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Ambassador Program would teach troubled teens through others' mistakes

NEW PORT RICHEY — The teenager stood in front of Circuit Judge Shawn Crane in juvenile court and openly declared her daily drinking and pot-smoking habit. She was obviously high, the judge thought, but she insisted she didn't have a problem.

As she turned to leave, she flipped a defiant salute at Crane.

"It kind of took your breath away," Crane recalled. "It was such a cavalier attitude."

It was also an alarm bell for the west Pasco judge, who knew he needed to do something about the teenagers who march through his courtroom displaying behavior that portends a bleak future.

Billy Major, who administers social services for the Public Defender's Office in adult court, witnessed the exchange and had a similar reaction. Major routinely connects adults with substance abuse and recovery programs, but he recognized a gap in the courts' ability to intervene with teenagers headed for trouble.

He and Crane talked afterward, and now a few months later they're ready to launch an initiative they have dubbed the Ambassador Program.

The idea is to put people who have successfully completed the county's drug court program — the ambassadors — in front of at-risk teenagers so they hear first-hand the toll of drug addiction. Ideally, the ambassadors will be young enough to relate to the teens as peers.

"What we are looking for is that filler of those people who say 'I have walked that path and look at where it led me,' " Crane said.

For the first installment, set for July 28, the speakers who are lined up have haunting stories to tell.

One man, 37, lost a Division I football scholarship because of partying too much. He ended up serving time in federal prison for selling cocaine before turning his life around.

Another woman, now 26, suffered a series of strokes as a result of mixing benzodiazapines, like the antianxiety drug Xanax, and Oxycontin and now has severe physical problems, including difficulty walking and tremors in her arms.

Major asked her if she would videotape a message for the teens.

"She said, 'I'll talk to them in person,' " Major said.

Crane is making attendance at the Ambassador Program a mandatory condition of the juvenile sentences he imposes. In other words, they have to be there or they face further legal troubles.

And it won't just be kids charged with drug crimes. Crane can identify signs of substance abuse in other types of cases. A kid charged with burglary or dealing in stolen property, he said, is probably doing to that to get money for drugs.

He hopes the program will have an instant impact in a system that doesn't always lend itself to immediacy.

In adult drug court, offenders are tested in the hearings. If drugs are found in their system, they can be taken into custody immediately.

Not so with juveniles.

Crane said there's a more involved process in which prosecutors have to file a motion and then a hearing would be set.

"That process takes awhile," Crane said.

His goal is to get to the kids quickly. He also hopes to eventually expand the program into schools and reach parents with it.

Circuit Judge Susan Gardner, who handles juvenile cases in east Pasco, has begun ordering kids to the Ambassador Program, too. She sees the same patterns from her perch in Dade City: Kids who are stealing "almost without exception" are doing it to feed a drug habit, she said.

"Every one of them thinks that we don't know what they're doing, but it reads like a road map," she said.

The Ambassador model, she said, shows promise.

"If they can save them from getting into the true throes of addiction, it's worth every minute."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com.

Ambassador Program would teach troubled teens through others' mistakes 07/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 16, 2011 11:50am]
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