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Mass. Juvenile Drug Court marks 10th anniversary


NEW BEDFORD, Mass. – It took almost two years, but eventually the lessons of Juvenile Drug Court began to sink in for Dakota McMahon.

“These people here know what’s best for you and they give good advice,” said McMahon, 16, who graduated in January from New Bedford’s Juvenile Drug Court, which is entering its 10th year of existence.

McMahon, a junior at Whaling City Alternative School, said he failed multiple drug tests and “kept messing up” even after entering the program in 2009. But he said his probation officer and case manager did not give up on him, even when he almost did.

“Smoking doesn’t get you anywhere. It causes more problems,” said McMahon, who spoke last week during a graduation ceremony for three teens who had completed the program’s requirements that they stay drug-free and complete a community service commitment.

One graduate, a 16-year-old student at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School, said she regretted the pain she caused her family when she was doing drugs and “other things” that even her 20-year-old brother had never tried.

The student said she broke down in tears after spending a few hours behind bars at the women’s jail on Faunce Corner Road in Dartmouth.

“It’s not just about you. Think about all the people that you’re hurting,” she said.

That message was reinforced last Tuesday by various judicial and public safety officials who addressed the graduates, their relatives and several youths still going through the program, which is held in the lower level of New Bedford District Court.

“Our goal is rehabilitation,” said Judge Bettina Borders, who oversees the New Bedford Juvenile Drug Court, the only such program for youths in Massachusetts.

A mother of a 15-year-old boy in the drug court told a reporter she had already seen a difference in two months since he joined.

“He’s staying home more often,” she said.

Since its institution in 2001, more than 200 youths have participated in the Juvenile Drug Court. Overall, 50 percent of participants have successfully completed the program, though that figure has improved to 69 percent in recent years, officials said.

The higher graduation rate is the result of improved alcohol and drug treatment services available to the youths, said Pamela Talbot, local project director for Reclaiming Futures, a national organization that helps young people in trouble with drugs, alcohol and crime.

Youths who find themselves in trouble for a variety of offenses, including delinquencies and probation violations, are admitted to drug court if an initial mental health screen determines that they have serious underlying substance-abuse issues.

An initial skeptic of the drug court model, Borders said she changed her mind after a year of learning about its approach to battling addiction.

“Locking people up for substance abuse doesn’t work,” Borders said.

Youths who enter drug court are subject to regular drug tests and meet with probation officers and case managers on a weekly basis.

They spend an average of nine months in the program, during which time they complete community service projects with local organizations such as Gifts to Give, the YMCA and Changing Lives Through Literature.

“This is the kind of program that had to be established to give anybody caught up in these circumstances an opportunity,” said Mayor Scott W. Lang, who attended the ceremony along with other local officials, including Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson.

“You’ve given yourselves a second chance,” Hodgson said.

New Bedford Standard Times