Instead of sending juvenile delinquents away to be reformed, a new state program in Severn seeks to help them at home.
The Pioneer City Project puts counselors in the community to help rebuild families and get their teen-agers off drugs and the street. It is the state's first attempt at an intensive, community-based juvenile reform program.
"The concept is not new. Just try to be there to help the kid and to help the kid help himself," said Laurens Carner, the project director who works for the state Department of Juvenile Services. "The way to work with someone is in a realistic setting, to deal with problems in his own environment."
Today Mr. Carner and state juvenile services officials and Anne Arundel County officials will unveil the $100,000 pilot program, funded by the state and the federal governments. The HTC townhouse where it is based at 1736 Richfield Drive also serves as a county police substation.
Three full-time therapists and a part-time psychologist started working there earlier this month. Each therapist works on six cases at a time for four to six months. The probation officer who normally handles youths monitors about 60 cases at a time.
Therapist Alison Assanah-Carroll says the community-based approach and the smaller caseload let her develop better relationships with the youths and their families, which are often headed by one parent.
"For the first time there is a ray of hope. I don't think the program could work any other way," she said. "There are other things going on. Not just the son getting into trouble. You have to understand everything that is going on."
Mrs. Assanah-Carroll gets expelled youths back in school and finds jobs for them. She acts as a chauffeur because most of the families don't have a car. She once drove a mother to the police station so the mother could sign off on her son's charges of disturbing the peace and loitering. Otherwise, the police would have taken him to jail.
"You couldn't do it from the phone or written communication," Mrs. Assanah-Carroll said. "The importance of being on site is that they see you. You're in the community, not zipping through."
About 50 youths will go through the program in the next year. Juvenile services officials are targeting repeat offenders -- for drugs, stealing, assault. These chronic offenders make up a quarter of the state's 50,000 juvenile cases, according to juvenile justice department figures.
These youths usually are put on probation, where they are loosely monitored, or sent to a residential program, such as the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, to be rehabilitated.
The Pioneer City Project offers a third option that seems to be more effective than probation and cheaper than institutionalization, which costs between $20,000 and $50,000 a year per youth, said Secretary Stuart O. Simms of the Juvenile Services Department.
Though studies show community-based programs reduce arrests and jail time for chronic offenders, people are cautious.
"The jury is still out," said Erica Wolfe, a juvenile master in Anne Arundel County. "The research has shown it has been successful where it has been tried. It's too new here to tell."
Baltimore Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes, who advocates institutionalization, says the program will only work if there is intensive one-on-one counseling.
"What they're looking for in part is an easier and inexpensive way to meet a very expensive problem," said Judge Byrnes, who is well versed in juvenile justice issues. "If it's a simple evasion of the more public institution, it doesn't serve the community."
Others are more optimistic about the program.
"Incarceration is not the answer. Our jails are full of kids," said Glenda Butler, manager of Warfield Townhouses, the project's home. "Counseling is definitely needed, someone to show that they are loved."