Rural Courts Helping Juveniles Caught in Drug Epidemic
By Csaba Sukosd | May 31, 2019
As Ohio's opioid crisis continues to grow, so are the number of courts across the state addressing the issue, including the youth affected in some of the smaller communities.
Thirty years after the nation's first drug court was instituted in Florida, the number of specialized dockets in Ohio focused on treatment for juveniles has grown to 25 with the majority of those in counties with populations around or below 100,000.
"Ninety-five percent of our kids, they're a product of their environment," said Khrystal Wagner, the treatment court coordinator for Hardin County Juvenile Court. "That's the biggest struggle is trying to get around what they've always known, and what they've always been taught, and trying to understand that, and then trying to see how do we overcome that."
Wagner has served in that role for 13 years with the past six working with juvenile and probate court Judge Steve Christopher. The lifelong Hardin County resident served as a trial attorney for 30 years with no juvenile work on his resume and very little exposure to drug courts prior to his election in 2013.
"It was eye-opening for me. It was totally different than I thought it was," Judge Christopher said. "It didn't take more than two months before I started feeling like these were my kids."
In most of his cases, the children are raised by a single parent or guardian. The same can be said for Knox County Judge Jay Nixon's juvenile treatment court. The judges, their staff, and the treatment providers do their best to help with the load by establishing a support system for all the family's needs.
"It provides for some of these kids who haven't had structure, who haven't had accountability in their life, it gives them that accountability," said Judge Nixon. "We provide them with a reward-sanction system that a lot of kids just thrive in."
As the participants progress through each phase of the program, their mandatory court appearances and supervision decrease. However, with more freedom comes more responsibility. In Hardin County, the court puts an emphasis on not only advancing their education as part of their maturation, but also establishing employment.
"If they get connected to an employer, and it's something they like, the reality is that they might stay with it, and they might develop another group of people they can confide in," said Wade Melton, who's the director of programs for Hardin County Juvenile Court.
While there are numerous success stories, not everyone graduates from the programs. The strife also isn't exclusive to the affected children and their families.
Stress and disappointment are common occurrences for those who work in treatment courts. For them, it's a reminder of the hardships the kids face and the purpose of their profession.
"Once I started working in it, I realized that this is where I need to be," said Wagner. "Helping families, helping kids, helping people get over whatever hurdles they need to be getting over."