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Part Two: The Sympathetic Judge

Just joining us? This is part two of a five part series. Start from the beginning.


Juvenile Court Judge Juanita Stedman, who presides over Cobb County, Georgia’s Juvenile Drug Court has gotten to know Kyle quite well the past three years.

Yes, he was one of the most dangerously addicted kids she’s seen. And she’d seen plenty of heartbreaking cases that ended in tragedy.

Kyle Boyer

In the more affluent suburban high schools in Cobb County, north of Atlanta, Stedman said drugs, particularly prescription painkillers, stimulants and benzodiazepines (or benzos) are easy to obtain. And sometimes, these drugs aren’t dealt with seriously inside kids’ homes.

“There’s a sense that, ‘it’s only alcohol’, or ‘at least it’s only marijuana’, or ‘it’s just a pain pill,’” Stedman said.  “To some permissive, or head-in-the-sand parents, as long as they don’t hear words like crack, heroine or meth, then it can’t be all that bad.”

That passive logic has landed hundreds of addicted kids in her court.

Hindsight being what it is, the Boyers now can see a few warning signs they shrugged off initially. The most glaring one was when Kyle was in eighth grade and was caught selling some pain pills he’d gotten from his parents’ medicine cabinet.

“We wrote it off,” John Boyer said. “I talked to him, and I believed him when he said he did a stupid thing and wasn’t going to do it again.”

Police thought it was far more serious. Kyle was arrested, charged with distribution of a controlled substance and put on 12 months probation.

By then, Kyle had the beginnings of addiction.

Twice in seventh grade, he’d been prescribed pain pills – once for appendicitis and once when he broke his knee. Kyle discovered he felt better on the pills than he did when he wasn’t taking them. So at the age of 12, he began to lie when asked how his knee or appendix was feeling.

Long after the injuries had healed, he’d tell his parents they still hurt. In truth, Kyle was hurting – it just wasn’t his knee or appendix.

He and his family had moved from Austell to Acworth, Ga., in Cobb County, when Kyle was in fourth grade. A bit large and sluggish for his age, classmates picked on him over the years. He was put in some special education classes, widening the target.

“I didn’t feel like I fit in, and the drugs were my escape,” Kyle said. “When I was high, I didn’t care what people thought of me. Pretty soon, any chance I had to get high I would, even if I had to steal it from someone’s house. At first, that just meant when I was at a friend’s house, I’d snoop and look in medicine cabinets.

“Eventually, by the time I was a freshman at Harrison High School, I started not caring about anything. I didn’t care about friends, family, anything. All I cared about was getting high. If you weren’t getting high, I didn’t want anything to do with you.”

Kyle said it is ridiculously easy to buy pills at any of the high schools he’s attended. Harrison was more affluent than either Allatoona or Kennesaw Mountain, also in the North Atlanta suburbs. That meant it was the easiest of the three, and finding a dealer never was much work.

“It was easy to get, and I started the day by taking 8 to 12 Vicodins or maybe four OxyContins and go from there,” he said. “I’d do anything I could to get my hands on something that was making me feel so much better about myself. Oxy and morphine tablets were my drugs of choice.”

Many of the pills were cheap. OxyContin was not. Kyle said he could buy Vicodins for a few dollars each but that each 40 mg tablet of OxyContin would cost him about $20.

Most of the time, Kyle would get high in school, or at home after school, in his room, in front of the TV. He wouldn’t go out, break curfew, and come home stumbling. He’d just chill. And that made it all the harder for his parents to detect.

“I preferred to get high alone,” he said. “I didn’t put two and two together. I knew I was sad a lot, but I think I was denying the fact that I was clinically depressed. I had low self-esteem and was almost never happy.”

But he wasn’t opposed to getting high at school either. Kyle was kicked out of Allatoona High School for having alcohol he had bought on school grounds.

“I poured a tad bit of coffee into a travel mug, then the rest was vodka,” Kyle said. “The two are not a great combination, but it smelled like coffee.”

For the next couple of years, this was Kyle’s pattern. Aside from his stays in the youth detention center, and getting tested for drugs monthly, he spent 30 days at Ridgeview, an Atlanta youth rehabilitation center. Usually, he’d stay clean for a few weeks or so before jumping back, head first, into his addiction.

Judge Stedman could have kicked Kyle out of her court and let the state deal with him, particularly after three relapses. The drug court, which comes with family counseling, periodic drug testing and mandatory attendance in a weekly court session, is not set up for kids to get chance after chance. It’s a privilege -- a chance to stay out of the state system and take advantage of counseling and therapy.

The Boyers know that Kyle had to try Judge Stedman’s patience.

“I think she saw something in Kyle,” John Boyer said. “He never lied to her. When he used, he’d tell her, ‘There’s no need to test me, judge. I’ve used.’”

Steadman did give Kyle more rope than others. What is usually a six-to-nine-month program became a two-year program for Kyle.

“Kyle was one of the most addicted kids I’ve seen.” Stedman said. “We were really worried about him. But his mom and dad came every week, sat on the front row, and were so supportive of him and what we were doing, that we knew he had a chance. That kind of support system is very important.”

How significant was the grace and love and discipline offered by the drug court folks?

“There’s no doubt in my mind that without drug court, we’d have buried our son by now,” said Suzanne Boyle, Kyle’s mom.

John nodded in agreement.

So did Kyle.

Continue reading: Kyle finds hope in a classmate who offers friendship and a way out.
Multimedia credits: Clay Duda

Part One: Darkness Visible

Just joining us? This is part one of a five part series. See the whole series.


Kyle Boyer

When Suzanne and John Boyer left their upper-middle class home for work on the morning of May 20, 2008, their 15-year-old son, Kyle, had a stomachache and was still in bed.

It wasn’t too bad, he told them. “Go on to work, I’ll sleep some more and feel better soon.”

A couple of hours later, Suzanne got a phone call that changed the trajectory of the Boyers’ lives forever.

“Ma’am I’m with the Cobb County police department. Is this Suzanne Boyer?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have a son named Kyle Boyer?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know where he is?”

“Yes, he’s home in bed sick.”

“No ma’am. He’s in the back of my patrol car. We’ve been looking for him for a long time.”

*****

Kyle, who turns 18 in May, swears there are hundreds of kids just like him in Cobb County schools, thousands like him in Georgia, tens of thousands in America -- kids who have their well-meaning-but-clueless parents convinced that their babies are saying no to drugs.

“We believed what he told us,” said Suzanne. “We were stupid enough to believe him.”

Experts in juvenile drug and alcohol abuse agree the problem is indeed epidemic and catastrophic. And the Boyers’ belief in their kids’ innocence is the norm, particularly in the two-parent suburban households.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, one in 10 high school seniors have taken Vicodin without a prescription. Earlier this year, Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, “just about the only mortality statistic that is getting worse, is death from prescription opioid abuse." Frieden was referring to a comprehensive report on the nation's health released in February http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/hus.htm that showed declining mortality rates in every category except prescription drug use.

Kyle’s journey was from isolation, bullies and OxyContin to purpose, hope and sobriety. It has been a long journey and one that is still very fluid. It threatened to ruin his parents’ marriage by creating a hostile home where everyone was taking sides. And it almost landed him in a jail cell that was much harsher than the Youth Detention Center he’d been in four times.

Kyle wasn’t just abusing prescription medication, such as Vicodin, Xanax and OxyContin; he was selling it to his friends. Worse yet, when he found himself out of pills, he’d fake a stomachache or a migraine. Then, when his parents would go to work, he’d get dressed, walk to a different part of his neighborhood, and start knocking on doors. If someone answered, he’d simply ask if they had seen his missing dog.

If no one answered, he’d break in.

“I wasn’t wanting to steal their stuff, or their money, and never did,” Kyle said. “I’d go straight to their medicine cabinet and take whatever they had that I could use.”

This was the Kyle Boyer police had been looking for, the one his friends kind of knew about, but the one who his parents had no idea existed.

“I was trying to break into a house and all the sudden, there were cops everywhere with their guns pulled,” Kyle said. “I ran for a split second, and saw more police on the other side of the house and I stopped.”

Kyle had broken into, or tried to break into about 10 houses in the two weeks leading up to his arrest.

Continue reading: Kyle meets a tough-love judge and Lock-up
Multimedia credits: Clay Duda

What do Teens in Prison Need to be Successful?

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Imagine being ripped from your safe, normal professional life and thrust into federal prison for a year, for something stupid you did when you were a teenager, or even a young adult.

Piper Kerman doesn't have to imagine it, because that's exactly what happened to her. She was locked up in a federal prison at age 34 for a drug crime she committed in her early 20s.

Because Kerman spent a year living in close quarters with many women, including 18- and 19-year-old girls, she has an unusual, nearly first-hand perspective on what teens in prison need to be successful.

Here's her suggestions about what they need:

  1. Positive attention. Kerman found the teens in particular were incredibly responsive to positive attention, creating significant opportunities for change -- opportunities that were often missed.
  2. Continued connection to their families and their own children.
  3. Alcohol and drug treatment and mental health services.

But you should really hear it from her own lips: check out the video above.

What impact did the experience have on Kerman?  It moved her to produce an acclaimed memoir of her experience, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison – a memoir, she says, which even her former cellmates are pleased about.

More importantly, perhaps, the experience turned Kerman into an advocate for criminal and juvenile justice reform, and for addressing disproportionate minority contact in the adult and juvenile justice systems.

The above story and video are reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.

Cracking the Unpleasant Dealing in Walnut Grove

National Public Radio has done a series on the nation’s largest juvenile justice detention facility in the small town of Walnut Grove, Miss.

The story was triggered, in part, by a civil rights lawsuit brought by the Montgomery, Ala.,-based Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union.  The suit against the private operator of the facility, GEO Group, claims that inmates are held in inhuman conditions, that sex takes place between female guards and male inmates and that inmate-on- inmate violence is rampant.

In mid-2010 the Louisiana-based GEO Group was awarded a contract by the Georgia Department of Corrections to operate a 1,500 adult correctional detention in Milledgeville.

Eric Holder on Juvenile Justice

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said this week the Department of Justice would put a priority on improving the nation’s juvenile justice system. In a speech to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference, Holder said the Department would place an emphasis on forming community partnerships and using evidence-based research in dealing with the issue.

The attorney general also told the conference that it was time to answer some difficult questions concerning crime and race and the treatment of children.

“Why,” Holder asked, “is it that, although African-American youth make up 16 percent of the overall youth population, they make up more than half of the juvenile population arrested for committing a violent crime? Why is it that abused and neglected children are 11 times more likely than their non-abused and non-neglected peers to be arrested for criminal behavior? And why is that so many of those who enter our juvenile justice system either can’t afford – or do not know to ask for – access to legal guidance?”

Read the full speech at http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/ag/speeches/2011/ag-speech-110307.html.

Deal to Create Bipartisan Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform in Georgia

Governor Deal is set to announce the formation of a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform on Wednesday.  An unusual coalition of state leaders will join him, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, Lt. Governor Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston.   The Council will spend the next year studying what to do about Georgia’s packed prisons and juvenile detention centers, how to reduce the bill of more than $1.4 billion, and alternatives to incarceration.  Recommendations are due in January 2012.

The event takes place at 1:45pm at the Capitol.

Steve Reba: Adult by Fiat, Perseverance by Child

One of the first children—pardon me, one of the first thirteen-year-old adults—that  Georgia automatically transferred to the criminal justice system has spent more than half of his seventeen years in the hole.   Continue reading Steve Reba: Adult by Fiat, Perseverance by Child

Child Trauma Linked To Prison Time

The majority of American youth behind bars have suffered trauma during their childhoods, a newly released report by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) says. According to Healing Invisible Wounds: Why Investing in Trauma-Informed Care for Children Makes Sense, of the more than 93,000 children currently incarcerated, between 75 and 93 percent have experienced at least one traumatic experience, including sexual abuse, war, community violence, neglect and maltreatment.

“Incarcerated youth already face significant challenges, but youth who have experienced trauma are even more acutely affected,” says author Dr. Erica Adams. The brief, published by the Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes the reduction of the nation’s prison population, notes that youth who engage in delinquent behavior should be held accountable but also strongly suggests that judges consider  trauma exposure when deciding where youth are placed. Young people who receive treatment in the community tend to have better outcomes than those placed in correctional facilities, the report says.

“We simply cannot afford to ignore the evidence and prevalence of the long-term effects of untreated childhood trauma,” says JPI Executive Director Tracy Velázquez. “If we are to have strong healthy communities, then we must start with these children whose unseen and untreated wounds hinder their ability to become healthy, productive adults.”

JPI researchers say youth who suffer trauma are more likely to develop lifelong psychiatric conditions, including personality disorders, conduct disorder, ADHD, depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

They are also more likely, they say, to have learning disabilities and lower IQ levels along with, in many instances, school dropout and expulsion rates nearly three times higher than their peers who had not experienced trauma.

The report’s many suggested changes include more in-depth investigations into a child’s living conditions conducted by trained professionals, specialized treatment referrals for traumatized youth and their families along with an increase in trauma prevention programs funded on the state level.

Prison costs burden Georgia as other states test alternatives

Georgia taxpayers spend $1 billion dollars a year locking up criminals in prison.  An eye-opening analysis by the Atlanta Journal Constitution shows one in 70 Georgians is behind bars and each offender costs $49 a day.  It is not because the state has more crime, but because sentencing laws are tougher here, keeping criminals behind bars longer.  In the first of a two-part series, the AJC raises questions about Georgia’s tough-on-crime stand, and whether it’s worth the cost at a time when the state is cutting teachers, transportation and critical programs.  Even some conservative policymakers like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) are studying alternatives to prison.  In a surprising interview, Gingrich argues treatment programs for non-violent offenders work, and can be safer and less expensive.

In part two, the AJC reports about 2-thirds of inmates locked up are non-violent. For them, alternatives such as drug courts and work-release might work and save money.  Other states across the south, such as Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas are working on research-based alternatives.