BALTIMORE -- With a workweek that averages 70 hours, leaving the job at midnight and being back at 8 a.m. is routine for James Stokes. It was that way when I spent a recent Saturday morning with the 22-year-old caseworker for Choice, a community-based supervision program for delinquent, abused or neglected adolescents run by the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
The night before, Stokes, who graduated from Morgan State last May where he was a 240-pound fullback, was in the Cherry Hill section of South Baltimore. It is a public-housing barrio with families vying heroically against drug dealing, gunfights and high unemployment, where life is almost feral. Stokes went there near midnight to visit the home of an emotionally troubled 16-year-old girl who has a junkie for a boyfriend and a mother at wit's end. In the morning, Stokes would be back at the girl's home again, and with another visit in the afternoon.
The intensity of the supervision is one reason that both Maryland officials and the families of about 70 youths served in Choice see the program as a rarity that goes as far as possible with kids on the way to being as far lost as imaginable. Some are street hustlers, most have school problems, others have chaotic home lives and all have sent up flags of distress that were ignored until James Stokes and his fellow rescuers came along.
A traditional way of dealing with problem children is to process them into some kind of treatment system, and then, if a social worker is available, offer an hour of counseling a week, if that. It takes place in an office, often across town and if the session is skipped neither party much cares. The 10 caseworkers at Choice see their charges between three to five times a day, with a daily written record of progress or problems.
If trouble arises on a Friday night -- at 3 a.m. or 3 p.m. -- a James Stokes is there. He and his nine colleagues look after eight children each. "It would be nice," Stokes said, "if kids got into trouble between 9 and 5. They don't. When we show up to be with them at any hour and at any place, even on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, that makes a difference. They know we care."
In time, they also know that Stokes and the others are not coddlers. If a child misses school, the caseworker goes to the home and brings him into class. If she's hanging out on street corners, a visit is made there to talk. If a counseling or tutoring session is missed, the absentee is tracked down. "Often we have to be the heavies," Stokes says, "and be someone in their lives who gives both support and discipline. We'll be their best friend but not their best pushover. A lot of them need firmness. After a while, they respond to it. They appreciate it."
Now in its third year, Choice has had results that show the extra exertions are worth it. An independent report on 25 youths states that "when comparing the six months prior to Choice involvement with six months after, there is a 64 percent reduction in the number of arrests." A 20 percent decline in re-arrests is considered a strong success. The costs have been shown to be much lower than what the state spends on institutional care for adolescents with similar problems.
The founder and on-site director of Choice is Mark Shriver, a 1986 Holy Cross graduate who combines the idealism of his father, Sargent Shriver, with the organizational talents of his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. "Sure, I worry about people saying that this is just another bleeding-heart liberal program," Shriver said at the Cherry Hill office. "That's the usual put-down. But no hearts are bleeding here. Instead, they are beating with plenty of demands on the kids that they be accountable for their actions."
In three years, Shriver, with hands calloused from shaking the money tree, has raised $1 million in state and private funds. He has sought to bring the Cherry Hill families into helping with decisions about the program. Each of the 10 caseworkers was recruited by Shriver on visits to college campuses where he persuaded graduating seniors to skip the IBM and other big job interviews and come be radicalized by the raw toil of being with the uncared-for young.
That has a ring of inconsequentiality to it, compared with the heraldic declarations of wars against drugs and crime. But what have the latter achieved, except more arrests and re-arrests, more prisons and more hopelessness about solutions? Choice works with youths at a time in their troubled lives when they can be turned around, not later when they are adults beyond help and can only be turned away.
Maryland's Choice needs to become the national choice.