Woman helps North Richland Hills police with domestic incidents

NORTH RICHLAND HILLS -- Geny Court is an unusual crime fighter.

She's never made a collar, doesn't know much about shooting a pistol and doesn't speak in call signs.

But about three years ago, officials in the North Richland Hills Police Department saw an opportunity to bring a young, bilingual woman to the department to do something they could not -- show up after domestic incidents, minus the imposing car and uniform, and try to help families in need.

If people got help with food or rent, parenting classes or marital counseling, police commanders reasoned, the families might not need officers further down the road.

"Domestic situations are tough, and they're time-consuming," said Capt. R.K. Scott, who supervises Court. "Our officers are very patient, and they are very good at keeping everybody safe. But then they go to the next call.

"What happens after we leave is where police work has traditionally fallen short," he said. "By strengthening families on the edge by connecting them with resources, we think they're a lot less likely to commit domestic violence or child abuse."

Every week, Court, 29, receives calls and e-mails from North Richland Hills police officers, code enforcement officers, church leaders, caseworkers with Child Protective Services and school counselors.

The concerns are as varied as the families: teenagers out late at night unsupervised, children whose grades drop suddenly, dirty or hungry children, an old person who never goes outside, an out-of-control teenager, domestic trouble between husband and wife, no running water or air conditioning, an upcoming eviction.

Rarely can Court solve any of the problems herself, and sometimes she can't even try. People are entitled to turn her offers down. Instead, what she does, she said, is connect people with social-service agencies, churches and other organizations. She then follows up to make sure they made the connection with the agency.

"Most of the time it's families who are socially isolated," she said. "They don't know their neighbors. They aren't involved in a church. They don't have any family. They have a language barrier."

Helping poor and rich

Court has been far busier than anyone expected.

She works, on average, with 20 to 25 families a month in a mostly middle-class city where almost two-thirds of the adults have at least some college experience and the average household income is around $80,000.

A lot are low-income. Many are Spanish speakers. Some are immigrants, legal and illegal. Most are families, two-parent or single-parent. Some are senior citizens. Some are upper-middle-class with manicured lawns and shiny imported cars.

"I've gone to some beautiful houses," Court said.

A former patrol officer, Scott nods.

"Everybody has problems," he said.

Officer A.G. Litke said police simply had few alternatives before Court joined the department.

"A lot of times we couldn't find someone to give us the resources to help people," Litke said. "And if we did, it might take days or weeks for it to get to a family. It's really made a big difference for us."

The police gather many statistics for the program, tracking service calls by address before and after interaction with Court. But they can't prove that the program is doing the job they intended -- strengthening families and reducing domestic violence and child neglect.

"It's like proving a negative," Scott said. "It's hard to know how many service calls we don't get from what she does. You can't know that number. But you'll have a hard time convincing me it's not beneficial to people and that every interaction she has with a family results in fewer calls for police."

Opening up

D. Lynn Jackson, a professor of social work at the University of North Texas in Denton who works with criminal offenders, likes the Police Department's approach.

She said that in an ideal situation Court would be a social worker who could offer more professional help because many nonprofit and social agencies are already stretched thin. But she said the police are doing well with what they've got.

"Any department that is willing to look at the family as a whole, rather than as a specific criminal justice problem, and willing to look beyond and see what other pressures and stresses are on a family and try to deal with that is very commendable," Jackson said. "Often there are other circumstances impacting the reason police are there."

Especially surprising to Scott is the way people open up to Court almost immediately, pouring out their problems and often admitting their shortcomings. People tell her that they have anger problems or that they need parenting classes.

(Not all of them, of course. Those houses that are referred from CPS caseworkers can be particularly "uncomfortable," Court said, because people are on edge.)

Scott said some of the openness is due to Court's personality, which he said puts people at ease. And some of it, he said, is probably due to the fact that she does not carry a badge.

"I can tell you that is not the way people speak to police officers," Scott said. "I was on the front lines, working patrol. And people will never admit to a police officer they have anger problems. But they'll tell her that."

Able to relate

No one would be more surprised to find Court knocking on doors of families in trouble than Court herself.

Born in Peru and reared in a family of some means in the capital, Lima, Court worked as a lawyer in her country briefly before immigrating to the U.S. six years ago. But she had her own rough patch in the U.S. because of a domestic violence episode.

Unable to work as a lawyer, she interviewed for a position with the Tarrant County Youth Collaboration as a family resource coordinator in North Richland Hills. The new position was part of a program called Building Connections, Building Community.

North Richland Hills and the Birdville school district had applied for the federal grant funding because of a surge in CPS cases of neglect and abuse in the area.

"She 'got it' immediately, what we were trying to do and what we wanted to do," said Ron Parish, director of community ministries with the Community Enrichment Center, which was involved in the original grant. "She took to it like a duck to water, and she started showing results almost immediately."

Because she is not a social worker or psychologist, she feels comfortable sharing with people her own situation a few years ago.

"I tell people, 'I was once where you are,'" she said.

Police officials liked what Court was doing, and they felt it fit with their new emphasis on community policing. When the Tarrant County grant ran out, they brought her onto the department's payroll. The department secured an $83,000 grant from the Justice Department that covers the cost of her position through 2011.

Given the cost-cutting that is going on throughout the city because of steep declines in sales tax revenue and construction permits, Scott is concerned about the future of their idea.

"The city has been cutting back to its most critical services, so this would be tough to pay for if we weren't getting a grant," he said.

Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547