Good Idea, Bad Blood

Juvenile Court wants to expand a program to treat drug-addicted mothers. Too bad it'll have to be run by Juvenile Court.

The Schwartz Bros. Thursday, February 15, at Hoopples and Friday, February 16, at the Beachland
Juvenile Court Judge John W. Gallagher. - WALTER  NOVAK
Juvenile Court Judge John W. Gallagher.
On a Tuesday afternoon in Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court, Judge John W. Gallagher sits at the front of his small, '70s-era courtroom, scanning over the room's dearth of right angles and abundance of burnt-orange furniture. Searching, it turns out, for Minnie. "There you are," he says with glee. "How you doing today, Minnie?"

Minnie and four other women have filed into Gallagher's circular space on the third floor, followed by a line of social workers and lawyers.

Gallagher's avuncular tone doesn't exactly reverberate with judicial gravitas, nor does he intend it to. He and Minnie are hardly strangers. She, like several of the women who've shown up today, has been coming to see him once a week for months. All are here for the same reason. Thanks to drug and alcohol abuse, they have lost custody of their newborn children to the Department of Children and Family Services. And Gallagher -- along with the lawyers, social workers, and counselors -- is trying to help them get their kids back.

For the last six months, this gregarious judge with a high-pitched, machine-gun laugh has been handling some of his custody cases with a unique approach, one being used in just a handful of courts around the country.

Run in conjunction with special DCFS units and modeled on a program started in Southern California, Gallagher's experiment uses the ultimate in carrot-and-stick motivation -- the custody of a child -- to help chemically dependent mothers get their lives, and, it is hoped, their families back together.

In exchange for successfully going through treatment, attending support meetings, taking random drug tests, finding employment, and, of course, meeting with Gallagher regularly, the women will eventually be reunited with their children.

"I have the mothers back here every week," says Gallagher. "We go over how they're progressing, the urine screens, everything. There are sanctions if they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, if they're not getting to their meetings, if they come up with a dirty [test]."

Though there are fewer than a dozen mothers in the program, and not one has been reunited with her children -- the county wants them clean for at least nine months before that will even be considered -- the operation doesn't lack for movie-of-the-week material.

Take Gloria. Besides losing her newborn child, she had been estranged from her family for years, without a job or a place to live, when she entered the program last summer. She'd been on crack for 15 years. Now she has a full-time gig at a sandwich shop, steady housing, and a rekindled relationship with her father. She's been sober for six months.

Then there's Carrie, a mother of four who's been sober for six weeks after years of drug abuse. "I feel great," she says. "I'm not so angry all the time."

Sam Amata, head of the Public Defender Office's juvenile division, which represents many mothers in the program, believes the successes aren't surprising, given the incentive. "There's a built-in penalty -- and a built-in reward."

There are also advantages for the county. "If you can get the mothers sober and the kids back, reunified," explains Gallagher, "that saves a ton of money in foster care for kids."

It also explains why it may not remain a small experiment for very long. And that may be the problem.

Administrative Judge Peter M. Sikora would like to see the plan expanded to the entire court, a process that would mean merging it with an existing juvenile drug court program. Both have similar structures and goals. Both could benefit many more people than they currently do.

There's just one hitch. For years, Juvenile Court has been a place where good ideas go to be tortured, where six judges often end up pushing their own agendas in six different directions, making it nearly impossible for anything new to get off the ground. And nothing illustrates that more than the short history of the juvenile drug court.

The idea first came about in 1996. It was designed for teenagers charged with non-violent drug offenses. Instead of simply putting kids on probation or locking them up, the court would drop their charges in exchange for their completing a year-long program. Like the custody plan for mothers, it required participants to go through treatment, attend meetings, and have regular appointments with a judge.

Now common in courts across the country, it was seen back then as an innovative way to deal with the massive increase in teenage drug activity. From 1985 to 1995, drug charges against teenagers increased 3,000 percent in Cuyahoga County, and drug court was heralded as a smarter, more cost-effective countermeasure.

Even so, the idea languished for several years. Few of the judges wanted the extra work involved, while more than a few wanted the credit should it succeed. "Everybody was into the turf issue -- who should have it, who should get the notoriety," says John Zachariah, a former court administrator who pushed the program.

The one judge who showed passion for the idea was Gallagher, who had come to the court in 1995. When Betty Willis Ruben became administrative judge in 1998, he got the green light to start a pilot project.

Though limited to 15 kids, the program exhibited enough promise to receive a $450,000 federal expansion grant in 1999. At the time, it was seen as one of the few ways juvenile court was modernizing: a program that would ultimately reduce crime, cut the court's caseload, and save money.

Since then, however, drug court has failed to live up to its billing. Though no one argues against the program's merits, it still only reaches a tiny fraction of kids in the juvenile system. Of the 80 kids enrolled during the last three years, 13 have graduated. There are now 17 kids in the program, only two more than it handled as a pilot program.

One reason is Juvenile Court's massive caseload. In 1999, the court officially accepted more than 10,000 delinquency cases -- which doesn't even count the thousands of cases involving custody matters, traffic citations, and charges of unruliness. From prosecutors to public defenders, social workers to probation officers, everyone is overburdened. To provide more time for drug court would mean less time for everything else. "To devote the kind of time and attention to these cases that they need, and to expand the program -- it will be very difficult for a judge to work it into his or her docket," says Sikora.

Adds case manager John Thomas: "People talk about the numbers, but there just isn't the structure or the time now to do it. If we had 30 more cases, it would probably fall on its face."

The time crunch also affects how cases are referred. Due to the system's huge volume, the priority is to move cases quickly; kids who may be eligible often find themselves halfway through the system before anyone realizes they may be better served in drug court, says Judge Joseph Russo.

But murky political maneuvering also stands in the way. The six judges often have different ideas about what's good for the system -- and for themselves.

No one understands this better than Gallagher. In January of last year, just as he was gearing up to expand the program, he flew off to a conference in Phoenix. While he was gone, the other judges decided drug court should be rotated among all the courtrooms, effectively snatching the program away from the man who was its driving force.

Sikora says that, because the court takes so much time away from a judge's docket, it must be handled by more than one judge. Besides, "It's such a valuable program -- and it could turn into a very integral part of the court's operations -- that I thought it was appropriate that all six judges, at some point in time, be involved with it."

Others, however, are quick to note that, because the relationship between the judge and the kids is so critical to the program, few similar courts across the country rotate their judges. "There ought to be consistency," says Gallagher, who says he's had nothing to do with the program since it was rotated out of his courtroom. "The drug court judge builds a relationship with the kids in the program. Then, all of a sudden, that person is gone, and somebody else is there."

It's not hard to find people who say the rotation stems more from petty rivalries than a desire for greater involvement. "What happens is, because it is somebody's idea, somebody else will want to minimize it and pooh-pooh it," says a lawyer who's worked at the court for years.

Now that Gallagher's experiment with chemically dependent mothers is being merged with drug court, he would seem the obvious choice to oversee both. Yet Gallagher knows that things aren't always so apparent within the juvenile system.

He'd love to run the combined court, he says, but only if it wouldn't rotate after a year, and only if he could control personnel decisions -- including the hiring of a new magistrate, who would be needed to handle the larger case volume.

"I'm not going to get into it unless I know it's going to be mine for a while and that I have the authority to make the changes and make the planning, so that you have the consistency," he says. "I would love to do it, but I'm not going to do it to stand out there as a token, and when things are blown up, all the eggs are thrown at me when I have no authority to make the changes."

Sikora would like to see all six judges oversee a magistrate, who would be responsible for hearing cases.

Either way, several lawyers who work at Juvenile Court say they're just glad the programs will be in place, however they end up being run. "Even if it works in a marginal way," says one, "it's better than the current approach."

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