When teens enter Franklin County’s juvenile drug court, they must say goodbye to their drug of choice — literally.
Reading a goodbye letter aloud to the court is part of the process, said juvenile drug court coordinator Sherry Pilson. It can be a powerful moment, she said, followed by applause, standing ovations and handshakes.
Pilson shared a letter from a teen currently working through the program, bidding farewell to alcohol.
“As my friend, I thought you were helping me out through hard times; I thought you were there for me when I needed it,” the participant wrote.
But alcohol eventually turned from friend to foe, causing trouble and family strife. Leaving it behind prompted an improvement in grades, attendance, behavior and attitude, the letter states.
The final line reads: “I am thankful to say goodbye to you.”
Franklin County has been working to set teens who struggle with drug and alcohol use onto a better path for 10 years . The juvenile drug court, one of only seven in the state and the only one in the Roanoke and New River valleys, was approved by the General Assembly in 2009, and the program launched that summer.
Establishing the court was a challenge. An earlier attempt in which the county, along with other jurisdictions, requested permission and funding was unsuccessful.
So the following year, the Franklin County committee advocating for the court changed its strategy: What if they could pull it off without any new funding? The General Assembly was on board. The bills authorizing the program explicitly stated that it be supported by existing funds.
“Our program’s small. The reason it’s small is we’ve never had any money,” Pilson said. “We’ve had to do this the hard way.”
But those involved with the court say the hard way is better than no way.
Juvenile drug court is an intensive program that typically runs about a year. Participants must submit to random drug testing, regularly appear before the court, meet with a probation officer, attend treatment meetings and participate in community projects.
If a child successfully completes the program, charges are reduced or dismissed. Families are involved throughout the process; strengthening the relationship between children and their parents or guardians is another goal of the program.
The court doesn’t have historical data on the number of juveniles served or their success during and after the program, Pilson said, but she estimates the graduation rate is around 70 %.
Anecdotally, members of the juvenile drug court team can attest to the effect it has on young lives. Defense attorney Carolyn Furrow points to a young woman who was pregnant while going through the program. Her baby was born drug free.
Furrow, who has been involved with the juvenile drug court since its inception, keeps in touch with another graduate through Facebook. The photos of her two beautiful children, who appear to be thriving, bring a smile to Furrow’s face.
“To me, that’s success,” she said.
Although the experience is fulfilling, Furrow said it’s an emotional commitment. Difficult decisions must be made, and team members must hold kids accountable when they slip up.
“I can tell you that some of the hardest days I’ve ever spent as an attorney have been sitting in drug court,” Furrow said. “Some of the best days that I’ve spent as an attorney have been sitting in drug court.”
Given her work as a criminal defense attorney and with the local department of social services, Furrow sees the value in a juvenile drug court. In Furrow’s experience, children often enter foster care because a parent is using drugs and unable to care for them.
“That started somewhere. Where did that cycle start?” Furrow said. “What we’re trying to do with juvenile drug court is to break that cycle.”
Getting involved in the teen years will hopefully help young people before they get to that point.
“Our goal is to keep kids off drugs, build stronger families and certainly keep them out of foster care,” Furrow said.
Cliff Hapgood was the commonwealth’s attorney when Franklin County started its juvenile drug court. Hapgood said he always felt it made sense to focus on young people. If the courts could intervene and set kids on a different path, he said, it could reduce crime in the future.
That seemed particularly true with drugs. An adult who has suffered from addiction for years, or even decades, won’t be able to “just turn around overnight,” Hapgood said. But a young person who has been involved with drugs for a shorter period of time might be helped by an intensive program like the drug court.
Hapgood said the committee advocating for the juvenile drug court felt “we could make a difference for more people’s lives quicker if we started earlier.”
Although Hapgood left his post as commonwealth’s attorney, he remains involved in the juvenile drug court. Today, he serves as chairman of the advisory committee, which includes representatives from social services, the school division and the medical field, among other areas.
Hapgood said he feels the juvenile drug court is even more relevant today than when it was first created 10 years ago because now there’s a greater understanding of drug addiction , given the wide coverage of the opioid crisis in newspapers and books like Beth Macy’s “Dopesick.”
The lack of funding from the state has limited the program and its reach in some ways, Hapgood said, but he still thinks it has made a difference, thanks in large part to the dedication of the team.
“Did it serve the number of kids we would have liked? No, it didn’t. But on the other hand it served some and it helped some,” he said. “And I think any time you can help a child take care of this problem early and get them on the right road then we’re all better off.”
The juvenile drug court has caught some breaks with funding recently, earning a $25,000 grant last year from the Supreme Court of Virginia. Pilson said that grant expired in June. The court has applied for another round of funding.
At the 10-year mark, members of the juvenile drug court team are not just reflecting on what they’ve accomplished so far, but looking to the future as well. They hope to raise awareness of the program and expand their reach. Furrow also said she’d like to see Franklin County add an adult drug court.