|A community’s commitment|
|By Ann Coppola, News Reporter|
They come from all different corners of their Alabama community: doctors, homemakers, school counselors, even the National Guard. The 30 or so Dale County Juvenile Conference Committee judicial volunteers are a passionate bunch who tirelessly help adolescents whose offenses aren’t severe enough for the courts to handle but still require some type of intervention.
“I have volunteers that have been doing this for ten years,” says Cheryl Leatherwood, special programs manager for the committee. “They love it. I can’t fight them off with a stick.”
In this rural, mostly poor county, the committee asks community members to make a two-year commitment to meet once or twice a month with children who have been referred to the panel by police officers, juvenile probation officers, or judges.
“We typically handle non-violent, first time offenders,” Leatherwood explains. “We get a lot of school fights, some domestic violence, theft, possession of alcohol or of drug paraphernalia, vandalism, and harassment.”
The volunteer panel sees kids mostly between the ages of 12 and 17, but work with children as young as seven. They talk with the children and their parents, and typically the interviews start by asking the child what happened. He or she must admit their guilt or admit that they can be helped by the panel.
“We’re trying to make them take ownership of what they’ve done,” says Sheila McLeod, an attendance officer for the Ozark Public Schools, and a judicial volunteer for more than five years. The panel asks questions about school, friendships, their home life, hobbies and interests, and goals. Then they ask the youth and parents to go out in the hall, and decide what they feel are appropriate sanctions for the child.
“We are just getting bombarded with cases right now,” McLeod says.
The volunteers handle approximately 50 to 60 cases a year. Many of the kids are asked to write letters of apology to the victims affected by their actions. The letters are either read or hand delivered to the victims. Depending on the offense, anger or impulse control classes or anti-theft programs may be suggested. Each sanction is tailored to the needs of the child and is much more than just a punishment.
“We had one kid who was a total couch potato and just loved Emeril’s cooking show,” Leatherwood recalls. “We connected him with a restaurant where he could come in two days a week to sweep the kitchen floor. But the restaurant also spent time with him so he could learn how to be a cook and how to run a restaurant. The panel really works at creative sanctions.”
“When we had two young girls who got in a fight at school, we sanctioned them every day for the next two weeks to go up to each other and say something nice to one another,” Leatherwood continues. “They had to get the teacher’s signature saying she witnessed it too.”
“These are strong-willed adolescents,” adds Sharon Petrie, a school counselor and six-year judicial volunteer veteran. “We don’t call them bad kids. I’ve volunteered with the Boy Scouts, with the church: this program is by far my favorite. You can actually see one-on-one a real difference with the child and the family.”
Panel members stay in touch with the families to make sure positive steps are being taken. If the child meets all of the committee’s requirements, their case will be dismissed from juvenile court.
“A lot of times, they will follow the child long enough to get a progress report from them,” Leatherwood says. “They meet with the child typically once a month for up to six to nine months.”
The program has received rave reviews not only from the parents and children who participate, but from the courts system as well.
“My juvenile probation officers love it because first of all, it reduces their docket. It’s not another kid they have to follow. Plus, they often get a case they know doesn’t belong in court, and shouldn’t be handled by the school alone. This is a good, graduated sanction that involves all of the community,” explains Leatherwood. “
That community involvement is something she believes is missing in children’s lives today.
“We don’t know our neighbors’ kids the way we used to,” she says. “When I was growing up, if someone saw me lollygagging or did something wrong in town, a neighbor, even a total stranger, whoever saw it would call my parents. That doesn’t happen today. With my volunteers, a lot of times they see their kid on the street and they might not approach them in front of other people, but if they see the kid doing something wrong they’ll walk up and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ It creates community involvement that’s missing a lot of the time.”
More on the judicial volunteers
Learn more about Dale County
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