Program helps kids make right choice


The future seemed about the last thing on 13-year-old Adam's mind as he sat slouched on the couch beside his parents in their Northeast Baltimore rowhouse, twirling his hat on his index finger.

He left little doubt that he'd rather be out on the street with friends than listening to his parents and a juvenile caseworker discuss how his day had gone. The short answer: Not well. He had been sent home from school for talking back to a teacher and skipping class to roam the halls.

With a string of arrests for stealing, Adam is the type of child who a year ago would have been heading off to spend a couple of months in a now-defunct program for juvenile offenders at the notorious Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County.

But rather than locking him up, state juvenile authorities sent him home, to be monitored by the staff of a nonprofit program with a name brimming with optimism: Choice Refocus & Opportunity.

Adam's caseworker, Brian Cheeks, checks on him throughout the day and well into the evening in an effort to keep him on track.

Hundreds of troubled youths in similar circumstances have been sent home after their arrests since Hickey's minimum-security Impact program closed last summer. So far, only a few are getting the kind of intensive supervision Adam receives. However, state officials say they would like to keep even more juvenile offenders in their homes and intend over time to build a network of programs like Choice to work with them.

"I think keeping kids in the community is the best way to go," said Carl V. Sanniti, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.

Advocates for youths generally applaud the efforts. They say research shows that working closely with troubled youths in the community yields better results than locking them up in prison-like reformatories such as Hickey.

"They are not getting the help they need when they are in detention and, in some cases, come out more damaged," said Jann Jackson of Advocates for Children and Youth.

But some critics say the push to reduce the number of youths held in secure residential programs poses a risk to their safety and to the public.

"I think sometimes we go too far and ignore the obligation we have to protect the safety of the community," said Baltimore Circuit Judge Kathleen Cox.

The reality is that a lot of troubled kids in Maryland who get picked up by police for theft, drug-related offenses and other generally nonviolent crimes are sent home every day. As of February, 6,587 juvenile offenders were at home and on some level of probation - little changed from the same month a year ago, state records show.

The extent to which these youths are monitored and get services such as drug treatment or counseling varies. It's usually up to a probation officer to keep track of them and to arrange for any services they might need.

"Very often they get little or nothing," said James McComb, director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Family and Youth.

Adam is among a small group of Baltimore youths - 16 boys - who are getting intensive help and special attention through the recently launched Choice Refocus & Opportunity.

The program is run by the Shriver Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and was designed to take in the kinds of kids who, until last summer, had been sent to a 72-bed, minimum-security program at Hickey called Impact.

Unlike the secure, long-term residential program at Hickey for youths who often had a history of violence, Impact was a shorter program of 30 to 90 days aimed at those with repeated but less serious offenses - mostly property crimes, small-scale drug dealing and some assaults.

A version of Choice has been around since 1989, when it was launched in Baltimore's Cherry Hill neighborhood. That program targets youths who do not have long arrest records and seem responsive to services.

Choice Director LaMar Davis described the new program as a beefed-up version of the original. The newer model works with youths who have more extensive criminal histories and require closer supervision. They begin the 97-day program with a seven-day stay at a shelter, a "time out" for them and a chance for staff to do psychological and educational assessments.

During the first 30 days at home, youths essentially are under house arrest. The program's case workers meet face-to-face with them several times a day, and kids are required to call and report in from home telephones at periodic intervals.

A graduated scale of reward and punishment is used to encourage change. Good behavior can lead to later curfews and other privileges; kids who don't comply with the rules could be sent for a weekend stay at a shelter.

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