It’s a program you probably don’t know about if you or your family and friends have avoided legal trouble, but for certain troubled youth, others who have committed a crime and their victims, Valley Court Diversion Program (VCDP) locally headquartered in White River Junction, Vermont, can change lives.
“Restorative justice” highlights the aim of healing that is a core mission of these programs. Even minor crime harms victims, the community, the participant’s family as well as the participant.
Windsor County is one of the largest geographical counties in Vermont. VCDP’s commitment to being community based is demonstrated by the staffs’ willingness to travel and facilitate restorative panels in several locations including Ludlow, Springfield and White River Junction. In addition, Windsor County coordinators Maureen Bogosian and Alicia Johnson are apprentice addiction professionals supervised by VCDP’s clinical director, Sara DeGennaro. This enhances VCDP’s ability to work closely with participants struggling with issues of substance misuse.
Also, over the last six years, VCDP has expanded to the New Hampshire side of the Upper Valley. Lyndsay Porreca is the NH coordinator and facilitates court diversion in six lower Grafton County communities.
Regina Rice Barker, executive director, and Meagan Swahn, program coordinator for the Hartford- and Springfield-area Balanced and Restorative Justice (BARJ) program, explain the program.
Court Diversion Instead of Court
In Vermont, a person’s option to participate in court diversion program is initiated by the state’s attorney, who may recommend that a person accused of a crime go through the program instead of the traditional court process. The participant must then commit to certain requirements, including admitting the crime, apologizing to the victim (in person or in writing, which the victim chooses), and providing restitution or otherwise repairing the damage. If the participant does not complete their contract, they are returned to the court system.
Rice Barker explains, “The whole goal is to repair harm.” The victim-centered program requires the case manager to listen to the victim’s story, and to discover what would make them feel whole again. If the victim does not want to meet with the participant, the participant communicates (an apology, for example) in writing. “We have guidelines for how apologies should be made,” says Rice Barker, “and we read them to be sure they are appropriate before they’re given to the victim.”
An incentive for VCDP participants to complete diversion is avoiding a criminal record if they complete their contract and stay out of trouble for two years. Keeping a clean record is certainly a worthwhile goal; a criminal conviction can lead (among other things) to loss of professional licenses, and can close access to housing, student loans, military service and many jobs.
VCDP saves the community money up front; participants pay some of the costs, which are in any case less than a court proceeding. Since over 80 percent of participants do not commit further crimes, money and stress are saved in the long run many times over.
“Sometimes the incident is the least of a participant’s problems. They might suffer from depression, or maybe their parent is ill,” says Rice Barker “We screen everyone who comes in the door for addiction, health, mental health and family issues.” If a participant is under 18, parent(s) must be involved, but often, family behavior contributes to the problem. Case managers learn to thread their way carefully through a participant’s situation and they may recommend counseling.
Volunteers trained by the program are key to VCDP’s success. They serve on panels to hear cases and work with all parties to design a contract for the offender, who participates also, says Rice Barker, “volunteers often offer thoughtful and creative ways to make things right. We want participants’ contracts to be relevant to the charge, time-bound and achievable.” Volunteers find the work fascinating and rewarding, she adds, “and once they do it, they want to do it for life.”
The White River program works with about 500 participants each year. Ages range from 10 to 85, says Rice Barker, adding “There’s never a dull moment in this building. As soon as you think you’ve seen it all, something else happens.”
Getting “Kiddos” Back on Track
“I love the youth I work with,” says Meagan Swahn. She works with children up to age 18 who are truants or on probation. Sometimes the Department for Children and Families (DCF) refers a child to her in an effort to prevent growing trouble by helping the child develop certain socially necessary skills.
Swahn has worked with VCDP for just over a year. “I had a degree in Criminal Justice, and I needed an internship. I literally walked in the door here and worked as an intern for about two and a half months. Then they hired me,” she says.
She affectionately refers to her clients as “kiddos.” Helping is often a matter of paying close attention and being a sounding board to help them develop their own plans. She screens all youth charged with a delinquency with the Youth Assessment Screening Instrument (YASI), an instrument that helps to determine whether the youth is at low, moderate or high risk to reoffend. This method let’s her see exactly where the most support is needed. In her one-on-one mentoring, she encourages youth to set three goals, and helps them think of steps and systems for accomplishing them. “I say to them, ‘It’s all about you.’”
Focused attention and respect are often rare commodities in these children’s lives, and her efforts meet with great success. Her work with truants might involve calling every morning and arranging rides to school if necessary. Swahn works with the schools, of course, but she’s outside the school system, a selling point with these youth who resist school. Her persistence models behavior as she encourages “kiddos” to work with her. “I make it clear, I’m not going anywhere,” she says. “I’m pretty enthusiastic and positive.”
A Success Story
Recently Swahn worked with a young person with addiction issues, a small-scale drug dealer, who sought help after being scared by a friend’s overdose. The child completed a rehabilitation program, and began work with Swahn. Over the course of weekly visits, the young person accomplished a turnaround—180 degrees—working a job for 25 hours a week and getting on the school honor roll. At one point Swahan confessed, “You know, when we first met you kind of scared me.” The young person laughed with her and said, “I guess I’m one of your success stories!”
“I’m a firm believer in second chances,” says Swahn. “A bad choice is not what defines them.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the Valley Court Diversion Program or to volunteer please visit: www.vcdp.org.