Published: Sunday, January 15, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Drug court, arts program giving kids a chance at a clean slate
Helping hands from the community play a crucial part in an effort to get young offenders back on track
The molten glass came alive as it was pulled from the red-hot furnace on the end of a steel pole, oozing like honey from a hive.
Gravity pulled it toward the floor, as the air outside the furnace began cooling it, promising to freeze the piece before it could be shaped into what it was meant to be.
A young woman's untrained hands, steadied by determination, gently spun the steel pole, changing the shape of the blob with each rotation. Her movements were guided by the words of a teacher she'd just met. She coaxed the glass into a delicate globe. With that, she, too, was transformed.
Seated at a workbench, surrounded by glass, heat and unfamiliar metal and wooden tools, she wasn't a former drug addict or high school dropout. She wasn't the girl with an arrest record and regrets.
She was a budding artist experiencing the magic of creation.
In that moment Savannah Williams, 18, was anything she wanted to be and more than she ever thought she could be. And like the glass, she hadn't gotten there on her own.
Savannah Williams shapes a hot ball of glass at the Schack Art Center in Everett.
'Glass blowing is not for everyone. It's for cool people," glass artist Bob Mitchell joked with Williams and the other teenagers gathered around him in the hot shop at the Schack Art Center.
The kids joined Mitchell in November as part of a program pairing artists with kids being supervised by the Snohomish County's juvenile drug court.
For about a month, a handful of teens had spent Tuesday nights with Henrietta Wilson, teaching artist, and Mindy Hardwick, an author. They wrote poems and sketched. They talked about how life can be reflected in art. They created and solved problems with colors and cadence. They stretched their imaginations and their own ideas of who they could be.
For a couple of hours, the kids explored words and art. What brought them there didn't matter. They were connecting with two adults who patiently opened doors for them to step through.
Juvenile justice officials say it's those kinds of connections that make a difference in the lives of young people, especially those with substance abuse problems.
That's why community involvement is so crucial to the pilot program, which launched last year in the county's juvenile court system, Superior Court Judge Bruce Weiss said.
The program is modeled after Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative aimed at providing effective treatment for drug and alcohol addicted teens, and caring for their needs once they're out of the criminal justice system.
Nationwide, there are about 343,000 young people arrested annually because of drug- or alcohol-related crimes, said Susan Richardson, the national executive director for Reclaiming Futures, which is based in Oregon.
In Snohomish County, nearly 3,500 young people were referred to the juvenile court between August 2010 and August 2011. About 80 percent of their offenses were tied to drugs or alcohol.
Most kids with addictions, however, don't get adequate treatment, Richardson said. Additionally, half of those who have addictions also have mental health issues.
"Locking kids up for a substance abuse problem and then not giving them treatment is an outrage," said Laura Nissen, who founded Reclaiming Futures in 2001. The solution is more treatment, better treatment and helping kids after treatment.
After working on poems with author Mindy Hardwick, drug court teenagers chose a word from their poem and worked with artist Henrietta Wilson on an illustration.
When it began, Reclaiming Futures launched 10 pilot programs with a $21 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to standardize care and develop partnerships between police, courts, treatment providers and community leaders.
The goal was to help kids get beyond addictions and on with their futures.
Including Snohomish County, there now are 29 sites in 17 states. The hope is to make Reclaiming Futures a statewide model in Washington, with Snohomish County taking the lead, said Dawn Williams, the probation supervisor at Denney Juvenile Justice Center and the county's Reclaiming Futures Project Director.
Since receiving a $1.25 million federal grant, the county has started using evidence-based assessments to better determine if a juvenile has a drug addiction. Meanwhile, they also are working with the kids in drug court. They aim to eventually expand the program to all juveniles referred to Denney.
The county has pretty good treatment for young offenders, Weiss said. The focus must be on creating a safety net in the community for the kids, once they're out of the juvenile justice system.
"They're not bad kids. They have had trouble. On the road to success, these kids have taken a detour," Weiss said. "Our job is to get them back on the main road."
Weiss presides over the juvenile drug court. Kids with pending criminal matters can choose to go through the specialized treatment court. To stay in the program, they have to attend weekly court hearings, where lawyers, probation officers and Weiss monitor their progress. They are ordered to attend support groups, go to school and meet other requirements.
If they successfully complete drug court, charges against them can be dismissed.
There has to be a bridge between the justice system and what waits for them once they're on their own, juvenile advocates say.
"Programs don't reclaim youth. Our communities must do that," Richardson said.
She and Nissen came to Everett in November to lead a community-wide training session. More than two dozen agencies sent representatives to the seminar. The agencies represented social services, faith-based organizations and other groups that routinely interact with children and their families.
During a community training course in November, representatives from community groups throughout the county were asked to write down perceived problems they observed when trying to reach at-risk youth.
Juvenile court officials wanted to know more about the services available to young people and to foster more communication among the groups. Participants were asked if it is possible to create comprehensive care beyond the walls of the criminal justice system. They discussed what is working for kids and where the gaps are.
They talked about changing attitudes, getting beyond the idea that juvenile offenders are "bad kids" or someone else's problem.
Wilson began volunteering with kids in juvenile detention 18 years ago. A shift in how the community views teens would help.
"We need to get away from thinking about them as 'those' kids and think about them as our kids," Wilson said.
That can start with something as simple as smiling at a young person you pass on the sidewalk, or asking a neighbor kid about her interests, she said.
"If they're at a fork in the road, you never know if you'll be that person who encouraged them to choose the higher path," Wilson said.
Weiss said he hopes to engage others in the community as mentors. There are kids interested in music and building cars. There are adults with those skills who could have a great impact in the lives of these children, Weiss said.
He recently signed up to be a mentor with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. The program agreed to find mentors for 10 kids in the drug court. In return, Weiss agreed to recruit volunteers for the whole program.
If kids are connected to positive adult relationships, they will be pulled forward to success, Nissen said. That also means reaching out to their families.
"People are the biggest strengths here," Nissen said. "Our communities are full of resources, not just problems."
Krysta Kauk shapes a piece of glass with guidance from artist Bob Mitchell.
Krysta Kauk, 16, was nervous to share her poem with other kids and artist volunteers. Before she read the first line, she told them she'd probably messed it up.
The last time I got high I wasn't thinking straight. The last time I got high.
The feeling of inhaling was the best it ever had been.
My lungs filled with smoke. My eyes saw red.
Krysta was in the eighth grade the first time she tried marijuana. She's not sure why -- peer pressure, curiosity, boredom. She smoked pot off and on until it became the norm. She went to school high, ran away, got in trouble with her parents and landed in Denney.
"I guess if I was rich and had a perfect life, maybe I wouldn't have, but even some rich kids do drugs," Krysta said.
Krysta entered drug court. She and her mom go to weekly hearings, where Krysta has to account for her actions. It hasn't been easy and there have been setbacks. Some things help more than others. She found encouragement at the Narcotics Anonymous meetings that she's required to attend.
“I like hearing people's stories. I'm not so different, you know. All these people have been through the same thing. They all love you even though they don't know you,” she said.
Krysta had been clean for five months, before she relapsed last month. She's been clean since Dec. 10. She says keeping busy helps her stay drug-free. That's what brought her to the artist class with Wilson and Hardwick. She likes to draw, and the poetry wasn't so bad either.
Five kids, heads bent over the table, were writing. The room was silent except for the scratching of pencils on paper.
They were asked to write a poem about a memory, such as the first time or the last time they did something.
My mom says, "Look at me," and then says, "You're high."
Then she started to cry.
I felt so bad.
Now I'm clean 97 days.
I'm proud, a better person.
I enjoy life now.
After some input from the group, Krysta decided to call the poem "97 days." She asked Wilson to help her with the lettering.
Author Mindy Hardwick (left) talks to artist Henrietta Wilson while students blow glass at the Schack Art Center.
They are building a skill that they always will have, Wilson said. Along the way, they are building self-confidence, she added.
Wilson says she sees kids grow and change when they create. Sometimes all they need is encouragement to push beyond what they think is possible.
Savannah Williams looks back at the last year and sees the path she's been on to get clean and sober. Along the way there were people who guided her. They may only have been in her life for a couple of weeks, but they helped her take the next step.
Williams started smoking marijuana in middle school.
"It filled something inside of me and made me feel complete and at ease with everything," Williams said. "I always felt alone. I had friends but I felt alone. Drugs made everything better."
Drugs also had a way of taking over. She dropped out of school. She ran away. She shoplifted.
"My morals and values left the building when I did drugs," Williams said.
She began smoking prescription pain killers. Then came heroin.
Her probation officer talked to her about drug court. Sure, she'd try it. Williams left a recovery house and disappeared. She went back to drugs and was arrested again for stealing.
Once back at Denney, drug court staff said she needed inpatient treatment. Williams refused and decided she was going to quit drug court. She was asked to reconsider. The next day she came back with a different answer.
She was ready to try.
"I'm going to do this," Williams remembered thinking.
She spent a month locked up at Denney. She was set to be released before an inpatient treatment bed was available.
Savannah Williams hugs Judge Bruce Weiss during a program at the Schack Art Center in Everett. Williams graduated from drug court in October and celebrated a year of sobriety in November.
'They were scared to let me out. I was scared to be out," Williams said.
Williams was at home when she got a call from Margaret Howard, community education specialist at Denney. Howard asked Williams to coffee. The teen had only just met Howard a few days before she left lock-up.
They drank coffee and read poetry. They talked. There was a connection.
"She didn't beat around the bush. She was real with me. She didn't make things sound better than they were," Williams said.
In January 2011, she left Everett for rehab. She was there for six months. Williams couldn't run anymore from her choices or addiction.
"You have a different mind set when you're clean. Your brain is serene," the teen said.
Williams graduated from drug court in October. Just before Thanksgiving, she marked her one-year anniversary of being clean and sober. She didn't get there alone. Her grandparents, older brother and her boyfriend are her support. She also is grateful for the people who cared about her future.
"Their time and concern were gifts," she said.
They gave her opportunities to see how her life could be different. In return, she's reached out to others struggling with addiction and agreed to join a team of people pushing forward with Reclaiming Futures.
"Having a clean slate is a huge gift," she said.
For more information about Reclaiming Futures in Snohomish County, call Dawn Williams at 425-388-7813.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.