Self-portraits offer insight into struggles

Exhibit: A Juvenile Drug Court art project offers a glimpse of teens working to get their lives back on track.

Anne Arundel

May 14, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The photo shows a teen-ager with his arms triumphantly stretched skyward.

For Levi Peresta - who had been in trouble with drugs only months before shooting this self-portrait in February - the stance is revealing. He's stayed clear of drugs all year, is on track to graduate with his class next year from Southern High School in Harwood and plans to reach for college and a future in art.

"I'm standing on top of the hill, and that kind of symbolizes being on top of whatever I do," the Churchton 16-year-old said Wednesday as he helped mount a black-and-white photo exhibit at the Anne Arundel County Court House. The exhibit was part of the county's 2-year-old Juvenile Drug Court, one of six throughout the state. Peresta's photo and brief essay are among 20 contributions to Insights: The Identity Project, which opens today, offering a glimpse into the thoughts of teen-agers trying to leave behind their downward spirals.

The teens come from varied backgrounds. All have chosen to try a rigorous program that holds the prospect of changing them and, if they complete drug court, erasing the infractions from their records.

One display shows a girl glaring into the lens of a camera, a strand of hair over an eye. In her essay, she says she's appreciative of everything she's gotten from her parents - including the 1995 Mercedes. But there's a caveat: "The only thing my parents could have done differently was discipline me a little more and not believe in all my ridiculous lies."

Another shows a boy's face by a no-trespassing sign at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, the project's home. "Who am I? I'm someone who needs you to love and care for me when I need it the most, I'm someone who's developing new skills and learning something every day," he wrote. The exhibit comes amid a push this year by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for more drug treatment for nonviolent offenders. In recent years, Maryland Chief Judge Robert M. Bell has said he favored the use of drug courts , which started for adults in 1989 in Florida, followed a few years later by those for younger users.

The Juvenile Drug Court program - vastly different from the rest of the intensive drug court program - is a mix of family therapy, education and counseling with families who answer to a judge.

Six more juvenile drug courts are expected to start in the state within a year, said Gray Barton, executive director of the Drug Treatment Court Commission of Maryland.

Nationally, studies have indicated recidivism among adult drug court graduates is lower than among offenders who do not receive treatment, Barton said.

Earlier this year, studies of Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County's adult drug courts showed that they could successfully treat drug users, reduce criminal recidivism and save money. An evaluation of juvenile drug courts will be done this year by the Department of Juvenile Services.

Anne Arundel has had 48 teens in its drug court. Of those, nine have graduated, and seven were sentenced. Twenty-five currently participate.

To a large measure, participants are self-selected: Only motivated youths with parents or guardians signed on to participate are eligible.

The Insight project was put together by free-lance photographer Kirsten Elstner, who directs Vision Workshops in Annapolis, a nonprofit program that teaches literacy and self-expression to low-income and at-risk youths through photography and writing workshops.

John D. Fullmer, Juvenile Drug Court coordinator, approached Elstner last year about the possibility of adapting the creative approach to his teen-agers.

"Identity crisis - our kids, I believe, are struggling with this more than other adolescents. If we can give them a sense of self, they can make better choices," Fullmer said.

The youths were asked to use a camera and pen to portray themselves, not as children who got into trouble, but focusing on their strengths and their values.

The drug court program sends counselors and probation officers to teen-agers' homes. It includes individual and group therapy sessions, drug tests, twice-monthly court appearances, community service and other elements, all designed to put someone from the program in frequent contact with some aspect of the teen-agers' lives.

Parents are also shown how to manage their children differently, and teen-agers are taught how to direct their children's energies in productive ways, Fullmer said.

"They have a lot of people coming down on them. I'm pretty non-threatening," Elstner said.

Peresta is not wild about his trips to court, but he likes hearing Judge Pamela L. North recognize his efforts.

Peresta described the drug court as "a whole lot of work," he said, adding "I can't complain because I put myself in this situation."

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