Looking to help young people in Cherokee County live sober lives, a new juvenile drug treatment court is being established by local officials.

Juvenile Court Judge Jennifer Davis and Chief Superior Court Judge Ellen McElyea said this has been approximately a year in the making, with the treatment court set to begin evaluating cases after the first of the new year. When looking back at the past five years of juvenile cases in the county, Davis said more than 80% of them had some form of substance abuse component involved, and there was little, if anything, that was being done to address the issue.

“This was a gap that needed filled,” Davis said.

McElyea added, “The notion of filling a gap is really true. If our children are having issues, but are not getting the treatment they need, it works against what we are trying to do. This reinforces our other accountability courts.”

Although something along the lines of a juvenile drug treatment court had been talked about before, Davis said she really began pushing for this to happen when she took her current position in January. Since then, Davis said she and others visited a handful of counties elsewhere in Georgia that have already established juvenile drug treatment courts to see what has worked elsewhere, so as to better understand what could work in Cherokee County.

“We are not starting from scratch,” McElyea said. “We will be following effective models.”

Although the juvenile drug treatment court has a similar overall mission as other drug treatment courts in the county, Davis said it will have its own approach that differs from how the other treatment courts operate. Each case will be carefully evaluated before the juvenile involved is placed in one of three separate tiers. The first tier, “Now You Know,” will focus primarily on educating those going through the program and will mostly be for first-time offenses. The second (“Pure”) and third (“I’m Clean”) tiers of the system are more intense than the first, with three to six months of treatment from a licensed therapist, regular check-in visits with a compliance officer and random drug screening involved in the process. Davis said there is also the structure in place that, if necessary, would add a fourth tier to the system, which would involve 12 months of treatment, regular check-in visits with a compliance officer and random drug screening.

During a juvenile’s time in the treatment court, Davis said adult mentors would be working with their mentees and ensure their educational needs were being met. For some, this might mean helping them get back into school and obtaining a diploma, while for others, it could be they receive the tutoring they need to pass the GED test. Additional educational aspects Davis said the program is looking to include is taking juveniles out to the Cherokee County jail to hear from law enforcement officials to better understand what incarceration can be like, as well as Northside Hospital Cherokee and the neonatal intensive care unit there to get a closer look at the effects alcohol and drugs can have during pregnancies.

While there will be an emphasis on educating those going through the program and helping them move toward a life that is sober, Davis said there will also be components designed to show the juveniles how strong of a support network they have standing with them. For example, she said there will be planned community service days, where participants will all work together on projects such as planting flowers in a park or painting in the community. Not only will those in the program be participating in community service days, but their compliance officers and all the other adults working with the juveniles will be right there with them to help complete the project. There will also be more creative components to the program as well, helping those in the program better express themselves in various ways and find another outlet to move more toward a brighter future. For those who complete the treatment court program and graduate, Davis said they will be asked to come back and be peer mentors for those still working to complete the program.

“We want them to walk out of here knowing that a sober life is a better life,” Davis said.

Partnerships with the community will be a key component of the program, according to Davis. There have been a number of civic organizations that have pledged to help outs, while the sheriff’s office has been supportive and the Cherokee County School District officials have expressed a belief that the program dovetails with what the school system has been interested in accomplishing. Plans have also been put into the works to have safe local places established for area juveniles who may be in the DFCS system to help them through the program, with Goshen Valley and Angel House helping set these places up.

Part of the process for establishing this new drug treatment court was finding effective sources of money to operate it. Recently, the county was awarded a $200,000 federal grant, which Davis said was one of only three such grants awarded throughout the entire United States.

“This was a huge deal for us,” she said. “We’re very excited for this.”

As the local court system prepares to inaugurate the new juvenile drug treatment court, Davis and McElyea agreed there is an overwhelmingly positive feeling among everyone involved in the process.

“Other judges are supporting this, and the district attorney’s office felt this has been very much needed,” McElyea said.

“We are all very excited,” Davis said. “This is different from the past. We worked hard to plan this.”

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