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A Different Direction

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

-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.

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.

While Trey worked his way through classes in violence prevention and drug and family education, James watched her son take significant steps toward maturity. "He was with other kids who were in the same situation and realized he wasn't the only one who had messed up," she says. "He had an opportunity to vent, and he'd listen to other people's sides, and he really, really started enjoying going there."

One evening in June, the topic in the family education class was "setting limits." Agboola, a courtly, soft-spoken Nigerian man, had a couple of teens walk slowly toward each other until one violated the other's personal space and let out a small warning yelp. He used that as a springboard to talk about handling conflicts in a way that preserves respect. It was typical of Positive Directions' orderly, common-sense curriculum, offering nothing earth-shatteringly new but giving the dozen or so parents and their troubled teens ample opportunity to react, discuss, crack jokes and vent.

Pat James was soaking it up--especially when Agboola turned to the parents' perspective and talked about setting rules and sticking with them.

For her, Positive Directions was a revelation. "I learned that I'm basically an enabler," she says. "I allow my children to smoke. I'm an enabler of their habits, because I don't say, 'You absolutely cannot.'

"One of the other things I learned is if you're going to set limits, you're going to have to have consequences for actions. I'm real bad about letting stuff like that slide. Jessica, for example, can't use a towel more than once because she throws it on the floor in her bedroom. And I go in and wash the towels. It's those kind of things I really shouldn't allow."

Not long after Agboola's class, she would get a chance to put the teaching to good use. Jessica, ready to hit the town dressed in a T-shirt and Daisy Dukes, announced, keys in hand, that she was going to take her mother's car.

It wasn't really a question, but Pat James had an answer: no.


Summer went smoothly at the James residence, in a just-hanging-in-there-middle-class neighborhood of Garland. James started home-schooling her kids, away from the temptations of a drug-infested public high school. Trey did community service at Positive Directions, went to church camp and loved it.

By the end of July, he'd sailed through his probation period flawlessly.

Within a couple of months, though, James saw a few of the old habits creeping back: the belligerent attitude, the old practice of sleeping all day.

Sadly, she realized the obvious.

"Trey has fallen off the wagon," she said on the phone last week, her voice choked up. "He just wants everyone to like him. They led him back into it. It just makes me sick."

Problems with his dad and a girlfriend didn't help, she says. While Trey has stayed out of trouble with the law, she's considering a residential drug treatment program where he can "dry out."

Trey, it seems, is caught between decisions, and James hopes that his recent struggles are only a temporary setback. She catalogs Trey's many positive changes: He works with his dad, cleans the house, chooses to eat dinner with the family.

She still offers high praise for Positive Directions. "I really do believe it was an excellent thing," she says. "I just think sometimes that's not enough. They need that 24-hour supervision."


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