Thursday, February 23, 2012

No place for kids...

Having just returned from a statewide meeting on juvenile justice, I have been thinking about the perceptions that many people have about kids who are involved with the juvenile justice system...

I fear that many parents and community members believe that only "bad" kids get arrested, or charged with a crime, and that only "really bad" kids get sentenced to correctional facilities.  I fear that many adults also believe that jail is the best place for "problem kids."  I do not believe that to be the case—but I have had the opportunity to learn more about the juvenile justice system through my work than the average Maine citizen might.  SO, it seems appropriate that I share a bit of what I have learned, and what has struck me as I continue to learn more.

When I first began to learn about Juvenile Justice issues, I was horrified by the number of kids that we (as a nation) lock up.  The US rates of juvenile incarceration far exceed those of South Africa, England, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, and many others. This is in spite of all of the research that indicates that for MOST juvenile offenders, incarceration does not have a positive effect.  The case against incarceration has been summarized by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in an extremely informative report entitled, No Place For Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration.  The authors of the report argue that for the most part, America's juvenile corrections institutions put youth at increased risk for violence and abuse, do not keep kids from re-offending or help them be successful in education or employment once they get out, are unnecessary (most youth confined in our correctional facilities pose minimal risk to public safety), are not in line with best practices or cost-effective, and cannot meet the needs of many confined youth.  It is clear to those who have studied it that the best way to keep kids the majority of kids who have gotten into trouble from getting into it again is to provide them support within their communities, not to remove them from the supports that they DO have and into a correctional facility.

Secondly, I was disturbed by the disproportionate number of minority youth in many correctional facilities across the US.  (Maine is no exception. Last year in one Maine county 41% of the youth who were incarcerated were black. That percentage certainly does not represent the demographics of the county.) I am proud to say that Maine has mobilized to aggressively address the issue of disproportionate minority contact with the justice system, but much work remains to be done.  There are hints in data from schools that rates of disciplinary actions such as suspensions and expulsions may mirror these skewed rates, and that our habits of penalizing minority youth more often may begin before contact with law enforcement ever take place.

Finally, I have been disheartened to learn about the lack of alternatives for kids needing mental health and substance abuse treatment services.  Many youth could be well served by these type of placements, rather than being remanded to detention facilities.  The battle over how services will be funded leaves many kids in the lurch.  (Access to mental health services is a huge issue for many Maine citizens.)

Five Town Communities That Care is hosting a panel on Juvenile Justice on March 8, 2012 at the John Street Methodist Church, from 11:30 to 1:00.  I hope that if you live locally you will come and learn about what law enforcement, the judiciary, and corrections see as the issues our local youth struggle with, and what we as community members can do about it.  It will be a chance to ask questions and learn about what kids could really benefit from.  If you do come, stop by and let me know that you read this!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Being Grandad...

This entry was contributed by Five Town CTC Board member William Shuttleworth, superintendent of schools for the Five Town CSD and MSAD #28.

I have a 16-year-old grandson. I love him to death and have done a million things with him, such as hiking, playing endless games of basketball, taking him snowboarding, a trip to the Grand Canyon, down to Philadelphia to see King Tut on display and endless nights of hanging out doing “nothing.” 

Yet, the press of his peers beats granddad, mom and dad, almost every time. He knows more than we all do together, looks at us with gratitude that breathing is automatic, that, being so dumb, we would forget to do otherwise.  He bristles when we talk to him, barely makes it through dinner without eyes almost rolling out of his head and has reduced his communications to head gestures and grunts. He stays out late, shows all the signs of smoking dope, failed all his first semester classes and has just about driven us all out of our minds.

Easy to cave in and just let him go about his life, isn’t it?  Well, for a second it might, but he is our boy and we know that someday, he too, will look back at this time, as just a very, very hard road.  So, what do we do? I text him everyday and tell him I love him, or say some typical, effusive “grandad-like” exclamation.  I comment on the Grammies, the Super Bowl, ask if he has ever tasted the new Twixt Ice Cream stick or tell him I will come to take him to lunch.   Most of the time I don’t hear back from him.   I was too busy doing my stuff yesterday and I got a text, from my grandson, “Hey, how come I didn’t hear from you today?”

Folks, your kid is still listening, watching, wanting you.  Remain that pain in the butt, tell him you love him, give him those hugs, go to Subway and just listen to him, take a drive, just go anywhere with this captive audience.  He won’t let you know that it counts.  But it does.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Weaving a Web of Relationships

During a recent family crisis, I was struck by how many people came forward to support us as we rode our emotional roller coaster.  Our family, with roots deep in the local community, is blessed to have a huge web of relationships here.   Having been here all of our lives, and being over forty years old, my husband and I have had time (and the inclination) to interact and develop connections with many people.

Support came from my work, his work, friends of our children, church,  residents of our little home town, relatives on both sides of the family, and our friends.  Each of these different strands of our web of relationships had many branches, weaving a sturdy safety net around us.  Even if people in a couple of these categories hadn't stepped forward, the net would still have stretched far and wide.

This safety net of positive, supportive, relationships is what I wish for when I think of our local youth.  So many young people have only a few threads of relationship that are robust.  When young people are not engaged and involved in their community, they miss the opportunity to widen that net of relationship.  If they have a few friends at school but no close relationships with staff, do not work or volunteer outside of the home, are not involved in clubs or sports, and have no relatives that live close by, they may have only a slender line of support if their immediate family undergoes major stress.

There are a couple of barriers that may get in the way for youth.  In our mobile, fiercely independent society we may not value relationships that are not as deep as those with our close friends.  But in a crisis, some of our more casual relationships may turn into the ones that sustain us.  A smile or quiet word can make a big difference.

Also, our society has trained us to be suspicious of one another, especially when it comes to adults being in relationship with young people.  I hope that we can move toward a community where it is normal for young people to get to know and appreciate more of the people in their towns.  Where children can develop a wider, stronger web of supportive adults in their lives.

We can help build these strong webs of support for young people if we adults pay attention to youth who weave in and out of our lives, even those who are not relatives or children of our best friends.  Sometimes just acknowledging that you see them, and appreciate them being there can make a big difference.  Providing them with opportunities to learn new things, and recognizing their progress and contributions builds relationship and bonding. It weaves new strands in their webs of relationship.

Perhaps today you could make an extra effort to reach out to a young person in a positive way?  Make eye contact, smile, and ask how their day is going...even if they don't show a reaction, it may make a difference in how they view their community and their place in it.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

"Binge" Drinking: Not just having a good time

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a fascinating report on binge drinking in the United States.  I have been concerned about the increase in this behavior amongst our local youth, but it appears that drinking to excess is a problem that affects many Americans of all ages.

First, I want to be clear by what I mean by "binge drinking."  When I use the term, I mean having five or more drinks in a row where a "drink" is an ounce of hard liquor, 12 oz of beer, or 5 oz of wine.  (There is a great chart on serving sizes of alcohol at a website called "Rethinking Drinking.")  I am not talking about having a beer with your burrito, or a glass of wine with your meal.  We are talking about drinking to the point of impairment.  According to the CDC, the average number of drinks consumed by binge drinkers is 8.  For most people, that would definitely cause impairment.  It is interesting to note that people who binge drink are often not alcoholics or dependent upon alcohol.

The data reveals that one in six American adults binge drink, and that they do so about 4 times a month (weekends, perhaps?).  Rates in Maine are on the high end of the national range, where between 18% and 26% of adults binge drink.  The number of drinks Maine binge drinkers consume is also on the higher end of the range...7.8 to 9 drinks per episode.

The age groups who tend to binge drink are also interesting.  Young adults 18-34 make up the greatest number of binge drinkers, but the age group that has the greatest percentage of its population who binge drinks is seniors over 65 years of age.  Adults who make over $75K a year are the most likely to binge drink, but those who make under $25K a year binge drink more often and consume more alcohol per episode.

Here in our community we have been monitoring rates of binge drinking by our student population.  It may shock you to learn that local rates for high school seniors who drink to excess is higher than rates for adults in Maine.  In 2004, more than 38% of local seniors reported having consumed 5 or more drinks in a row in the last two weeks (Maine Youth Drug And Alcohol Use Survey data).  In 2010 that rate had fallen significantly, but is still at more than 30%.

Given that teens are wired to take risks anyway, the fact that 3 out of every 10 seniors were drinking enough to impair their judgement concerns me.  I hope that this also concerns you.

So, what to do about it? We can model responsible use and encourage our friends not to binge. We can drink in moderation if we do drink. (The US Dietary Guidelines on alcohol consumption recommend no more than 1 drink per day for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for men. Pregnant women and underage youth should not drink alcohol.)  We can send the clear message to our youth that they shouldn't drink, as their developing bodies have a harder time metabolizing alcohol AND, it is against the law.  We can also get involved in community efforts to change the social norms around heavy alcohol use.

We welcome your comments and thoughts on this!  Be part of the conversation!