Group aims at keeping juveniles out of jail

By Trina Trice

Clayton County professionals want to help the juvenile court system keep as many of the county's youth out of jail as possible.

That's why they are volunteering as members of a panel for the FAST (Finding Alternatives for Safety and Treatment) Start program.

The panel meets three times a week and includes representatives from the Clayton Center, Behavioral Services; the Department of Family and Children Services; and the Clayton County school system.

"Our goal is to find alternatives to detention while keeping in mind the safety of the community," said Doug Koschel, Social Services case manager for DFCS.

The county currently has more than 500 juveniles in detention, over 1 percent of the student population enrolled in Clayton County Schools. That's a number Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske hopes FAST Start will help decrease.

"In the old system, before this program, I (was) all by myself," Teske said. "A judge is not a psychologist, psychiatrist, an educator, counselor or a social worker. I don't wear all those hats. A community asking that of me is unfair. But as a judge, I should be responsible enough to ask for help."

That's where the FAST Start panel comes in.

Members of the panel try to piece together the puzzle that tells the story of why a youth is a delinquent, said Jean Gaissert, a coordinator of Student Services for Clayton County Schools.

Fellow panelist Angela Hamilton of the Clayton Center Behavioral and Child and Adolescent Services, agrees.

"We try to determine if there is a pre-existing mental illness," Hamilton said. "We look at school information to see if there are problems in school. If so, we link up (with the school representative)."

The panel also talks to the parents who provide a pivotal piece to the puzzle, Teske said.

"Interacting with parents helps us to understand (what went wrong)," he said.

The kinds of alternatives the panel could suggest for juveniles include electronic monitoring, surveillance and multisystemic therapy.

The latter is a term used to describe a method in which a juvenile's entire family, called a system, is evaluated to get to the core of the youth's problem.

Providing alternatives keeps low- to medium-at-risk juveniles from being detained and exposed to higher at-risk juveniles. A low at-risk juvenile's interaction with other juveniles who may never be helped only increases his chances of becoming a higher at-risk juvenile, Teske says.

"Why does adult correction get more money than juvenile justice," Teske asked. "We're the ones feeding into (adult correction facilities). But what if we spent more money on the juvenile system. The bad kids, we give up on them. We can help them have a happy, productive life. If we don't help them we might as well condemn them."

Gaissert doesn't believe there is such a thing as bad children.

"Are they really bad kids or kids doing bad things," she said. "Once you get inside of a kid's life and really figure out what the problems are, you find out that they are just kids that have done bad things, made bad choices. Hopefully, we can pull them away from doing bad things. Some, you can tell just by looking in their eyes there's nothing we can do for them, but that's a small percentage."

Teske remembers when he was younger that he got into trouble on numerous occasions. One incident even required the interference of the police and fire department.

"Mercy was shown on me that day so that I'm able to wear a robe today," he said. "I remember that whenever I put my robe on."

FAST Start is part of the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative supported, in part, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and through the Georgia Children & Youth Coordinating Council with alternative to detention programs provided by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.