit agency and budget chiefs, center representatives, state lawyers and others in a circle with a mediator for 90 minutes.

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