Communities Helping Kids

With the temperature creeping above 97 degrees in Austin, Texas, Melissa Barlow hurtles along Interstate 35 in a Toyota Corolla, the air conditioner blasting. It's a Thursday in June, and she has a tight schedule. Barlow supervises caseworkers in an innovative program that helps youthful offenders stay at home -- instead of prison -- while attending school, undergoing drug treatment, getting career training, and finding jobs. All these kids are referred, either by courts or by probation officers, as an alternative to incarceration.

Although it's still morning, it has already been one of those days. A caseworker Barlow oversees is out of town; a second called in sick at 6 a.m. Now Barlow has less than an hour to arrive at the other end of Austin in order to prepare a teenager named Elena for a job interview and get her there on time.

In the 21st-century tech-and-tourism boomtown of Austin, traffic can be fierce. Barlow won't have time to dally with Elena; she needs to visit nine other teenage parolees in their homes. The rounds will last another six hours -- and that's assuming all the clients are where they're supposed to be at the appointed times.

As Barlow cruises up I-35, the downtown glitters to the west, outside the driver's side. A cloudless sky frames the new 33-story Frost Bank Tower, the city's tallest, and the graceful brick towers of the University of Texas, which has an endowment of nearly $10 billion. Just beyond the campus is the state Capitol, home of Governor Rick Perry, who's quoted in today's newspapers expressing regret that the Supreme Court has forced him to commute the sentences of 28 minors from death row.

To the east rises the jagged, low-lying silhouette of the other Austin -- the unglamorous, strip-malled capital that tourists don't see. Barlow swings east off the highway, past pawn shops and shuttered motels, past parched lawns and parked trucks that sell tacos to gardeners and house painters. She swings into a subsidized housing complex, a mass of pale blue vinyl siding and whitewashed cinder blocks.

She arrives at a first-floor apartment without a number and knocks on the door. There's no doorbell. No one answers.

She knocks loudly this time. The metal-reinforced door opens to reveal an apartment with the curtains drawn. A fan roars in a corner. A young teenage boy sleeps on a couch. The room's dominant feature is a television hooked into VHS and DVD players. Elena, eyes downcast, greets Barlow. Elena doesn't trust many adults, but she likes Barlow's agency, the Southwest Key Program, and its Outreach and Tracking project.

Elena desperately needs a job. Her father moved away when she was in middle school. By age 13, Elena was fighting with other girls, pummeling her older brother, smoking cigarettes laced with embalming fluid, having sex and hanging out with a gang called LC, or Los Cholos. She has run away from home, gotten into fights with classmates, gotten high on cocaine, crack, and rubber cement. She cycled in and out of the juvenile-justice system more times than she remembers. In a desperate moment, she head-butted a policeman who was called to halt a quarrel at her apartment. Now, three years later, she shows up at 6 a.m. every weekday for her court-ordered community service at the YMCA. She's stopped the fights, the drinking, and the drugs -- but she's pregnant and single.

Barlow asks Elena if she knows the address of the place where she's applying for the job. She does. Barlow asks if she needs a bus pass to get back home. She does. Elena is dressed in slacks and a loose navy-blue top that conceals her belly quite well. While she doesn't want to lie to employers, she also doesn't want to advertise the fact that she's seven and a half months pregnant.

“OK,” Elena says in a voice that's barely above a whisper. Heading for the Toyota, she flashes a tentative smile. “I'm ready.” By day's end, Barlow learns that Elena spent more than an hour interviewing for a $9-per-hour job at a calling center -- and got turned down. It will take more than one job interview for Elena's story to have a happy ending. But Elena will keep at it. The outreach program, she says, has taught her to sort out priorities. “All every kid wants is for someone to help them, pay attention to them,” she adds.

* * *

In too many states, the model for juvenile justice is still stunningly simple: Get young offenders into court, find them guilty, then lock 'em up. On a typical day, more than 120,000 minors are in detention across the United States -- enough to fill every seat in Madison Square Garden at a Knicks game six times over. Here in Texas, second only to California in youth detentions, locking up adolescents is a growth business: The number of beds in juvenile-detention facilities more than doubled in the past decade, from about 1,600 to more than 4,200.

Yet a growing chorus is challenging this model. Public defenders, criminologists, and even some outspoken judges are increasingly questioning the traditional belief that a community needs to ship off wayward kids to exact punishment and protect itself. There's a backlash now, a new way of thinking: Kids should stay in the community and the services should come to them. The critics often cite three reasons. First, the majority of youthful offenders are not guilty of violent crimes that warrant incarceration. Second, the system ensnares a disproportionate number of minorities. Third, and most important, juvenile detention doesn't work.

Southwest Key Program Inc. is the creation of Juan Sanchez, who grew up in a rough-and-tumble barrio in Brownsville, Texas, hard by the Rio Grande. After getting scholarships that took him to the University of Washington and later Harvard for a doctorate in education, he returned to south Texas to run a residential treatment center for boys in trouble. Sanchez, now 57 years old, had visited outreach programs in other states, and he kept wondering why troubled kids were sent away from the very families, workplaces, and neighborhoods that they were going to have to deal with. In 1987, he started a program to bring services to teenagers in a neighborhood of San Antonio. These days, Southwest Key has expanded to eight states, from Georgia to Wisconsin; its Outreach & Tracking project operates 45 programs in 30 cities.

“Taxpayers want to believe that juvenile facilities will get the kids cleaned up, give them skills, and build their characters,” says Sanchez. “It's like we bless these kids with holy water and send them back into the world hoping they'll be model citizens. Instead, it's the complete opposite: Kids coming out of the facilities are angrier, tougher, more aggressive, more violent, and more difficult to turn around.”

Experience has taught states a truism: The younger offenders are when they first go through the system, the more likely they are to keep coming back. The Texas Youth Commission, which runs juvenile detention centers, found that 53 percent of those released from youth facilities are re-arrested within a year. That jibes with a nationwide Department of Justice study that reported 80 percent of youthful offenders convicted of serious offenses were arrested for another crime within three years.

In Texas, two-thirds of juvenile arrests are for drug or property crimes and other offenses that don't involve violence. But a zero-tolerance attitude here and across the country means that these first-time offenders are usually sent to rough, overcrowded juvenile facilities. “The goal ought to be reintegrating a juvenile, preparing him for gainful employment and healthy relationships, and showing him how to be a responsible citizen,” said Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg, director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. He says nearly 95 percent of juvenile offenders probably shouldn't be locked up, leaving only the violent, chronic criminals held in secure facilities.

Incarcerating juveniles, Steinberg says, leads to two unwanted effects: It gives them an expanded antisocial network and it derails their normal psychological development. Rather than learning self-reliance, they become dependent. Rather than finding positive role models, they learn from the most dangerous criminals.

* * *

There's another reason to avoid detention facilities: they're expensive. Texas spends $57,000 a year incarcerating each minor. By comparison, the Outreach and Tracking Program costs $20,000 per kid. Yet it's the alternative programs that are starved for funds. Model programs shun the depersonalization of youth detention facilities in favor of a home-based program that gives kids individual therapy, drug treatment, and job coaching. Such programs are usually run by nonprofit groups and funded by a combination of foundation grants and fees from counties and states, but far too little money has been diverted from the traditional system of incarceration. While states spend millions of dollars on detention centers, the community-based programs are held together by a fair amount of gum, tape, and baling wire.

At Austin's Outreach & Tracking program, clients are assigned to caseworkers for monthlong periods; if they still need help, their time is extended. Caseworkers personally check in on each client twice a day, ensuring that they do community service required by probation and show up for classes or job training. They visit all clients at night to make sure they are in by curfew. There are no holidays -- not even Christmas. For dodging bulldogs, warding off sickness, and keeping close tabs on teenagers, full-time caseworkers are paid up to $25,000 a year. Teachers and social workers moonlighting as part-time caseworkers earn $10 an hour and get no benefits other than some vacation time. “It'd be nice if we could pay people what they are worth in this country,” Barlow says.

She and other supervisors are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, something that doesn't please her husband. Thanks to the grueling schedule, the caseworkers have put 97,000 miles on the Toyota, and it's not even a year old. Like her staff, Barlow has adapted to the life of a circuit-riding social worker. Although the heat is blistering, she doesn't drink water during her rounds. Drinking water means having to make bathroom stops, and she doesn't have the time or the temerity to endure public restrooms in east Austin.

Southwest Key is unfortunately the exception to the broader trends in Texas justice. Between 1995 and 2004, Texas increased the number of juvenile detainees by 73 percent. The state's zealous approach to drugs means first-time offenders are getting longer sentences for nonviolent crimes. Then there's the matter of who is being detained. Southwest Key caseworkers say Texas routinely locks up kids whose real problem is depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. Up to 80 percent of youth in the juvenile-justice system have diagnosable mental disorders, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Youth suicides in juvenile facilities are more than four times greater than youth suicides among the public. Last year, a congressional report found that in 33 states, youths with mental illness are held in detention centers without any charges (this information surfaced in U.S. News & World Report, while most of the mainstream media have ignored the problem).

Sanchez says that race is the untold story in juvenile justice. Hispanics and blacks make up 77 percent of the Texas prison population. Among younger offenders, the numbers are even more disproportionate: 68 percent of the juvenile-detention population is Hispanic or black (these are 2002 figures, and the trend is steadily getting worse). At the same time, Hispanics and blacks made up just 36 percent of those enrolled in the state's community colleges, technical colleges, and public universities. Sanchez calls it the “Texas de facto affirmative-action policy”: Open the prison gates to minorities while they're young and keep them coming back for a lifetime of prison-style continuing education. “Imagine if 77 percent of the students at the University of Texas were black or brown -- the alumni would revolt,” he says. “But when it's 77 percent of those locked up it's OK.”

Youth crime and the police response cause constant friction in Texas. In June, an Austin policewoman shot and killed 18-year-old Daniel Rocha. The police department says Rocha fought with the officer during a drug-related traffic stop. Others -- including Barlow, the Southwest Keys supervisor -- ask why Rocha was shot in the back, and why the police hadn't activated their in-car video camera. The case is scheduled to go to a grand jury.

This year's nationwide debate about the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty had special resonance in Texas, which led the country in executions for crimes committed by juveniles. Of the 13 juvenile offenders sent to death in Texas, nine were minorities. After the Supreme Court found juvenile capital punishment unconstitutional, Governor Perry lamented, “I have no choice but to commute these sentences.” Youth advocates say the governor lost a chance to do something positive, such as vowing to help prevention programs, to get the poorest young Texans engaged in their schools and communities and keep them from committing crimes.

* * *

Yet throughout the country, despite the get-tough rhetoric and policies of Washington and many governors, there are signs of increasing acceptance of community-based programs for youthful offenders and youth at risk.

Andrea was born in El Salvador. Her father left the family when she was 2. The next year she sneaked across the Mexican border into California with her mother and two brothers, and soon afterward they moved to Boston, where they had relatives. By age 14, Andrea was on a one-way road headed to the juvenile-justice system: She was drinking, doing drugs, and sleeping with strangers; she was associated with a gang that draws Salvadoran immigrants; she entered a crowded public high school where 40 percent of the freshman class flunked three or more subjects last year; soon she was fighting with other girls.

Rather than wait for kids like Andrea to get arrested, some groups are intervening as early as possible. In Andrea's case, help came in the guise of the Arts Incentive Program, a Boston group that serves struggling city kids “living on the cusp of trauma and disregard,” as program director Lisa Fliegel puts it. The program engages the kids in positive pursuits such as painting, photography, and dance. A mentor spotted Andrea's dramatic personality and set up an internship with a theater company.

For years, teachers, guidance counselors, and even relatives had seen Andrea as an obstinate, ornery girl. Lisa Fliegel saw something else: a bright young woman with mental-health problems. When she had Andrea tested, the diagnosis made sense: Andrea had “cognitive rigidity.” She couldn't deal with change -- a challenge for someone whose life had consisted of one disruption after another.

The Arts Incentive staff moved Andrea to a small parochial school. They arranged for Andrea to meet someone from a similar background who got out of trouble and is finishing law school. “Once you've asked for help, we don't give up,” Fliegel says. “We stick by you until you're back on track, in school -- not locked up -- and on the road to higher educational training.”

When her baby brother was born in early 2005, Andrea decided to straighten out. She got serious about her classes and resolved to go to college and law school. “I want to run for Congress,” she said the other day, “or maybe work for Homeland Security and stop so much drugs from coming into the country.” She has a personal reason: Of the six girls she was closest to in middle school, at least four have ended up in “the system.” Many girls she knows are wasting away from using cocaine, Ecstasy, and or heroin.

Other programs use workshops and approaches drawn from group therapy to keep kids connected. Youthbuild, a nonprofit agency, uses foundation money and a $90,000 grant from the U.S. Labor Department to hold daily workshops for teens entering the job market. “Our young people find a place where they can be with a positive peer group,” says Susan Rabbit, the program director in Springfield, Massachusetts. Half of the participants have already been entangled in the justice system. In Philadelphia, a program called Peaceful Posse, run by the Philadelphia Physicians for Social Responsibility, sets groups of kids up with role models they can relate to from their community.

In Manhattan, the Community Prep High School is based in three stories of an office building in the upscale Murray Hill neighborhood, just off Madison Avenue. Community Prep takes any high-school kid who has gotten snarled in the justice system. With small classes and intensive counseling, the school helps the students make the transition to regular high school. Reeling from drug use, absentee parents, and sexual abuse, the students are usually five or more grades behind in reading and math levels.

Community Prep's hybrid funding is typical of the newer programs. It started with grants from private sources such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Open Society Institute, as well as the New York City Department of Education Office of Alternative High Schools and Programs. Now, when the city's justice system refers students, money comes from the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, or CASES.

It's difficult to compare the success rates of juvenile-detention and community programs because the populations are not identical. In an attempt to find out who is more likely to commit crimes again, Temple University's Laurence Steinberg is co-directing an extensive long-term study of 1,400 serious juvenile offenders in Philadelphia and Phoenix. Four years into the study, he says, it's still too early to see clear patterns. Still, other research has found mounting evidence that suggests that home- and school-based programs are not only less expensive than incarceration; they also produce lower rates of recidivism. According to Juan Sanchez, the Texas Youth Commission compared juveniles in the Outreach & Tracking program with those simply released on probation; after a year, the Outreach and Tracking participants had a 65-percent lower re-arrest rate than kids on parole. Last year, Community Prep sent 15 percent of its students on to other high schools -- which sounds like a low success rate until it's compared with the 4-percent citywide graduation rate for emotionally disturbed teens. In Missouri, long experience with a more therapeutic model has produced impressively low recidivism rates.

In Boston, the 9-year-old Arts Incentive Program found that 57 percent of those with criminal records who were redirected to mental-health care have not been re-arrested or involved with the courts.

The anecdotal evidence is mounting, too. Two years ago, a girl called Fliegel's office in Boston. “Is it OK if I come to your office?” the girl said. “My father has a gun at my mother's head.” The girl recently recorded her life story on digital video for the Arts Incentive Program. “This program makes me feel like I have a future,” she said.

That doesn't surprise Tim Roche, who has spent two decades studying and working with programs that keep adolescents out of detention. “There's nothing -- nothing -- you can do at an institution that I can't do better in the community,” says Roche, who now directs the New York state branch of Youth Advocate Programs, which operates in 17 counties. “And that applies to public safety, therapeutic and educational interventions, or strengthening family and community ties.”

David L. Marcus, the author of What It Takes to Pull Me Through: Why Teenagers Get in Trouble -- and How Four of Them Got Out, is a former foreign correspondent and education reporter for The Dallas Morning News, The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald and U.S. News & World Report.