Outreach programs help at-risk youth, families

By Shannon Jenkins

Not every juvenile offender deserves a jail cell.

In fact, the juvenile courts in Clayton and Henry counties are working hard to rehabilitate these youths to keep them out of jail and out of the courts.

Both counties offer a variety of programs for young adults on probation who have been found delinquent and those who are at risk of becoming juvenile offenders. Some of the issues these youth - and in some cases their parents - are dealing with include being raped or molested, living with alcoholism and drugs in the home or not having self-value. Problems vary widely from one case to another.

If young people live in a dysfunctional environment where there is abuse, neglect, lack of parental involvement, poverty, lack of education, and/or drugs and alcohol, one Henry County official said there has to be a process to re-program and rehabilitate these individuals.

"Sending someone off to jail or detention is just geography," said Sandra Reagan, the director of community services/programs and grants for Henry County Juvenile Court's Youth Juvenile Outreach Program (YJOP). "Individual needs must be met on matters of the heart and soul. When the inside is changed, it will become evident on the outside. Doesn't it make more sense to rehabilitate and restore rather than to sentence and build more jail cells to house individuals?"

Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske agrees.

"All studies show that jail makes kids worse," he said, "especially if you send the wrong kid there who is low- or medium-risk without using community-based programming."

Programs in both counties deal with a variety of topics, including anger management, substance abuse prevention/intervention, decision-making skills, parenting skills, communication skills, accountability, truancy, individual and family counseling and tutorial education.

In Clayton County, the average age of youth in these programs is between 12 and 16, while Henry County usually works with young people between 12 and 17. The programs were designed to address the differing needs of each youth. Whether or not a youth is considered as low-risk, medium-risk or high-risk also plays a role in which programs the children are enrolled.

These tailored programs appear to be very effective for both counties.

"Since creating the diversion and alternative detention programs, we have been able to divert hundreds of kids to informal programs that have resulted in the decrease of probation caseload sizes from 250 to 40 per officer," Teske said. "As a result, the children on probation are undoubtedly the higher risk kids who need the greatest amount of supervision. This has produced a decrease in the re-offense rate among this higher risk group of kids because they are supervised intensively and receive more treatment."

Teske said officials must be smart in the way they treat the children to avoid jeopardizing their rehabilitation. Determining a youth's risk level and matching them to the proper program is the first step towards helping that child, Teske said.

"There is no such thing as one size fits all in juvenile community corrections programming," he said. "To think that way will make matters worse for the kid, family and the community."

Once these children participate in these programs, Teske said very few ever come back.

Adolphus Graves, the Clayton County juvenile detention alternative coordinator, attributes this success to working with other agencies in the county as well as the surrounding metro-Atlanta counties.

"The ability to collaborate with those agencies eliminates a great deal of red tape and allows the children of metro-Atlanta to receive optimal services in a very time appropriate manner," he said. "We lean on each other for support, and we help other agencies in their efforts to treat and rehabilitate juvenile offenders."

Since YJOP was initiated five years ago in Henry County, Reagan said the programs have helped more than 1,800 youths and parents improve their relationships with each other and turn their lives around. The program was originally designed for juvenile offenders and was expanded to offer services for the community as a whole as a means to prevent future problems and intervene with current ones, Reagan said.

"Providing these programs to the community will enable the family some form of prevention and help before things worsen," she said. "It is a preventive measure to deter youth in entering the court system, while also providing support and help to the family."

Darrel King, a YJOP instructor who primarily works with adults, said some youth enrolled in the program when it first began kept getting back into trouble. He and his colleagues searched for the root of this problem and discovered they needed to work with parents as well, which led to the program's expansion to the community.

Now, King said about 90 percent of youth are avoiding slipping into trouble again. Parents and their children are learning to understand each other through the programs, he said. King's job is to help parents approach their offspring as young adults rather than young children.

"Our passion is to build stronger families, better communication and respect within the home and build loving relationships," Reagan said. "We may not be able to help every family. But when it is all said and done, if we see that we have helped even one (family), we are doing what we set out to do - to change families one at a time."

For more information about the Clayton County programs, call Adolphus Graves at (770) 603-5274. For Henry County residents interested in YJOP, call Sandy Reagan at (770) 954-2271.