Building Blocks to Success – Celebrating Achievements in Your Drug Court

A sea of graduating students

Almost seven years ago, New York Times columnist Allina Tugend wrote an insightful column on redefining success, quoting author Katrina Kenison: “There’s a beauty in cultivating an appreciation for what we already have.” This National Drug Court Month, I wanted to congratulate all Juvenile Drug Treatment Court (JDTC) practitioners on your tireless work and encourage you to cultivate an appreciation of what you have accomplished; to think beyond the traditional measures of success, specifically the expectation we place on our participants to graduate.

Almost every time I travel to work with a JDTC, I end up telling this same story. It’s not even my own, it’s Dr. Jaqueline Van Wormer’s, but it’s a good one, so I’m going to share it with you:

Before she was Professor Van Wormer, Jacquie was Juvenile Probation Officer Van Wormer, in a JDTC in Washington State. On her caseload she had a young person who would not comply with any of the JDTC requirements. By his own admission, he could not “get it together,” and, eventually, was removed from the program for non-compliance. It’s a familiar feeling for JDTC staff: they couldn’t help this young person, and while it hurt, they let him go, and hoped something would change for the better.

Several years later, Dr. Van Wormer received a call from this same young man. Now in his twenties, he was calling to tell her simply “I’m doing OK.” He no longer used drugs, had a wife and child, and a stable job. He told her that while he couldn’t “get himself together” while in the JDTC program, he had gradually begun to apply the techniques, skills, and lessons he learned there, and had turned his life around.

Why do I love this story? First, it’s a story that gives practitioners hope. But more importantly, it showcases the power of JDTCs in guiding transformation, saving lives, and creating hope for participants. Many JDTCs track graduation rates and feel defeated, as over half their participants don’t meet the graduation requirements, and thus the teams feel as though they’ve failed.

Graduations are a wonderful celebration, a chance to showcase the achievements of a young person who may never have believed in their own ability. But graduations can also overshadow a different, less tangible success: almost all the young people who spend time in a JDTC are better for the experience, regardless of whether they get to the standard required in order to graduate. Even the most “successful” courts I’ve worked with often miss the successes a young person has, because they’re not looking for it, or because they’re not systematically celebrating the improvements made prior to graduation.

Let’s imagine a young person who is participating in a JDTC but who isn’t going to school and only communicates with their mother in expletives. Ten months later, their alcohol and marijuana use causes them to be terminated from the program. However, they now attend school 70 percent of the time and join their siblings for a family meal with their mother twice a week. They didn’t graduate from the program, however, they have made dramatic improvements.

As Dr. Van Wormer learned, improvements like this are what sustains long term change. Again, don’t mishear me: I got into this work in the first place because I know how damaging substance use can be to young people and to their futures. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate incremental successes in other areas when we see them. We know that school attendance and family relations are two protective factors, decreasing risk for both crime and drug use. Therefore that supportive environment, facilitated by the JDTC, may, in the long term, influence the participant and may lead to them stopping substance use.

Not every JDTC success story begins or ends with graduation, so don’t sell yourselves short: the difference you are making is real.

Thank you all, for all that you do, and happy Drug Court Month!