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Mahoning juvenile court recognized for innovative programs

In this March 21, 2019, photo, bike couriers Nate Ziccardi, from left, Norman Hall, Kevin Cash and Chuck Hootman pose for a photo in Columbus, Ohio. Bike couriers once thrived in Columbus, with about 25 of them regularly coursing through the streets, delivering documents to and from attorneys and the courts, among other clients. But electronic filing has taken its toll, and now there are only 4 who do it full-time. (Fred Squillante/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)

Legal News Reporter

Published: August 22, 2019

The Ohio Association of Probate Judges recently lauded the Mahoning County Juvenile Court for two programs designed to help both the children who come in front of the court and the community in general.

The citations to the Mahoning and other juvenile courts were given at a judge’s conference in Toledo by Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.

“I was really surprised,” said Judge Theresa Dellick. “But it was nice to honored by the chief justice for two good programs.”

The two programs are both designed to intervene in potential wayward paths for the youth living within the court’s jurisdiction, although in two different ways.

Judge Dellick said that the court decided to provide educational opportunities or diversion programs between the times that children begin to display potentially problematic behavior and the time when they actually commit a crime.

The first program is called the Cyber and Relational Diversion Program, or “CARD,” and deals with children’s various problems handling technology. The second is called Early Warning System, or EWS, and tries to identify and help children who are having certain patterns of difficulty in school that may be predictive of later social problems.

Judge Dellick, who has sat on the juvenile court bench since 2001, said that “it is hard to be a kid nowadays.”

The CARD program

The CARD program is a five-week diversion program designed for children 12 to 17 who would otherwise be charged with serious sex crimes for sexting and other like behavior. It also covers cyberbullying, inappropriate touching and other activities that many young people simply do not know is wrong or unlawful, said Judge Dellick. It began in 2017 to “teach students the appropriate use of a cell phone.”

The particular problem that gave rise to CARD, Judge Dellick said, was that the statutory language that covered children sexting is so broadly written that children caught innocently sending or even looking at a nude selfie or other sext could be facing years in prison and registration as a sex offender.

“The behavior wasn’t appropriate, but it certainly was not intended to be pandering,” she said.

The program involves both intervention and education, said Judge Dellick.

A team of experts from the court presents to students both at the court and in schools the appropriate use of cell phones and like technology. If a child is caught violating the law, and meets certain conditions, the child can enter the diversion program.

Any juvenile can enter the program via a referral from the court, parents/guardians, educators, community groups or law enforcement.

CARD enrollees can only do the program once, and there are other eligibility requirements. Upon successful completion, including attending all classes, any pending charges against the participant are dropped.

The program is also open to juveniles who are not facing charges, but who may be referred by parents, a school, or anyone else.

James DeLucia, the court’s director of clinical services, helps to oversee the educational segments of the training.

“Most kids and their parents have no idea what the laws in this area are,” said DeLucia.

Before taking his current position, DeLucia was a court detention officer and said he saw children having difficult lives because of sexting and cyber-bullying, up to and including taking their own lives.

“I saw a need for this when I took this position in 2016,” he said.

DeLucia said that the first week is “get to know you and get on the same page week.” The second week’s presentation is delivered by a representative of the prosecutor’s office on the applicable laws. The third class covers healthy relationships. The fourth class covers self-esteem and its relationship to decision-making. The last class covers bullying, peer pressure and how to keep an eye on the future.

Early Warning System

The second program feted by Chief Justice O’Connor, the Early Warning System, reaches into all parts of the lives of children who are failing at school or social growth (or both) in an attempt to lift them out of the causes of those failures.

Judge Dellick said that the program began in 2015, and brings together families, schools and the court to try to stop the process that helps create juvenile offenders.

“Any contact between a child and the juvenile court system is a negative contact,” she said. She said that there are three factors that are predictive of this future contact with that system: a child’s erratic school attendance, bad behavior in school, and unacceptable grades.

The program began with a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, said Kelly Melvin-Campbell. She is the court’s school justice partnership director and runs the EWS program.

The grant required the creation of teams from the court and the schools, among other qualifications. It has since run out, but the program has been such a success that the schools and court have continued it, said

She said that the program “focuses on early intervention for students who are struggling with their grades and other behavioral problems.

Schools in the EWS program identify students who display those characteristics and bring them into the program.

Melvin-Campbell said that many times there are unknown factors behind the problems of these students.

There could be no food in the house, parents who are drug abusers or otherwise neglectful, severe financial problems and like difficulties that affect the students in negative ways.

Many of the students who have these hardships are ashamed to tell school officials, and they slip through the cracks.

In one case, she said, both parents had died but the students never told the school. Children, she said, rarely have the skills or ability to deal with these overwhelming life crises and will simply disappear if there is no intervention.

Once they are identified, the students can have access to the help that they need, including court social workers that can be difficult for schools to afford. These interventions make it far less likely that the students will wind up in front of the court, and also help the school system and society in general, said Judge Dellick.

Most schools within the court’s jurisdiction are participants in the program, Judge Dellick said.

In the last few years, and particularly since the EWS program began, there has been a sharp drop in the number of juveniles housed in detention. Currently, there are fewer than ten, down from a high of over 100 in 2001.

“There has been a great reduction in truancy and juvenile crime. We are very proud of this program,” said Judge Dellick.