FAST START volunteers sworn in

By Ed Brock

LaTonia Vickers was tired of watching the news and seeing young people in trouble.

"I feel like as a society we failed them and we need to do something to get them where they need to be," Vickers said.

So Vickers, who lives in Fayetteville, was one of 31 people sworn in last week as volunteers for the Juvenile Court of Clayton County's FAST START Program.

The FAST stands for Finding Alternatives for Safety and Treatment, the START stands for Stabilization Through Assessment Recommendation and Treatment, and their mission is to help find ways to return juvenile offenders to society as safe, law-abiding citizens.

"I look at it as a way to give back to the community, to help kids, to steer them off the wrong track and back onto the right track," said Tonee Bell of Riverdale, another FAST START volunteer.

It all started with a request from Juvenile Court Chief Judge K. Van Banke to Judge Steven C. Teske nearly three years ago. Banke knew about Teske's background in developing alternative programs for the state's department of probation and parole.

"Out of the blue he said, ?Steve, with this background of yours, would you mind looking at the way we do things and see if we can do them differently?'" Teske said.

That led Teske to Portland, Oregon where he learned about the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative established by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

"When I went out there and looked at their system and took a look at the data and saw how effective their system was in reducing recidivism through alternative programs and compared it to our system I knew it would work in Clayton County," Teske said.

The premise of the program is based on research that showed that the placement of low risk offenders in programs designed for high risk offenders actually increased the chance that they would offend again because they learned more bad behavior from the serious offenders. Likewise, high risk offenders placed in programs for low or medium risk offenders were also likely to offend again.

"It begs the question how do you know who's a high risk and who's a low risk?" Teske said.

To do that one had to establish an assessment system, and the volunteers like Bell and Vickers will be part of that system along with experts from agencies that deal with juvenile crime. That includes the Clayton Center for Behavioral Health Services, the county's Department of Family and Children Services, Rainbow House, the Youth Empowerment Project, Inc., Clayton County Public Schools, the Clayton County Office of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, the county's District Attorney's Office and Victims Assistance program.

"The volunteers are there to give the community perspective," Teske said. "Because these professionals may not live in Clayton County I want to make sure there is a Clayton County person there talking about Clayton County kids."

The training process is still ongoing, Bell said, and will probably never really stop.

"Every situation, every case, is probably going to be different," Bell said.

Teske said the system is proven to work. For example, since the implementation of a Detention Screening Instrument at the front gate of the Regional Youth Detention Center in Lovejoy the number of African American youths put into detention has dropped 11 percent so far this year, Teske said.

The DSI scores young offenders based on the severity of their current offense, pending offenses, their background, their current status in the system, whether they have a history of running away and whether they are currently on probation. An offender scoring 0 through 7 on the DSI is a low risk offender, 8 through 11 are medium risk and over 12 is a high risk.

The DSI is a "validated instrument," meaning a panel of sociologists and criminologists studied the pattern of offenders in Georgia and determined which ones are most likely to re-offend.

Also, since they began sending more low and medium risk offenders into diversion programs rather than probation the number of youths on probation is down by 30 percent and most of them are high-risk offenders. That reduces the workload of probation officers.

"Now we're spending more time with these kids who need more time," Teske said.

In Teske's version of the program he takes a "front end loading" approach, making sure the panel reviews the offenders case prior to sentencing.

"The review the child's case, review the family, assess what are the needs and causes of the delinquent behavior," Teske said. "What can be done in the community to let the child go home until the next hearing."

That could mean getting DFCS involved or sending the youths to the Rainbow House shelter for a cooling-off period. Under this program agencies that once operated almost independently of each other now meet three times a week.

That's part of avoiding the creation of a "juvenile justice non-system," Teske said, in which each agency works under its own guidelines rather than together.

"What we're doing here in Clayton County is breaking the barriers down by bringing them to the table so they can bring their services to bear on these families (of juvenile offenders)," Teske said.