Suwanee Juboonsong is developing a community-based rehabilitation alternative for boys and young men caught up in the harsh strictures of Thailand's juvenile court and detention system.
The New Idea
To help young Thais with chemical dependency, Suwanee has developed a therapeutic alternative to large, impersonal juvenile detention centers financed and managed by the state. She has won the support of the juvenile court in her province for her community-based residential treatment center. In carrying out her initial project, Suwanee has been careful to avoid outside interference in the center's day-to-day management, even going so far as to reject an offer of financial assistance from the local government. Using a strategy she hopes to apply to the development of future centers, Suwanee has raised the necessary funds for the center's operation from the local community and from a national network of prominent Thais working with the court systems.
In Thailand, the juvenile court system treats juvenile drug offenders no differently from other young criminals. State-run juvenile detention centers receive young people from all backgrounds, with little attention given to the type or severity of the crime. It is no wonder, then, that the system produces angry young people who grow into angry adults, many continuing along a path of addiction and crime. In April 2000, hundreds of residents from four detention centers near Bangkok escaped, while thousands more protested against their treatment and living conditions. Instead of providing an opportunity for healing to young drug abusers, detention centers are a breeding ground for more sophisticated criminal behavior.The increasing number of juvenile drug offenders in Thailand suggests an urgent problem. In the rural town in which Suwanee lives, the juvenile court has convicted more than five hundred young people in the past eighteen months alone, with most offenses relating to the use and distribution of amphetamines. In juvenile cases, the judge assigns follow-up to an associate judge, a layperson of high social standing serving in this capacity on a voluntary basis. In Suwanee's view, associate judges are untapped resources. If properly trained in their roles, this group of individuals could be instrumental in reversing the cycle of drug use and criminal behavior among Thailand's young people by insuring appropriate rehabilitation.
Suwanee has pursued two primary objectives in launching her first center. Her first goal is to set up an effective, sustainable rehabilitation program for juvenile drug offenders. The staffing of this program will, she hopes, rely on the leadership of recovered addicts. Second, she wants to involve members of the community in the rehabilitation and prevention process on an ongoing basis.The center, a group home that currently houses forty boys and young men, is more than a drug treatment facility. In Suwanee's approach, rehabilitation includes activities designed to engage young people, building their mental, spiritual, and physical health. The daily regimen of classroom education, group therapy, sports, and participation in community projects keeps the center running and encourages interaction with the local community. Suwanee works with the residents to analyze the home's food needs and plant the necessary crops to provide food for the center. Residents gain satisfaction from ownership of the entire process and become more at ease with personal and collective responsibility.Suwanee has already taken the next step of convincing others around the country to adopt a community-based approach to rehabilitating juvenile drug offenders. She spends a significant amount of time meeting with juvenile court judges and other local officials in provinces throughout Thailand, as well as with senior officials in the Ministry of Justice. She insists that she is not asking them simply to adopt her approach. She is instead encouraging communities to offer locally-based alternatives to state-run detention centers because local solutions offer the opportunity for success and sustainability to a greater degree than do those imposed from outside. In building a network of support, Suwanee is also meeting with leaders from the NGO community who are interested in her approach. As a result, her home receives a steady flow of visitors eager to learn the operational side of the program. Operating costs of the center require approximately seventy dollars per month for each young person, which, while within the means of middle class Thais, is out of the reach of poor families. Suwanee's experience so far has been that the community is more than willing to invest in a solution to this problem, allowing her to offer need-based financial help to prospective residents and their families. With very little publicity Suwanee has been able to raise sufficient funds to sustain the operation and even to expand the center's activities. She believes that graduates from the home must be trained to carry on the work. Thus, she sees the first generation of graduates as an essential element of her long-term design and a key channel for spreading the idea to other parts of the country.
Suwanee, who was born in 1951, grew up in an upper-middle class family conscious of aiding those less fortunate. Her father, who owned a factory, provided school scholarships to the children of his employees. Suwanee returned home after receiving a university degree in psychology to help run the family business, which is now a medium-sized factory that makes preserved fruit for sale in the northeastern region of Thailand. In 1982 Suwanee began working as a volunteer youth counselor, advising students on career opportunities beyond middle and high school. Seeing that the system catered to strong students, she focused on weaker students, linking them with her friends–professionals in the community–for training and employment opportunities. A few years later, Suwanee volunteered as a social worker, aiding the juvenile court in following up on youth probation cases. She placed ten of her assigned young people in her factory and found that none of them returned to drugs or crime.Following her appointment as an associate judge in 1995, Suwanee was charged with the dual tasks of counseling young people and their families and advocating for them in court. This vantage point enabled her to see that existing youth detention centers did little to address the root causes of criminal behavior among young people. She also observed that she and her peers–all associate judges–were untapped resources in combating drug use and criminal behavior by young people. She spent her first three-year term assessing the needs of her district's juvenile court system and exploring best practices of courts around the country. Equipped with a more comprehensive perspective, Suwanee initiated the rehabilitation center during her second term as an associate judge.