Keeping youth out of the juvenile court system… County proactive on delinquency

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(Part one of a series)

Every year thousands of youths are cycled in and out of the juvenile justice system in Allegheny County. According to last year’s Annual Juvenile Probation Report, as of Dec. 31, 2009, there were 4,032 juveniles under court supervision.

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COMMUNITY INPUT—Marc Cherna leads a public meeting seeking feedback from the public on service provided by the county.

Besides the many independent community groups working with youths to keep them out of the system, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services has a number of programs aimed at preventing and reducing criminal behavior and delinquency.

“We serve over 225,000 people in the county every year out of the 1.2 mil and people tend to forget all of these services are paid for with their taxpayer money,” said DHS Director Marc Cherna. “We want more services basically and that’s always a matter of funding. We still have room to improve.”

At the Children’s Services Resource Fair July 30, DHS and Allegheny County Juvenile Court showcased close to 100 programs and services throughout the county. Several of the organizations operate independently from the county and their focus covered a variety of areas in child wellness.

Among the most common organizations were those focused on behavioral health.  Several of these programs attempt to address problematic behaviors in youth before they end up in the court system while others also address their issues upon release from institutions.

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CHILDREN’S SERVICES—Marvin Randall answers questions at the Resource Fair in the IBEW Building.

“What happens a lot of the time is these institutions make children delinquent and dependent so they have family needs and service needs,” Cherna said. “There’s a whole range of support services.”

The fair featured several proactive programs that address troubling behavior in its early stages. Stop Now and Plan is a program from Holy Family Social Services, designed for boys 6-11 who are having behavioral difficulties at home, school, or in the community.

Other organizations address specific factions of juvenile delinquency such as truancy. Youth Advocate Programs Inc. is a truancy intervention program that works with students at high risk of expulsion or suspension, involved in substance abuse, and those presenting a variety of other behavior problems.

“We get referred from usually the courts or Children, Youth and Families,” said Rachel Cozlowski, an advocate specialist. “We work inside the schools but also outside, trying to get them involved in after school activities or finding them jobs outside of school.”

The Community Intensive Supervision Program, operated by the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Family Division, Juvenile Section is aimed at first-time and repeat male offenders between the ages of 10-18. Through this program youths remain in their homes while completing community services and other programming with a major focus on drug and alcohol education.

“The main purpose of the program is to keep kids out of institutions. We try to focus a lot on cognitive thinking, how to make the right choices while they’re in their community,” said Marvin Taylor, drug and alcohol supervisor, Court of Common Pleas. “We get the kids connected to other organizations in the community so when they’re done with the program they still have something to fall back on.”

(For more information on these and other services aimed at helping our young people avoid the criminal justice system, visit the DHS website at http://www.alleghenycounty.us/dhs/.)

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