Boy Scouts Behind Bars

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

( - You would be hard-pressed to find a Norman Rockwell painting depicting Boy Scout Troop 316. That's because the boys in this troop are juvenile delinquents committed to the Center for Drug-Free Living, Inc. (CDFL) in Brevard County, Florida by the state's criminal justice system.

Believed to be the first of its kind, Troop 316 was founded by volunteer and scoutmaster, Nanette Zornes. The unique juvenile justice program has been in business for five years at the CDFL and is funded mainly by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice said Joan Ballard, director of community relations for the CDFL.

Dianne Hirth, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice considers Zornes' innovative volunteer effort "a positive contribution" to the state's juvenile justice program because it "supplements" efforts made by staff to rehabilitate the troubled youth.

A lot of the youth that arrive at the CDFL come from "dysfunctional families" and "need positive role models in their lives," said Hirth.

Ballard noted that the majority of the adolescent boys ages 10 to 14 are committed to the CDFL because "they've either been involved in sexual matters or felonies." She added, "They're not you're model kids."

Boys committed to the CDFL are not obligated to participate in Troop 316 during their four to six month sentences. However, Hirth observed, "The more positive experiences and the more mentoring they can get, the better."

The staff at the CDFL is dedicated to rehabilitating the 20 boys who are committed to its confines at any given time. However, it can sometimes be "impossible" for staffers to be role models for the boys, said Hirth. As an outsider and a volunteer, Zornes has little trouble assuming such a responsibility.

At first meeting, the boys typically find it hard to believe that somebody like Zornes would volunteer to spend her free time with a bunch of juvenile delinquents. Zornes, Ballard said, reminds the skeptical scouts that it is important for them to "learn some of these models and qualities that we teach in scouts."

"You have to understand that these kids don't trust too many people, and that's part of their problem," said Ballard. However, she added, Zornes' commitment has been used to win their trust.

"[The boys] know that someone goes there just because they want to be with them," Hirth said.

In fact, Zornes' commitment to Troop 316 has even attracted the attention of Florida Governor Jeb Bush. In 2001, Zornes and her assistant, Vincent Harano, were presented by Bush with the Points of Light award for demonstrating exemplary service to the community.

Citing an example of Zornes' service, Ballard said she is often found scavenging for old tents and buying supplies with her own checkbook. "She's done all kinds of things to make it as normal an outcome for these kids as possible," Ballard added.

An incentive for the scouts of Troop 316 is that by changing their lifestyle and earning Zornes' trust, they are "rewarded" by the CDFL with the opportunity to go camping off-premises, Ballard said. The scouts are accompanied and monitored by CDFL staff at all times on such trips.

Zornes' countless hours spent mentoring and camping with participants in Troop 316 exhibit "caring on an adult's part; it shows volunteerism; it just shows that this is normal everyday life - that people do things for each other in a very positive way," Ballard said. But for many of them, she added, "it's the first time they've seen that."

Ballard hopes the example set by Zornes and Troop 316 can be used as a model for juvenile detention facilities nationwide. "If you have a successful program," she said "you don't have to reinvent the wheel - you can go back and use what's already in the community. This (Zornes' Troop 316) is the perfect example of that."

Ballard hopes the boys will continue in scouting after they are released from the CDFL. She maintains that the Boy Scouts of America and the moral, civic and character values the organization teaches are essential to their "reintegration into the community."