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It was a day for backslaps and high-fives.

After three long years of trial and error -- and plenty of hard work -- the first graduates of Erie County's fledgling Juvenile Treatment Court received their reward Friday in a Family Court ceremony.

The five teenagers earned framed certificates, plus something better: the praise and respect of those who had helped them through the program.

"Congratulations on being clean and sober, gentlemen," said Judge James H. Dillon, who launched the program three years ago at the suggestion of State Supreme Court Justice Sharon S. Townsend, administrative judge of the 8th Judicial District.

The teens, whose full names were not made public because of their juvenile status, each spoke for a few minutes to thank the court and their families and friends. They ranged in age from 13 to 16.

"At first I was mad a little bit. I wasn't thinking about the future -- I was thinking about the present," said James, one of the graduates. "But everybody here helped me. I'm going to miss this place."

"I think they should retire my docket number," James joked.

Another of the graduates hit home for Dillon, the judge, in a personal way -- because the young man, Dan, is a relative of his.

"My family showed me so much love," said Dan, who wants to go to culinary school and become a chef. "They accept me for who I am today. I can be who I am just because I'm proud of who I am. It's all right to be my own person."

Dillon said Dan has "always been a guy who tries hard."

"We're very proud," he said. "He's come a long way."

The juvenile treatment court officially opened on May 20, 2003. It now enrolls 33 young people, administrators said.

Friday's graduation ceremony marked the first class to finish the three-phase program, designed to help young people addicted to alcohol and drugs become sober and clean up their records.

The next graduation is expected in spring.

Dillon, who passed out the certificates to the graduates, said the program helped them avoid being placed in residential treatment facilities -- which would have cost taxpayers $86,000 for each of them.


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