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How one county keeps troubled teens out of prison

More than a decade ago, Berrien County, in Michigan’s southwest corner, embarked on a juvenile justice plan built from a core belief: Nothing matters more than family.

In 2001, officials in the county’s family court system created programs aimed at kids who were at greatest risk of committing a serious crime.

One program targets truant teens who had scrapes with the juvenile court system, in which parents and teens learn constructive family dynamics. Another offers intensive probation for teens at high risk of committing crimes, where probation officers all but become part of the family.

The results are impressive.

According to court data, the average number of juveniles sent to juvenile facilities dropped from 120 in 2001 to 35 in 2010. Recidivism dropped from 56 percent in 1998 to 17.5 percent in 2012.

Elvin Gonzalez, who oversaw the programs when he became director of the Family Court in 2001, said the strategy is built on matching high-risk youth with community-based programs with proven track records. Those programs most often begin and end with family.

“It is the central domain in a youth's life. Kids live in an ecology. They don't live in a bubble. They live in a family system,” Gonzalez said.

Before the shift, Gonzalez said, kids who were getting in trouble were usually sent to out-of-county juvenile facilities for a year or more. But that strategy did not address the troubled homes so often at the heart of their problems. Now many remain in their home community, with resources directed at making home and family a constructive – and not destructive – force in their lives.

While the programs cost money, it cost more money to send troubled kids away. The average cost of community-based programs in Berrien County is about $5,000 per youth. The average cost of placing kids in a juvenile facility is $91,710 a year, Gonzalez said.

Berrien County sent 112 youths to residential juvenile facilities in 2000. It sent 80 in 2013.

Getting to know teens

The first step is an in-depth assessment of boys and girls and their risk factors for committing crime.

Some at highest risk are placed in a home-based, five-month treatment program known as Multisystemic Therapy, a system developed in the 1970s by a Virginia psychologist. It focuses on the array of factors that affect chronic juvenile offenders, including their homes and families, schools, neighborhoods and peer group.

It employs three masters-degree level therapists and a supervisor, engaging the children and family members in individual, family and parent therapy sessions in their homes. Therapists also visit the these young people in school and at community or neighborhood sites.

“We have worked with families that are literally homeless,” said Edie Zars, who supervises the program. “We have worked with cases of domestic abuse and a parent with chronic health issues. We had youth that have had parents pass away.

“The things we do range from helping families get furniture, get transportation, arrange medical treatment. We have a saying, 'Whatever it takes.'”

Youths diverted from formal processing in juvenile court are enrolled in a nine-month program that includes multi-family classes and up to 20 family coaching sessions, plus up to 10 months more after the youth completes the program.

From November 2010 to June 2012, 44 juveniles were served by this program. Of those, 23 graduated and 11 are still in the program. The others either dropped out or were discharged for getting into trouble. Of those who graduated, 82 percent did not commit new crimes during the following 18 months.

The county also operates an intensive probation program that overlaps with the in-home treatment program for highest-risk youths.Two probation officers supervise caseloads of up to 20 juveniles, making frequent contact at home each week. The officers make sure the young people are attending school and meeting other requirements of probation.

Part of the family

The court-ordered program, typically nine to 12 months, is for youth who have been adjudicated delinquent and are at risk of more serious crime.

“We become part of the family,” said probation officer Jamey Frank.

“We go to the home. We meet them at their jobs – all aspects,” she said” “We go to schools. When you see a kid that often for a year, you become really close to them.”

Frank believes this approach is more likely to work than sending youth away.

“Here we are working with trying to maintain in the community the supports they are going to have to live with. The reality is, that's their family and you have to make the best of the situation they are in.”

In 2006, Benton Harbor resident Cree Coates entered intensive probation at 14 after years of skipping school, getting into fights and running away from home. Coates recalled that her mother, a registered nurse, did her best to help.

“I was just a kid with bad behavior. I got around with the wrong crowd,” she said.

Under intensive probation, she had to produce daily signatures from her teachers that she was at school. She received in-home counseling from a therapist. Probation officer Frank became a most familiar face.

“I was seeing her almost every day, even on the weekends. She would just pop up,” Coates said.

Something clicked.

Coates, now 22, completed the program and graduated from high school. She is now married, enrolled in Lake Michigan College and two semesters short of a degree in corrections, parole and probation.

“She inspired me to do more with my life,” Coates said of her probation officer. “It made a huge impact.”

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