A Different Direction

One Dallas County program tries an alternative to lockups, with uncertain results

-It is still there. The Dr Pepper can, the one that was in that precise spot on the end table two weeks earlier.

Pat James, mother of twin teen-agers, warned it would be there, and sure enough, it is, deposited by 16-year-old Jessica. Her brother, Trey, isn't home right now, but his presence is registered in the form of a message some girl has etched in blue spray paint on the sidewalk outside his Garland home: "Tray is a Hoe."

These are the verities of living with adolescents, James says, with their shaky grasps of responsibilities, goals and discipline. One twin, she explains, is a slob (guess who); the other tidy. One has a strong will, able to assert herself in any situation; the other is happy-go-lucky and bends to the will of his numerous friends.

Trey and Pat James have gained a better understanding of each other through Positive Directions, a private Dallas-area youth intervention program.
Mark Graham
Trey and Pat James have gained a better understanding of each other through Positive Directions, a private Dallas-area youth intervention program.

James, a 47-year-old working mother, admits she has traveled a rough road in parenting. Her ex-husband was harsh and authoritarian, to the point where Jessica says in no uncertain terms that she doesn't want anything to do with him. After their divorce six years ago, James deliberately steered an opposite course, showering her children with love and favors. "I'm a pretty liberal person," she says. "I'm not conservative at all. I allow my children to do a lot of things that most people don't allow their children to do--go out on school nights, have parties."

She's wondering now if she went too far. One evening in early summer, Pat James folds herself into the corner of a sofa and gazes at the window, speaking somewhat wearily about the twins' predicaments. While Trey and Jessica soak up her love and care for them and describe her as "the perfect mom," they've generated their share of trials. Jessica, in fact, speaks matter-of-factly about her stay in a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt. Trey offers a plainspoken narrative about his arrest this year for marijuana possession.

Both kids, she says, suffer from attention deficit disorder and had difficulty staying away from drugs in their former Garland high school, which both describe as an environment where any kind of hard substance was readily available. Trey ended up developing a marijuana habit that involved skipping school and devouring a half-ounce a day with some buddies. "We just did it so much, I'm surprised my brain cells aren't all gone," Trey says.

In spring, a Garland cop caught Trey smoking a cigarette, and when he searched him and a friend, a bag of weed dropped out of Trey's FUBU pants.

His subsequent referral to the Dallas County Juvenile Department, though, would turn out to be a godsend: One of the conditions of his probation was that he participate in a Dallas-area youth intervention program called Positive Directions.

Housed in a city-owned building in a working-class Garland neighborhood, Positive Directions treated 221 youths during the most recent fiscal year who had come in contact with the juvenile justice system through relatively minor transgressions such as drug possession, theft and truancy. The goal of Positive Directions is to keep them from venturing deeper into the system and to offer an inexpensive and effective alternative to lockups, says Lynn Davis, executive director of Dallas Challenge, Inc., a nonprofit group that runs Positive Directions. During a study conducted in the late 1990s by the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, which provides all of Positive Directions' $1.25 million budget, including $342,000 for the Garland program, about 70 percent of the kids stayed out of trouble for at least 18 months after successfully completing the program, Davis says.

Positive Directions and its Garland staff of seven does more than subject the kids to a battery of drug education and anger-management classes. Case manager Gideon Agboola draws in their parents and siblings for a weekly family re-education session, where Pat and Trey James eventually became enthusiastic participants. "Now, when we first started going to Positive Directions, Trey had this horrible, horrible attitude," James says. "He didn't want anybody to tell him what he was doing was wrong."

Trey admits he saw some drawbacks at first, like the embarrassment of attending with his mom and the overall fear of dorkiness. "I thought it was pretty dumb," Trey says. "I didn't really want to do it, because it makes me feel like they're saying I need help or something. Then I got up there and saw other people from my school."

The warm and relaxed environment at Positive Directions, a nonresidential program that spends about $40 per kid for each day of participation, far less than area boot camps or lockups, won him over. He bonded with Mark Fournier, a case manager who was once diagnosed with ADD himself, and picked up some useful skills in his nine weeks of after-school sessions.

Most important, he stayed clean.

"I've hardly missed it," Trey said in July, slouched into the sofa to the point where his torso was parallel to the ground. "At first, I was kind of urging for it, but I got used to not being around it. I've been clean for three months." Part of his Positive Directions regimen, he adds, were urine tests for the presence of drugs.

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