Most afternoons, when she’s not appearing before Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones, drug court counselor Sarah Brawer’s office begins to fill with teenagers after the final school bell rings. Young men sporting shaggy hair covered with ball caps and a typical teenage attitude plop down in the chairs across from her desk to recount the day’s activities before rummaging through a modest stash of canned soups and snacks before hitting the books to study.
As part of the Monroe County Drug Court program, these students must bring up their failing grades to at least a C average, get a job, stay in school and stay out of trouble. They’re also required to participate in weekly individual and group discussion sessions as well as submitting to twice-weekly urinalyses to test for drug use.
“Drug court is not just teaching them about not using drugs,” Brawer clarified. “For these kids, and they are still kids, the program teaches them to learn and how to stand up and be steady on their own.”
At any time, Brawer manages six to 12 juvenile cases as well six to 12 adult cases. Most of the adults in her program, however, are on average in their early 20s.
Her tone is calming and empathetic, but she demands a level of respect from these teenagers often in the throws of rebellious defiance.
“For teenagers, defiance is part of their natural development, but sometimes, they take it too far,” Brawer pointed out.
In rural socioeconomic climates like the Florida Keys, where financial demands dictate that families and caretakers work long hours or even multiple jobs, parents can’t always be home in the afternoon when their kids finish school.
“Kids these days are gaining that independence much earlier in life, and they often just don’t know how to handle it,” she confirmed.
“Sammy” told The Weekly that since he’s been in the program, he’s learned a lot about respect and accountability. When he lost his job, he immediately came straight to Brawer and told her what happened.
“They learn about the importance of maintaining the integrity of relationships,” Brawer added. “I tell them the first day they see me that the worst thing they can do is lie to me.”
For many kids who enter the drug court diversion program, parents are well aware of the problems. They’re often unaware, however, of the extent of the problems and are at a complete loss of how to regain control of the situations.
That’s why part of the program includes regular counseling with the parents.
“Maria” and “Thomas”
“Maria” said for two years, she’d sought help from law enforcement and social service agencies for her son “Thomas” whose behavior had spun out of control. While she was undergoing chemotherapy treatments, he was skipping school and picking fights with his mother before storming out of their home.
“I knew there were problems and we needed help,” she explained, but she had no idea how deeply her son had fallen until “he messed up bad enough that he wound up in drug court.”
“It’s been the best thing that could have happened for this family,” she commended.
She admitted to fearing judgment for her son’s actions, but the drug court program taught her different parenting skills and coping mechanisms.
“A lot of things lead up to kids getting in as deep as they do,” she lamented. “They made it ok to talk where you didn’t feel like fingers were being pointed at you like, “Oh, that’s the bad parent.’
While in the juvenile drug court program, Brawer and counselors who serve similar functions in Key West and the Upper Keys, also work with parents on an individual as well as in groups.
“It helps us build better skills for parenting and how, after he’s done with this program, to keep communication open,” “Maria” explained. “If he gets off track again, the program gives us the tools on how to handle those things and help our kids.”
“Maria” admitted that “Thomas” had a rocky start upon first entering the drug court program, but he’s gotten better. He went from skipping school for nearly an entire year to now being on the honor roll. She reported that he’s also volunteering at a senior center and doing card tricks for the residents there.
“I can’t possibly explain difference in him,” she said proudly. “He was a lost kid, not a lost cause.”
“Society often doesn’t give enough empathy to parents when children become teenagers,” Brawer continued. “They need help being consistent with punishment, and we work on sorting out how to set rules and establish goals.”
Brawer and Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones, who presides over both the adult drug court and juvenile drug court programs, give parents teeth in their enforcement.
“The juvenile drug court is a team effort, and the judge plays an important role in that team as a figure of lawful authority,” Jones explained.
Through regular reports from parents, their teachers and drug court counselors, the court can move forward with sanctions or as a means of positive reinforcement for good behaviors, a lessening of sanctions.
“We can offer words of praise or applause,” Jones added. “Sarah even goes so far as to bake cookies for them. She invests a lot of herself. In Key West, when they graduate from the program, they’ve gotten medals or movie tickets or even scuba diving trips.”
Though it doesn’t mean that every child who graduates from the program remains out of the judicial system, the juvenile drug court program offers an encompassing approach to address delinquency issues. By keeping tabs on grades, attendance, work and community service hours, Jones said he felt the program was an overall success.
“We’re trying to deal with all aspects,” he added. “With anybody, and especially children, these things are all inextricably linked.”
“Sarah’s very straight up with you,” said “Chad” – a student currently in the program. “She’s showed me that doing all this stuff is really not helping me a lot in life.”
Before entering the drug court program, he was “smoking pot and hiding a lot of things from my parents.” His grades have improved significantly, so much so that his last report card “even had a couple As.”
“Tony” has been in the program for just shy of a year.
He was pulled over and caught with drugs in his possession; he admitted to “skipping school like every single day” and his report card was filled with failing grades. His experience in drug court has not only helped him secure an after school job and improved his grades but also his relationship with his parents.
“It was good before, but it’s even better now,” he admitted.
“Juan” was nearing his graduation from the drug court program when on prom night two years ago, he “smoked pot instead of going to the prom.”
“All I thought was ‘Here we go again!’” he told The Weekly. Before he turned 16, he was caught smoking marijuana and was regularly skipping class.
After five months of residential drug treatment, “Juan” has brought his GPA up to 2.7 and has decided drugs are no longer something he wants to do.
*Names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of parents and children currently participating in the Monroe County Drug Court program.