The power of friendship

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

ROCHESTER, N.Y.

At his weekly appearance in Juvenile Drug Treatment Court, Chad Kenyon acknowledged smoking on the sly during a stressful day trip home from a rehabilitation center.

"I smoked a cigarette with one of my friends," said the 14-year-old boy, bowing his head in a drab county courtroom with fluorescent lighting. "I told staff and got frozen for it."

"I appreciate your honesty," responded Judge Anthony Sciolino, who mixes chastisement with heaps of congeniality. "You know you're not perfect but you're back on track. I'm delighted you're beginning to blossom."

A half year later, in May, Chad completed a 10-month stint at Park Ridge Chemical Dependency Adolescent Residence and moved back home. In August, he took another big step by graduating from drug court. Everyone hopes he's now done with the criminal justice system.

Dispelling the curse

Three painful years have passed as Chad has worked to dispel the curse of his marijuana habit. During the last of those years, the polite youngster with cropped hair and a droll sense of humor could count on someone outside his family and rehab roommates for advice and friendship.

Dr. Jeff Alberts signed on last year with Compeer Inc., which enlists volunteers to befriend people with psychiatric disorders. The group, based in Rochester with satellites in 30 states, had just launched a pilot program to match troubled teens with adult mentors.

Chad views Alberts, a 39-year-old pediatrician who specializes in adolescent medicine, as a key prop in his recovery. He'll lean on him more than ever as he edges away from a cadre of counselors and court officials who have kept him under close watch.

Drug courts for adults flourished in the 1990s after years of tough-on-crime measures pushed the nation's prison population toward 2 million and the government sought more creative and less costly ways of dealing with nonviolent drug offenders.

The first drug court for juveniles was created in Las Vegas in March 1995. Spurred by federal grants, 284 of them now operate and 110 more are planned, in all 50 states.

The court in Rochester, New York's first when it opened in 2000, relies on parents as well as therapists, caseworkers, schools and community groups to steer youngsters back on track. It is the first in the nation to systematically offer mentoring as an aid in recovery.

Not programs but people

"There's the thought in the drug court movement that it's not programs that influence people, it's people, relationships," Sciolino said. "We find that where we're successful with youngsters turning their lives around, it's because they've connected with a caring adult."

Alberts spends a few hours each week gently tugging Chad toward wholesome pursuits.

He's accompanied Chad on theater outings, bicycle jaunts along the Erie Canal and group backpacking trips in the Adirondacks. He spent an evening helping Chad build a cage for his new pet iguana, Kilimanjaro. Mostly, he does a lot of listening over a cookout or a game of cards.

"I see a very brilliant person inside of him," Alberts said.

"If he were given different opportunities when he was younger, he wouldn't be in this situation."

The boy, who's been drug-free for a year, said he turns to Alberts "if I'm angry or sad or feel like using drugs. There's some things I don't like talking about with my family."

While definitive research hasn't yet gauged their effectiveness, drug courts are "a promising model" steadily winning favor with prosecutors, said Steven Belenko, a senior scientist at the University of Pennsylvania's Treatment Research Institute.

Using a coordinated network of helpers, judges look to boost each child's academic performance, help families function better and counteract negative surroundings: gangs, errant peers, even drug-abusing relatives.

Many youngsters get extra help coping with abuse, mental illness or learning disabilities. A big emphasis is motivating them to take up a sport, a hobby, community work or other tasks to build self-confidence and ward off loneliness, boredom and self-destructive behavior.

"As one judge said, 'You need to have something to be drug-free for,"' said Caroline Cooper, director of the Justice Department's Drug Court Clearinghouse at American University in Washington, D.C.

Rewards when youngsters progress -- from gift certificates to relaxation of curfews -- are balanced against an escalating set of punishments when they falter -- from house arrest to spells in detention.

When Chad's difficulties persisted, the court turned to the more stringent fallback of inpatient rehabilitation in July 2002. Soon afterward, with the mentoring program up-and-running, Chad met Alberts at an adventure-style camp outing and quickly warmed to him.

Mentors have been linked with 20 youngsters so far, and at least half the matches have been deemed successful, said program coordinator Karla Boyce.

But just as Compeer is preparing to extend drug-court mentoring to its chapters in other cities, the experiment here is threatened: United Way paid the bill in 2002 and a one-time federal grant came through in 2003, but no funding has yet emerged for next year.

In the meantime, Chad has become one of Compeer's poster children.

Last November, he went on a "relapse prevention trip," visiting drug haunts and telling former cronies he intended to stay clean. While guilty of a no-smoking infraction -- he lit up when left alone with a friend -- his day went well until he visited his family to talk about his experiences.

The emotion of having him home again was overwhelming. His father and his brother, Nick, 12, burst into tears when he walked in. Chad later locked himself in the bathroom and begged not to be sent back.

Within weeks, a counselor nabbed him as he tried to run away from the rehab center. They spent four hours talking it out. Something clicked. Chad doesn't know what, but he knew he was finally on the mend.

At his graduation party in the rehab center, he had a spark in his eye as he got up to say goodbye.

"My fellow Americans ...," he began solemnly, drawing roars of laughter.

He's now living with his father, and they go fishing or hunting every weekend. He joined a softball team and is looking for a part-time job. This month, after clearing a tough entrance exam, he enrolled in McQuaid, a pre-eminent Roman Catholic high school.

"I see Chad talking about college and having his own business someday," his mother said happily. "Sometimes he can counsel me with all the counseling he's had. It's amazing how much he grew."

"I just take it one day at a time," Chad mused. "The longer I can go without using, the more control I got."

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