A few weeks ago, The Chronicle of Social Change began “Positive Youth Justice: Curbing Crime, Building Assets,” a series that imagines an entire continuum of juvenile justice services built on the positive youth development framework. We accomplish the “creation” of that continuum by profiling successful programs and organizations all over the country.
Today, we look at a program in Tarrant County, Texas, that works with juvenile offenders – and their families – in their communities.
Last week, our Positive Youth Justice series explored the use of a community conferencing approach in Oakland, Calif. That program diverts youth from the system after arrest.
The next logical step on the juvenile justice continuum is handling youth who are processed after arrest. There have long been three traditional options available to systems: probation, residential treatment and incarceration in juvenile facilities.
Most state and county juvenile justice systems have reduced the number and rate of juveniles admitted to secure or residential confinement. But many communities still lack community-based options beyond the very light involvement of juvenile probation.
Tarrant County, Texas, has filled that need for more than 20 years through partnership with the only national provider of community corrections that uses a youth development framework.
The Tarrant County Advocate Program (TCAP) pairs paid advocates with high-risk juveniles and their families in an attempt to identify and build on the strengths of both.
“They’re not just serving that kid,” said Randy Turner, director and chief probation officer of Tarrant County Juvenile Services (TCJS). “You’ll have the younger brother, a mom that might need to take classes. They’re helping that family, as a unit, connect to the right resources.”
The program began amidst a violent gang war, and immediately cut the county’s juvenile incarceration rate nearly in half. It continues to post strong results with youth that otherwise might be too big a risk to leave in the community.
“If necessary, I can put an advocate in a kid’s back pocket for a lot of hours,” said Turner, who has spent more than 40 years working in juvenile justice. “That’s intrusive, and we have the capability of doing that.”
How It Started
Tarrant County is located in North Texas, and Fort Worth is the seat of the county. In the early 1990s, it was home to a gang war between the Bloods, Crips, and Latin Kings. According to a feature on Fort Worth gangs by Fort Worth Weekly, the city’s police tallied 31 gang-related killings in 1990, 23 in 1991, 11 in 1992, and a staggering 60 in 1993.
Polytechnic Heights and Stop Six, two predominantly African-American and Latino communities in Fort Worth, were at the heart of that conflict.
At the time, counties in Texas had very little in the way of community options when it came to serving adjudicated youths. They had little incentive because it cost them nothing to place a juvenile offender into the state-run juvenile prisons operated by the Texas Youth Commission (TYC).
More than a million people have lived in Tarrant County in 1992, and only about 15,000 of them live in Polytechnic Heights and Stop Six. But 40 percent of the youth the county sent to TYC facilities came from those two neighborhoods.
Carey Cockerell, Tarrant County’s chief probation officer at the time, said he and several county probation leaders reached out to Rick Williamson about the lack of state support for any option other than TYC facilities and county probation. Williamson, a conservative member of the legislature’s appropriations committee at the time, secured $16 million to help counties establish community corrections programs.
Cockerell needed to find an organization capable of working with high-risk youth in the community. A national juvenile justice reform consultant named Paul DeMuro recommended he consider Youth Advocate Programs (YAP).
YAP was founded in the mid-1970s by Tom Jeffers. He was second in command on the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services staff that famously closed all of the state’s juvenile prisons over one weekend. It now has contracts for juvenile justice systems in 20 states.
Cockerell flew east to observe YAP’s Philadelphia program. “We liked what we saw,” he said. “This was a group of people committed to the mission of keeping kids in their homes, with strength-based intensive services.”
He attended a staff meeting where a YAP advocate described a horrific home situation for one of his kids to the program directors: no running water, relatives with multiple convictions living in the home, a sister already in foster care. The advocate recommended pushing the county to remove the child from the home.
“The consensus of the staff was, instead, let’s get his whole family out of that house,” Cockerell said. “By the time I left the next day, they had found affordable housing for the boy, his mom and siblings.”
YAP was given a contract to launch the Tarrant County Advocate Program, which at the time worked exclusively in the Polytechnic Heights and Stop Six neighborhoods. Today, the program serves the entire county.
Gary Ivory, who left seminary school to direct a YAP program in New Jersey, was dispatched to lead TCAP. He is now the president of the YAP Southwest Region.
Kim Brandon is the director in charge of TCAP. With the help of Assistant Director Maria Merino and Behavioral Health Director Gary Hart, she leads a staff of 25 part-time youth advocates, each of whom is assigned two to four youths.
This is the frontline of all YAP programs: Paid advocates who serve between two and four youths. The vast majority of these advocates were raised in Stop Six or Polytechnic Heights.
The reason for what YAP calls “zip code recruiting” is practical, Ivory said.
“They’re closer,” he said. “It cuts down on transportation costs and they can respond to crises sooner. When dad comes in drunk and beats up mom, they get there a lot quicker, and that stuff happens.”
The advocates work about 30 hours per week at an average of $14 per hour.
How It Works
At its core, the goal of TCAP is to combine intensive mentoring, family meetings and job experience to help build the potential of youth.
Judges can order a youth’s placement in YAP, and Tarrant County Juvenile Services can also choose to place a youth who is on probation.
Eighty-six percent of TCAP participants are 13 or older; 62 percent are adjudicated for a misdemeanor and 25 percent for a felony.
“Their model is best for higher-risk, higher-need kids,” Turner said. Ivory said TCJS only sends juveniles who are at “imminent risk of out-of-home placement” based on a risk assessment.
Each youth also has a unique plan for their time in TCAP, which Brandon creates with input from the youth and his or her family. TCAP provided two individual plans for The Chronicle to use as examples, on the condition that we changed the names of the clients.
Paula is a 15-year-old. She had been in a residential placement before, was not enrolled in school, and had used drugs in the past two weeks. She has an interest in cosmetology and fashion.
She, her brother and her mother were living in a hotel, with an approximate income of $400 per week and no assistance from or contact with Paula’s biological father.
TCAP’s plan paired Paula with a female advocate for a minimum of 7.5 hours per week. The advocate would help Paula and her family with the following:
- Assist Paula in getting back into school, and assist Paula’s mom to find affordable housing.
- Set her up in three groups: Substance abuse classes; TCAP’s pre-employment skills training; and a weekly girls’ group focused on anger, life decisions and self-image.
- Attend area fashion shows with her, and find local opportunities for her to explore her interest in those fields.
- Place Paula with an employer, preferably related to cosmetology or beauty services.
Ricardo is a 17-year-old. His mother is very sick with two forms of cancer, and her goal is to survive long enough to see him graduate high school. Ricardo badly wants to work to help pay the bills, enjoys writing and owes 80 hours of community service to the probation department. He suffers from depression.
The plan was for a male advocate to spend 10 hours per week with Ricardo, working on the following plan:
- Find the whole family (who has no car) some much-needed assistance with transportation to work, school and doctors.
- Find opportunities for Ricardo to volunteer so he can complete his community service hours.
- Enroll Ricardo in driver’s education and employment skills training, and also get him into a creative writing program.
The advocates have one key job with each assigned youth, and that is early contact with the Tarrant County school system to establish the youth’s status. This often prevents an early snag in a youth’s case that can lead to a technical violation of their probation.
“What we find is, so often, they have been expelled or [the youth is] not interested in going back to school,” Ivory said. “But attending school is part of their probation condition.”
If the sense of the advocate is that the youth has no intention of going back to school, he said, “Sometimes we have to negotiate” with probation and get them working on a GED or a job program.
Most youth complete the TCAP program in four to six months.
The initial goal of bringing YAP to Tarrant County was to drive down the commitments to state facilities, without resorting to the construction of a county juvenile prison, but without putting the public at risk.
At the time, TYC would take any offender a county probation department sent its way. This meant the financial incentive was to hand the offender to the state, and county probation departments had very little money budgeted to keep youth in community programs. It was either probation or incarceration.
In 1992, former Gov. Ann Richards (D) issued a report on juvenile justice that urged the state legislature to “increase funds for alternative placements so that juvenile court budgets do not dictate commitments of juveniles to state custody.”
After one year with TCAP, the number of kids Tarrant sent to Texas Youth Commission facilities had decreased by 44 percent.
Recent evaluations show that TCAP has succeeded in working with serious offenders in the community without putting the public at risk. In an evaluation of its 641 clients’ outcomes for the past two years, 96.8 percent were not adjudicated on new felony or misdemeanor charges during the program. Eighty-four percent were not adjudicated a year later.
Early in the development of the program, Ivory says he realized that the individual work with TCAP juveniles might be compromised by the dangerous gang-led atmosphere in Stop Six and Polytechnic Heights.
“We just knew that we couldn’t extricate kids from gangs. That was dangerous for the kids, and dangerous to workers,” he said. “If they saw we were doing that, we couldn’t develop trust.”
At the same time, he said, “With just individual change, without neighborhood change, kids are going to stay in that environment.”
He reached out to leaders from the Bloods and Crips in 1994, and pieced together a “Tour of the South.” Eight members of each gang traveled by bus to The King Center, an Atlanta-based nonviolence center, stopping in Memphis and Selma, Alabama, along the way.
“The whole purpose was to see violence wasn’t the way, that there were people who had died so they may live,” Ivory said.
“Those kids had never been out of their own community,” Cockerell said. “They had never seen anything like that. Having those kids see those examples was very impactful.”
Older youth who are interested in getting a job are placed in TCAP’s Supportive Work program, which funnels money to employers to give them entry-level jobs. This is a major component of the national Youth Advocates Program model.
TCAP has developed a lineup of 45 employers in the county that will put youth into jobs during their time in the program, and has placed 50 of its clients into jobs through this program between 2012 and 2014.
The roster of employers consists entirely of local businesses that include several barbershops and restaurants, an upholstery service, a dog grooming business, a law firm, and the parks department of Watauga, a Fort Worth suburb.
Youth are paid the Texas minimum wage, $7.25, and that money is supplied to the employer by TCAP. Some employers will augment the TCAP base pay, and TCAP makes small weekly rewards to youth who are consistently on time.
TCAP asks three things of employers that partner with the program, Ivory said: “Be a positive influence while they’re working there. If you can, add to their wage. And if they do a good job, keep them employed.”
For youth involved in gangs today, he said, providing another way to make money is key to drawing them away from the worst parts of that life.
“We have found that a lot of kids that do hard-core gang-banging, selling drugs, once they get help with school and a job, they wouldn’t do it as long as they have other things working in their lives,” Ivory said.
John Kelly is editor of The Chronicle of Social Change.
This series was made possible through the support of the Sierra Health Foundation, which has partnered with the California Endowment and the California Wellness Foundation to launch the Positive Youth Justice Initiative to reform the juvenile justice system in four California counties. This series was distributed in partnership with Witness LA, an online source for daily coverage of criminal justice news.