Above: Elizabeth delivers a PowerPoint presentation in court about her community service project.
Tears and tie-dye filled a Lane County courtroom in early September as Elizabeth sat through her final hearing as a youth in Oregon Youth Authority custody.
The tears were mostly happy, and the tie-dye was the tangible result of Elizabeth’s hard work over the previous few months.
It was a big day. Elizabeth was about to become the first OYA youth to graduate from Lane County’s juvenile drug treatment court.
It’s called RAP Court, or Recovery and Progress. It’s an intensive program for teens on county probation who are working toward recovery from substance use.
Youth go through a series of check-ins with RAP Court staff and partners, weekly court appearances, meetings with drug and alcohol counselors, regular urinalysis testing, and incentives for accomplishments.
At the end, they complete a public service project and present about it in court on graduation day.
If they finish, they are done with probation and get to ceremonially shred their juvenile record in the courtroom. In reality, they have to stay crime-free for the following six months before their record is expunged.
“It’s definitely helped me stay sober and find a support group that I can connect with,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t have to be scared to tell them what’s going on and then [have them] judge me.”
“RAP Court essentially wraps services around kids that are transitioning back to our community,” says Lani Thomas, Elizabeth’s OYA juvenile parole and probation officer. “It’s this huge network of support for our kids where they know they can come and ask for help.”
Thomas used to be a probation officer for Lane County. When she started working for OYA last year, she wanted to give OYA youth the opportunity to access RAP Court’s services.
Elizabeth, who was assigned to Thomas at the county and then again when she escalated to OYA custody, was one of the biggest RAP Court advocates.
“Elizabeth really badly wanted to be the first kid from OYA to come into the program,” Thomas said. “She helped me keep the ball rolling because she would ask me about it a lot.”
Thomas also received a lot of help from her Lane County OYA colleague, Jeremy Fawver, who became her partner in bringing the program to OYA youth.
With Elizabeth paving the way, RAP Court now has four OYA youth participating, with two more scheduled to start in October.
On her graduation day, Elizabeth sat between Thomas and defense attorney Janae Bly. Across from her sat Judge Ilisa Rooke-Ley, not on the bench, but in a chair on the floor, so she could see Elizabeth eye-to-eye.
Elizabeth and her mother sat at the same table, although they did not speak with each other. Their relationship has been strained for a while.
Still, family members are a critical part of RAP Court. Without the support of the whole family, youth struggle even more to stay sober.
Elizabeth presented a PowerPoint about her service project. She loves tie-dye, and she loves hanging out at Hosea Youth Services, a program that serves at-risk and homeless youth in Eugene.
She combined her two passions by creating tie-dye clothing and selling it to friends and supporters. All proceeds went to Hosea.
Several of her buyers wore their tie-dye to her graduation (including the judge, underneath her robe).
“Tie-dye is my healthy hobby,” Elizabeth said. “If I get bored, I have something to do, not just with my hands, but I can also express emotion in the colors.”
The tears in court came from her supporters. They described her transition from a runaway who struggled with substance abuse and knew how to “work the system,” to a responsible young woman in recovery who is about to graduate high school almost a year early, has a job, and even holds her peers accountable.
“You can see the difference in her when she’s been able to maintain her sobriety, and I think that’s something she’s really embraced through this program,” Thomas said. “She knows how to ask for help when she needs it. … She’s really made a miraculous change over the last few years.”
Judge Rooke-Ley described Elizabeth as “a wonderful person” who has “been through a lot and come out through the other end a stronger person.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if someday I see your name plastered in the newspaper for being an astronaut who set off to live on Mars for a year,” she said. “Seriously, nothing would surprise me about your future.”
Elizabeth’s actual plan is to get her high school diploma and then enroll in college to become an emergency room nurse.
“I’ve learned a lot of skills about self-control and positive thinking,” she said. “It’s just all about perspective on the situation, and I think I’ve really grown from a negative mindset to a positive one.”