By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Thirty days of probation is a common punishment doled out to kids caught using drugs or alcohol on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. Beginning this month, repeat offenders will be held to a higher standard and given more resources. They will be required to stay sober for at least nine months in order to complete a court-ordered treatment program.
For the past two years, tribal courts have been organizing the Chippewa Cree Youth Wellness Court, which coordinates social service, education, health and law enforcement resources.
According to the Wellness Court handbook: "The role of the (Wellness Court) team is to assist you in achieving total abstinence from drugs and alcohol and to help break the cycle of drug abuse."
Kids brought to Wellness Court will begin a four-phase process, Chief Judge Duane Gopher said. They will be required to attend weekly chemical dependency counseling sessions and participate in community service or cultural activities. Each week, they will also undergo drug testing, and their progress will be reviewed in front of their peers and family members in a Wellness Court meeting. Points will be awarded based on compliance, and a participant can move to the next phase in the program after accumulating enough points and staying sober.
"Hopefully they can learn that being substance-free is actually achievable," Gopher said.
The program was organized with a $300,000, two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, awarded in 2003.
Holdups have pushed back the program's start date, and Gopher said he thinks the state basketball championships will be the last in a line of them. The Rocky Boy Morning Stars are playing in the state C championship tournament in Belgrade this weekend, and the Stars will play for a state championship the following weekend in Great Falls.
Wellness Court will open after the tournaments are over.
Youth probation officer LaRissa Denny is excited about the program. As part of their training, the probation officers and Gopher have practiced hypothetical situations and observed similar court programs in Missoula County and in New Mexico.
One thing they learned is that each youth will complete the program at a different speed. In one case, it took a participant 18 months to complete one phase, Gopher said.
But points cannot be removed as punishment, so the kids are always moving forward. There are punishments for failure to obey the rules, such as additional community service. Fines and other penalties can be used if needed, Gopher said.
"We're just reorganizing what we already do," Denny said. The benefit, she added, is that involvement of multiple organizations as well as family members will be more consistent.
The court will be responsible for everything from monitoring a youth's performance in school to organizing a Native American sweat lodge or other cultural activity.
"We're going to utilize our culture," said Warren Small, juvenile court counselor.
Organizers hope that among the many resources and activity choices, each kid will find something that works for him or her.