Children soar through mentorship in juvenile justice programs

Once, children sentenced to the Williamson County Juvenile Justice Center by a judge encountered a military academy culture of self-discipline and increased adherence to rules.

Despite some progress, recidivism rates were high, with many young people penetrating further into the justice system. Executive Director Scott Matthew and Deputy Director Matt Smith searched for a better solution. Their search took them down several paths, and one was at Round Rock Starry, a local non-profit organization known for supporting youth and families in child protective services and the foster care system. Recognizing that children in Starry programs have experienced significant trauma, its leadership has implemented the internationally recognized Trust-Based Relationship Intervention Framework.

TBRI, the brainchild of the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development at Texas Christian University, offers innovative approaches to working with traumatized children.

Terry Cook

A look at the backgrounds of young people at the juvenile center revealed that 83% of its residents had been in the CPS system, with 27% of these young people previously removed from their homes.

Recognizing that youth in both systems have similar backgrounds and that many touch both systems, in 2016 Matthew and Smith requested TBRI training for juvenile center staff. Their previous approach did not address the root causes of most children’s lives; the staff wanted to make a long-term positive difference in the lives of the children in their care.

Through TBRI training, juvenile agency staff learned how negative childhood experiences affect normal brain development when toxic stress levels are daily occurrences for children.

So how do children with brains designed for survival normally function in this world? They fight. TBRI practitioners blend nurturing and structure when working with children on their behavioral responses to life events and pressures. The emphasis is on teaching these young people appropriate coping skills. Mentoring and teaching, not punishment, brings improvement and positive change for children. Lives can be changed. In many cases, the time spent at the juvenile center may be the best thing in these children’s lives to date.

When comparing the 2019 data to the 2016 military structure, youth grievances decreased by 83%, suicide watches by 93%, use of physical restraints by 31%, and completion of programs increased by 45%.

In addition, two Williamson County district judges involved in youth cases, Family Court Judge Betsy Lambeth and Juvenile Court Judge Stacey Mathews, were trained, along with their staff at the TBRI and organized a legal conference in 2017 on this subject. With the TBRI approach, probation violation revocations dropped from 86 cases in fiscal year 2016 to 26 cases in fiscal year 2019. (Fiscal year 2020 and 2021 data are too skewed by COVID- 19 to be included).

In addition, Mathews challenged juvenile center staff to meet the needs of some of their most difficult cases to reduce the number of children in the care of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, the state correctional facility. Indeed, the TBRI approach and refined staff collaboration reached even these children, and in fiscal year 2019, only one child was engaged in the public facility, keeping young people in residential services closer. from their home in Williamson County.

This work is not limited to children in juvenile services. The TBRI is taught to families, schools, and community providers by Juvenile Center staff to further support the progress of these children as they transition back to home and their communities.

On February 15, Juvenile Services was recognized by the Court of Commissioners for being designated as an ambassador organization for the TBRI, the fifth group worldwide and the first juvenile justice agency to receive such a designation from the Karyn Purvis Institute.

That’s not all. There is another related line of approach with these children. This is called “finding their spark(s)”. The Search Institute, a nonprofit that promotes positive youth development and advances equity, explored why some young people thrive while others don’t. The institute defines interests and passions as “sparks,” lighting up a child’s life when encouraged to pursue them. Anyone can help a child discover their known sparks for supporting positive developmental and academic outcomes. Research from the Search Institute indicates that more pathways to these sparks would lead to greater academic success as children connect and engage with programs.

Youth Services staff work alongside parents and young people to identify the spark in each child, find a pathway for them to participate in it, and then support it. They encourage the families of these children to participate in outings to share the experience, such as simple picnics where there may be canoeing, fishing and biking. Others may be painting, writing, music, and athletics. Juvenile Services staff reach out to the community in need, and businesses and citizens respond by providing musical instruments, discounted tuition fees, free gym memberships, and even shopping and by delivering basketball goals at home.

Addressing trauma as a root cause and developing sparks changes the trajectory of these children’s lives, through the courage to seek change and be that change at Williamson County Juvenile Services.

Terry Cook is county commissioner for Precinct 1, which includes most of Round Rock, most of Austin in Williamson County, and part of southern Cedar Park.

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