A poster outside Circuit Court Judge Phillip Stowers' door reminds kids of their options. Photo by Anya Slepyan.

This is part 2 of a 2-part series on juvenile justice in West Virginia. Read part 1 here.

The first time Gaby Bradshaw tried alcohol, she was 10 years old. She started smoking weed shortly after, a habit she continued through middle school. 

When she got to high school, things got out of control. She skipped class almost every day, holing up at the houses of her older friends and smoking pot, cigarettes and crack cocaine. 

“I was very hard-headed. I didn’t want to listen to anybody,” she said.

When she was 15, she was charged with shoplifting and truancy, and was eventually diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder. Authorities gave her an option: stay in a residential facility or participate in a newly-established juvenile drug court in her hometown of Parkersburg. 

Bradshaw chose the latter, and says the treatment court changed her life.

“I don’t think that I ever would have graduated high school without the program,” she said. “I needed that extra structure in my life.” 

Gaby Bradshaw. Photo courtesy Gaby Bradshaw.

Kids in West Virginia are charged with juvenile offenses and sent to out-of-home placement facilities — which include residential homes, correctional facilities and treatment centers — at a higher rate than almost any other state in the nation. In 2019, the last year nationwide data was available, the state was second only to Alaska. 

And in a state where many struggle with drug addiction and overdose death rates are rising, teens struggle with substance abuse too. Lucky ones like Bradshaw live in places like Wood County, where juvenile drug courts give them the opportunity to receive support and treatment. This approach helps keep kids in their communities, and reduces the likelihood they will commit additional offenses. It also saves the state money.

But nearly a third of West Virginia kids don’t live in a county with access to such a program. This means for about 110,000 kids, their home address could lead them down a drastically different — and troubling — path in the juvenile justice system.

Keeping kids at home

One of the key benefits of juvenile drug courts is that they provide an alternative to removing kids from their homes and placing them in a residential facility. Teen treatment courts have become increasingly popular in the state, as lawmakers and judges alike have sought to reform the juvenile justice system and keep more kids in their communities. 

The reforms helped address an element of the juvenile justice system that is often overlooked according to Teresa McCune, senior counsel and former chief public defender in Mingo County’s Circuit Court. 

“I just wish that we saw children as children. They are still developing, and they can’t think the way we do yet,” McCune said. “They grow and they change.” 

In the last fifteen years, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly acknowledged that children should be held to different legal standards than adults because their brains function differently: The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that evaluates risks and long-term consequences, controls impulses, and regulates decision-making, is not fully developed in most people until they are 25.

And court sentences for kids have lasting implications, partially because kids are still developing. Studies show that juvenile incarceration can make children less likely to graduate high school, make them more likely to be incarcerated as an adult, permanently disrupt their social and community ties, and hold them back from future financial success, compared to their peers.

That’s where diversion programs like juvenile drug courts come into play. In West Virginia and nationwide, these programs have proven effective at both reducing the number of children confined in juvenile correctional facilities and reducing the likelihood of them committing subsequent offenses. 

About 15% of juvenile drug court graduates went on to commit another offense. That’s compared with 55% of youths in more traditional probation programs, according to the state Supreme Court.

And juvenile drug courts save the state a lot of money, too. On average, confining a kid at a residential placement facility costs around $100,000 a year. The average cost of teen treatment court in 2020 was $3,522 per participant, a sum that includes intensive supervision and individualized treatment services for both the teenager and their family, according to Nick Leftwich, who oversees all juvenile and adult drug courts for the state Supreme Court.

The treatment courts combine intensive court supervision — kids meet with their probation officer up to three times a week — with individual and group therapy sessions and substance abuse treatment.

Compared to normal courtroom proceedings, juvenile drug courts are more “participant-centric,” Leftwich said. “The focus is on participants’ progress, with the ultimate goal of getting folks clean and sober, maintaining their recovery, and ultimately graduating them from the program.”

David Hill, the juvenile drug court probation officer in Putnam County, believes that treatment courts should become the “new normal” in the juvenile justice system. Typical court proceedings that strictly follow the code of law don’t allow for much flexibility or support, Hill said. But those characteristics are what makes teen treatment courts successful. 

“You have to be able to bend a bit, otherwise you are just incarcerating people who are sick,” he said.

Unequal access

Around 6 p.m. on a recent weekday, a group of teenagers and their families filed into a courtroom in Putnam County’s judicial building. The kids, dressed in the typical teenage uniform of hoodies, jeans and basketball shorts, arranged themselves in the jury box, chatting among themselves. Their families sat silently in the gallery, waiting for the week’s juvenile drug court proceedings to begin. 

One by one, the kids, flanked by a guardian, approached the bench. In front of the participants and their families, Circuit Judge Phillip Stowers celebrated triumphs and admonished setbacks with equal parts positive reinforcement, humor and tough love. 

“The past can hurt,” Stowers said, holding up a figurine of Rafiki, the eccentric mandrill shaman from “The Lion King.” 

“But the way I see it you can either run from it or learn from it.”

This mindset underscores the purpose of treatment courts for juveniles and adults alike. Every week, a treatment team made up of court officials, therapists, state caseworkers, educators, and community volunteers reviews the kids’ cases. The teens have a group therapy session, and then attend a court session where the judge addresses their individual progress. The program has multiple phases with different levels of supervision and takes at least seven months to complete.

And while he holds the teens accountable for their progress and past actions, Stowers doesn’t expect change overnight. “I ask you to do better, not to be perfect,” he told the kids.  

The judicial building in Putnam County. Photo by Anya Slepyan.

There are currently seven kids enrolled in Putnam County’s juvenile drug court and another 102 in other drug courts around the state. If it weren’t for the treatment courts, the majority of those kids would have been sent to residential placement facilities, according to Larry Johnson, the chief juvenile probation officer in Wood County. 

But for children in 31 of West Virginia’s 55 counties, juvenile drug courts aren’t an option. In 2019, about 110,000 kids (30% of the state’s under-18 population) lived in a county without one of these programs.

The result is that kids facing similar charges can be set on wildly different paths within the juvenile justice system, depending on the services provided in their communities. Although the state has tried to make programs like drug courts more available, it hasn’t succeeded in closing the service gap between counties.

That isn’t for lack of trying, says Leftwich. Juvenile drug courts are a partnership between circuit courts and the state Supreme Court. The Supreme Court fully finances the programs, while the circuit courts implement them — hiring and managing the probation officers who supervise the kids, putting together the treatment team, and coordinating services.

To start a new juvenile drug court, circuit judges have to submit an application to the Supreme Court, which Leftwich says emphatically supports the programs. 

“We’re ready when they are,” he said. 

But despite financial support at the state level, regional circuit courts still face significant barriers to implementing juvenile drug courts. One issue is that judges are expected to preside over treatment courts in addition to their normal docket of cases, which are especially full right now due to court closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also,  juvenile drug courts rely on community resources beyond the court system. Local drug treatment providers and therapists must be available and willing to be part of a treatment team that meets each week to discuss the cases. 

“Getting all these folks to come to the table weekly to discuss treatment is a huge component of the juvenile drug courts,” Leftwich said. “So if you don’t have a good treatment provider, or one that is available to meet the rigorous demands of drug court, it is difficult to be successful.” 

Youth reporting centers — which provide supervision and services like therapy and drug screenings  — are another alternative to juvenile confinement and can support the mission of treatment courts. 

But again, these aren’t available in every county. And despite a mandate in the state’s 2015 juvenile justice reform law that the Bureau of Juvenile Services operate a minimum of 19 youth reporting centers by July 2018, there are still only 17 in West Virginia. 

Youth reporting centers and juvenile drug courts are closely linked, and there’s a lot of overlap in the counties that have both options. But kids in 26 West Virginia counties don’t have access to either program.

Compounding disparities

This demonstrates a snowball effect relating to youth services. The more resources a county has — whether therapists, addiction treatment services, or youth reporting centers — the easier it is for that county to create additional services, such as juvenile drug courts, that redirect children from residential placement to community-based programs. 

But the problem is compounded for counties already lacking in resources. 

Take Mingo County. Despite being one of the epicenters of the opioid epidemic (as well as media coverage of the crisis), the county doesn’t have a teen treatment court.

Mingo has only one circuit judge, who would have to apply for, set up, and then preside over the brand new juvenile drug court in addition to her already-crowded docket. 

And even if they established a teen drug court, the county lacks the other supporting services they need. There’s no youth reporting center, and the treatment services for children are limited, according to McCune, who has served as a public defender and worked with children in the county for more than three decades. 

In recent years, several of McCune’s juvenile clients have been ordered by the court to complete drug counseling, but they have had to wait months to get appointments. Other times, a child’s psychiatric evaluation will show that they are in need of intensive counseling, but the local services are only able to provide one appointment a month. 

“I don’t know if a mental health professional would consider that ‘intensive counseling,’ but it sure doesn’t sound intensive to me,” McCune said. 

The 14th judicial circuit, made up of Braxton, Clay, Gilmer and Webster counties, is in a similar position. There is no youth reporting center within the circuit, and no juvenile drug court either. Lucy Cruickshanks, the chief probation officer for Clay County, wishes they had a teen treatment court.

“If we were able to, it would be the best possible thing,” she said. But the reality of the situation is different. 

“Clay County is a very rural county, and we don’t have a lot of resources,” she said. “We’re short on staff, short on money, it’s a combination of a lot of things.” 

This lack of resources for juveniles leaves everyone feeling frustrated and doesn’t give judges many alternatives to keep struggling kids in their communities instead of placing them in residential facilities.

“I know how much kids’ welfare means to these judges,” said Stephanie Bond, the director of Probation Services at the state Supreme Court. “They only want to do what is best for those kids, but sometimes they feel like they don’t have another option [than removing kids from their homes], because there aren’t any other services available.” 

Stowers, the Putnam County judge, agrees. 

“If you’re a judge in a county without a youth reporting center or an effective Safe at Home [program], then you don’t have any choices for a child,” he said, referring to in-home services provided by the state Department of Health and Human Resources. “And I would like to see the state equalize the playing field in every circuit so that all judges have the choices that some judges have, because not all of them have that opportunity.” 

But for those that do, access to drug courts can help teens turn over a new page.

Eight years after she graduated from Wood County’s juvenile drug court program, Gaby Bradshaw is now helping others deal with substance abuse. She’s part of the rapid response team at Westbrook Health Services in Parkersburg, which follows up with people who have suffered drug overdoses and tries to get them into treatment. She is also a part of the treatment team for the circuit court’s juvenile drug court, helping teens go through the same process that helped her.

Although she relapsed and had to restart her recovery as an adult, without juvenile drug court, Bradshaw says she “would have been either in jail or dead.”  

But being able to help other people through their recovery makes it all worth it, she said. “It’s an amazing feeling when you see [the program] just click for people. You see a light shining in their eyes that wasn’t there before.” 

Anya Slepyan was a Mountain State Spotlight intern during Summer 2021. A native of Lexington, Ky., she is currently a student at Swarthmore College.