RATON, New Mexico (STPNS) -- As supervisor of the New Mexico Juvenile Probation and Parole Office in Raton, Steve Brooks has seen the trend developing in the last couple of years: A growing number of kids are getting involved in harder-core drugs.

?We have a substance abuse problem in Raton. We?re starting to catch more serious drugs,? Brooks says, explaining that methamphetamine and cocaine have taken the place of marijuana and alcohol for many youth who get referred to his office. He says the ?marked increase? he has seen in the youth involvement of harder drugs is simply part of the meth epidemic gripping New Mexico, as well as a result of Raton sitting at a ?crossroads? ? the two major highways of Interstate 25 and U.S. 87/64 ? for drug traffic.

In addition, bad family situations and influences, including a twisted thought process many people have that inappropriately rationalizes drug use among local youth, only adds to the problem. A big part of the challenge facing Brooks and other officials in the juvenile justice system is changing the environment kids grow up in ? and unfortunately, it is the same environment they often return to after going through the juvenile justice system and perhaps even serving time at a state correctional facility.

A key component to a new program Brooks is helping organize in Colfax County targets a youth?s family, as well as the young offender himself. By ?working to strengthen the family? and trying to make the whole family responsible for the child?s actions, Brooks says, perhaps kids will end up in better home situations than they came from when they were arrested.

?That?s why the current system doesn?t work,? Brooks says of the current system not addressing the families of youthful drug offenders.

Brooks says a mindset must be altered. ?Changing the community norms,? he calls it.

He says many people think, ?I did that (drugs) when I was a kid and I turned out OK.? Instead, Brooks wants to see people understand, ?Wrong is wrong and right is right.?

In order to try to accomplish that and to reach out to some young drug offenders with a new approach from within the local juvenile justice system, Brooks last year wrote a proposal to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in response to an e-mail notification from the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department that asked for the proposals from those offices within the department that were interested in starting a ?juvenile drug court.? Brooks? proposal ? with the support of Deputy District Attorney Leslie Fernandez and District Judge Sam Sanchez, who has since moved to the Taos bench ? earned a federal invitation for Brooks and other local juvenile justice officials to go to Los Angeles last summer for training in the drug court program.

Juveniles accepted into the program must follow requirements and meet goals set by the program?s ?team? of varied professionals. The offender must meet requirements within certain timelines to progress to the next ?phase? of his individualized program.

The drug court program features four phases that an offender must complete. The youth only moves to the next phase when the team of program supervisors determine the requirements of the preceding phase have been adequately fulfilled. The overall program is designed to take nine months to a year to complete.

Among some of the conditions in different phases ? some are included in more than one phase ? are group and individual counseling for both the youth and his family, regular meetings with probation officials, random drug tests (as frequently as three times a week or more during the initial phase of the program), curfews, potential electronic home monitoring, school attendance with no unexcused absences (or working a job if the youth has graduated or has gotten a GED), participation in ?Life Skills? groups and activities, paying restitution if any is owed, and developing a relapse prevention plan with counselors. Throughout the phases, the youth and his family are required to have regular ?hearings? with the district judge, who has the authority of his position to issue orders in the case, setting the requirements for the individual case after being ?fully informed by the team.?

The technique is called ?therapeutic jurisprudence,? according to Brooks. ?We?re using the judge?s powers to order what?s needed for these families.?

The drug testing part of the program can even be extended to the youth?s family members if funding becomes available. The program plan says the tests of family members could not be used to make them ?face sanctions? ? such as criminal charges ? for positive tests, but would be used only ?for improvement and modification of the treatment of the youth.?

Youthful offenders are to be referred to the drug court program ? for admittance consideration by the team ? primarily by the juvenile probation and parole office, but can also be referred by the district attorney?s office or the child?s defense attorney.

The program still must receive federal approval for funding to be issued to it, but Brooks is confident the federal money will eventually get the OK for the Colfax County Juvenile Drug Court. In the meantime, Brooks is trying to get the program running on a limited basis using state money received by the Raton-based Service Organization for Youth (SOY). Fermin Ulibarri, the SOY executive director, is a member of the county drug court program?s team that will make decisions about youth involved in the program.

Ulibarri fills the role of a treatment-provider representative on the team. Other members of the team are the drug court coordinator and drug court case manager, a defense attorney, and representatives from the district attorney?s office, juvenile probation and parole office, and local education system. District Judge John Paternoster heads the team, but casts a vote during the decision-making process of individual cases only in the event of a tie, which could occur if one or more of the other team members are absent for a vote.

Outside of the program, the way the system currently operates, Brooks reviews a youth?s case and decides on his own, perhaps with input from others in his office, whether to forward the case to the district attorney, who then decides separately if a petition ? a criminal charge ? will be filed.

Getting everyone on the team to ?give up their (own) power? and operate as a single unit will be a key part of making the new program work to its potential, Brooks says.

?It?s going to be a huge learning process,? he says.

And although the program?s eight-member voting team makes the official decisions ? such as specific program requirements for an individual youth, and when a youth can move from one phase to the next ? the program?s written plan calls for participation and input to be sought from ?any community member who may be vital (to) the success of the individual youth.? That type of flexibility to cater the program to individualized needs ? while still enforcing certain hard-fast requirements ? is part of what makes the program unique from the standard juvenile justice system.

?Specialization is the way the justice system is moving today,? says Brooks. ?We?ve finally found out one size does not fit all.?

The juvenile drug court?s mission statement: ?...to promote sober and non-criminal lifestyles for drug and alcohol involved youth by utilizing family and community resources.? The program targets youth who have a ?documented history? of substance abuse, who have admitted to the problem and a parent or guardian has also confirmed it, and who have committed ?a delinquent act? involving substance abuse. Anyone admitted to the program must be younger than 18 and not deemed to be a ?violent offender? ? a decision based on the crime or crimes committed most recently or in the past.

Brooks described the juvenile drug court as ?generally a kid?s last shot to stay in the community? rather than going to a correctional facility. The program is designed to be ?not punitive in nature,? but rehabilitative, he says.

Those who fail to successfully complete the program?s phases will be expelled from the program. That will trigger a probation violation ? completing the program will be a probation condition ? and the youth could find himself being sentenced to a correctional facility.

The juvenile drug program began in Florida and was expanded by federal authorities who wanted to bring its success to other states. Ten years ago or more, Doņa Ana County was the first New Mexico county to establish the program. Brooks says the most successful program in the state ? with close to 80 percent of participants completing the program ? is in Taos County, which is in the same judicial district as Colfax County and should be a good resource for the startup program based in Raton.

In Colfax County during the state?s last fiscal year from July 2005 through June 2006 ? the most recent full-year data available ? 74 youth from ages 12 to 17 were arrested for drug possession, according to figures compiled by Brooks. An additional 43 were arrested for minor in possession of alcohol. Whether it is drugs or alcohol, the bulk of the arrests were of 15- and 16-year-olds.

Brooks believes the juvenile drug court can make a difference for many of those mostly teen-aged boys and girls. The program will offer a new option while each youth must bring the personal motivation, Brooks says.

?That kid has to want to change,? he says. ?If he wants to change, he?s going to be successful. No kid grew up saying, ?I want to be a drug addict.? All kids want something positive out of life.?