November 27, 2011

Tarrant County court program helps youths in trouble with the law

Young people caught up in family violence and legal difficulty receive intensive counseling - an alternative to conviction and incarceration.

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FORT WORTH -- Carolina's relationship with her stepmom had always been contentious, but a dispute in March over housecleaning quickly escalated out of control.

Carolina punched her stepmother, twice, and police were called, thrusting the 19-year-old into the criminal-court system to face the possibility of a blight on an otherwise unblemished record.

Last week, with a big hug to her counselor and a "thank you" to the judge, Carolina walked out of court with a clean slate, one of more than a dozen graduates this year of a pilot program designed to help young people caught up in family violence.

Key to the program is intensive counseling aimed at helping participants make better choices the next time they find themselves in bad situations.

"I know how to control my stress now and deal with everything by myself," said Carolina, who agreed to talk about the program if her full name was not used. "If it were to happen again, I would walk away. It's not worth my time, not worth going to jail."

The program, Youth Offender Diversion Alternative, or YODA, is aimed at addressing the rise in Tarrant County of family violence cases involving people ages 17 to 25 and nonintimate relatives such as mothers, fathers or siblings.

A combined effort of Judge Jamie Cummings' court in Tarrant County and the University of Texas at Arlington's Center for Clinical Social Work, it is funded by a $92,000 grant from the Amon G. Carter Foundation.

"The majority of these kids have never gotten in trouble before," said Lieu Huynh, a licensed social worker and therapist who serves as case manager for the program at UTA. "They really want to be a part of their families. A lot are really saddened by this."

Spiraling problems

Alejandro wanted to use the family computer to check on a job, but his sister was using it. He got angry with her and even angrier when his father intervened.

By the time it was all over, his parents' house had been trashed and his mother had hurt her elbow in a fall after Alejandro pushed his father. Police were called.

"It just spiraled," said Alejandro, 22, of Fort Worth, who had never been in trouble with the law before. "I just wanted to get out of there. I didn't want to hurt my mom or dad."

He was charged, as was Carolina, with misdemeanor assault causing bodily injury to a family member.

And he, too, was referred to the YODA program for intervention.

Alejandro and Carolina are typical of the young people referred to the program. Most have clean records but have other problems, such as with school, work or family relationships.

Nearly two-thirds are male, and most of their assaults involved either their mother (43 percent) or sister (17 percent). Of the young women assigned to the program, most involved assaults on a sister (25 percent) or their father's partner, such as a stepmother or girlfriend (19 percent).

The program accepts people up to age 25, but more than two-thirds are 17 to 19. If they complete the program, the charge will be erased from their record as if it never happened.

Cummings said the program fills a gap for young people who were not eligible for a similar diversion program for domestic violence cases involving spouses or intimate partners.

"A lot of times you want to do something to help them, but you don't want to tag them with an assault ... conviction," Cummings said. "It's been amazing how quickly we've had people to put in there."

Stopping the violence

Participation in the program is voluntary, and clients are warned that it will require time and effort. After an intense evaluation that identifies such problems as anger control and stress management, participants settle into weekly counseling sessions with Huynh.

Most stay in the program for four to six months and are evaluated midway through to make sure they are holding up their end of the bargain.

"A lot of them have never had anybody sit and listen to them for any period of time," Huynh said. "It's rewarding to see how good they feel afterwards. ... Most of the success comes from them seeing how much value they have in themselves. It's just about highlighting their strengths."

Since the program began in March, 54 participants have been diverted into the program, including eight who signed on last week. Nine have been removed from the program, largely for poor attendance in one-on-one counseling.

A preliminary evaluation of the program after about six months shows that participants who completed the program decreased their aggression and abuse of alcohol and drugs, and increased mental health, resilience, hope and their ability to find solutions to their problems. None of the 20 people who completed the program have committed another offense.

"These families are not hopeless," said Dr. Peter Lehmann, director of the UTA Center for Clinical Social Work. "We have to find a way to help them."

YODA is part of the Innovative Community Academic Partnership, or iCap, which is funded by grants from the Carter Foundation.

"It occurred to me that we needed to find a different way to address the violence in the community," said Sheila B. Johnson, a director of the Carter Foundation and granddaughter of Amon G. Carter. "They really were basically OK kids but they didn't have a chance."

The program is funded through December, and tentative funding has been lined up to extend the program through 2012.

Bright future

The hearings in County Criminal Court No. 5 last week sounded almost like high school graduations -- there were hugs, a few tears, and thoughts ahead to a bright future.

The latest graduates of the program were ready to put their cases behind them and tackle life's difficulties. One graduate, when Cummings told him that counselor Huynh was "very pleased" with him, broke out into a broad smile. Several hugged Huynh after accepting their certificates of completion.

All reported that their family members had noticed a difference in them, and that they were looking forward to their next challenges: completion of high school or GED, perhaps joining the military.

"I'm going to miss you," one graduate told Huynh.

Alejandro, who completed the program in October, said he now feels better-equipped to deal with life's problems.

"It actually did help a lot," he said. "It made me think more maturely, think about the stuff that I was doing before. My parents see a difference. They tell me I'm more chill; I'm more calm. All I want to focus on right now is on my job and my GED. I'm trying to take it step by step."

Carolina has one TAKS test, science, left to pass before getting her high school diploma. She's met all other requirements and passed all the other tests.

She wants to go to community college, perhaps to become a nurse.

"It's tough," she said, "but I'm ready."

Dianna Hunt, 817-390-7084

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