Dexter Sykes, a Lubbock tax payer, discussing his thoughts on tax increases and spending cuts. (Photo: Betsy Anderson)
William Carter said he has worked in juvenile justice long enough to have seen three generations of juvenile offenders – all in the same family.
Carter, the director of the Lubbock County Juvenile Justice Center since November 2011, said his staff estimated that 16 percent of the center’s current juveniles have parents who were also in the system at one point. Carter said that number does not account for those parents who lived outside of Lubbock County during their teenage years, offering the possibility that the percent may be greater.
According to a report conducted by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department 54.5 percent of adjudicated Lubbock County juvenile offenders in 2012 had family members with a record of criminal activity.
Carter, also the president of the Juvenile Justice Association of Texas, said he thinks delinquency is a learned behavior. For this reason, he is working to create two parenting initiatives and a family literacy program. The parenting initiatives involve facility therapists going to the juveniles’ homes and interacting with their families, Carter said.
“We’ve got to break the cycle somehow,” he said.
Marisha Tyler, one of the center’s therapists, said an adolescent’s home life directly affects his behavior. One of the questions probation officers are required to ask when detaining a juvenile is, “Who lives in your home,” she said.
Tyler explained that this has proven to be much more illuminating than the question, “Who do you live with.” Usually an adolescent will say the name of the person who is responsible for him when asked who he lives with, she said, but divulging who lives in his home provides a better idea of his situation.
Tyler recalled one case in which 14 people lived in a three-bedroom house. The adolescent was detained for being out past curfew, she said. Tyler laughed when she told the story. She said it was ludicrous to expect a child with no bed to obey a curfew.
“That’s not a crime issue as much as it is a social services issue,” Tyler said.
Tyler said some juveniles have such dysfunctional home lives that they prefer to stay at the Juvenile Justice Center. Detention may reform most delinquent adolescents, she explained, but for those with unhealthy home lives, the system provides a structure and security that home does not.
She said many of the juveniles she counsels only know a life in which they go visit their fathers in prison, or go to custody hearings for siblings, or watch as their parents sell drugs from their front doors.
Additionally, an October 2012 report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition states that 49 percent of juveniles in Lubbock County admit to having one or more past traumatic experiences.
Jennifer Velasquez, a field officer for six years, said she cannot believe some of the situations children survive. Beyond abuse, Velasquez said, she constantly sees horrendous living environments and neglect.
She recalled one home that was so filthy she could smell the odor from the driveway. As she walked into the house, she said, the grandfather was sitting in an armchair barking orders. The house was so dirty that one of the children was counting the roaches on the ceiling, she said. Velasquez said the juvenile she had come to check on was sleeping in the closet.
“It’s definitely the home,” Velasquez said when asked what she believes is the main factor in delinquency.
Kim Hayes, the juvenile chief for the Lubbock County District Attorney’s Office, said she has seen juveniles sabotage their progress to avoid going home. About two weeks before it is time for them to return home, she said, they will get themselves into trouble again.
Hayes said she agrees that many juvenile offenders are products of their environments.
“A lot of our kids are being raised by their grandparents,” Hayes said, “because Mom and Dad are in prison.”
Hayes said parents’ actions have serious consequences on their children. Sexual assault and indecency with a child are extremely common youth offenses and an example of generational criminality, she said. A parent or relative sexually abuses a child, and that child then victimizes someone else, she said.
According to the Lubbock County Juvenile Justice Center’s records from 2009 to 2012, 10 percent of violent offenses were sex-related. The sex-related offenses were comprised of: aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, and indecency with a child.
Hayes said she thinks people assume that juvenile offenses are petty crimes, but adolescents are capable of the same infractions as their adult counterparts.
It’s not just kids being kids,” she said. “It’s kids doing dangerous things, things that put them in danger, things that put everyone else in danger.”
The only way to combat this pattern, Carter said, is to reach out to the entire family unit through treatment and education. He said he intends to model his plan for the Lubbock County Juvenile Justice Center after Fort Bend County’s. Carter said he spent 20 years at Fort Bend County Juvenile Detention Center – where he also served as director.
“The Parent Project” is the name of a series of parenting classes Fort Bend County implemented under Carter’s leadership. According to a report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, the program includes a 10-week program providing parents with prevention and intervention strategies. Another 10-week program immediately follows in which the psychology unit teaches family support sessions.
The report stated the detention center has a standing agreement with the court to require parent participation in the programs. To reduce obstacles to involvement, the report said, the staff adapts their schedules to accommodate the parents. According to the report, since the project’s birth in 2008, 79 percent of the youth of participating parents avoided additional referrals.
Sheila Harris, the assistant probation supervisor at the center for 18 years, said she has personally benefitted from the parenting classes over the years. She said they give parents the opportunity to learn how to raise their children while building a supportive community.
“I’m no different than some of the parents we have here,” she said.
The hitch in Carter’s plan however is the potential want of funding. He said there is already a proposal in the state legislature to cut the Texas Juvenile Justice Department’s prevention and intervention budgets by 65 percent. Carter said prevention and intervention are the areas that cover treatment and education.
Carter said the department will run into even more hurdles due to the recent election. He said it takes about a year for new representatives and senators to learn how to process the huge influx of information they receive. Once that is achieved, he said, it takes even longer to make the allies necessary to accomplish anything.
“They haven’t gelled,” Carter said of the legislature-to-be. “They don’t know what’s going on.”
He and the other center directors in Texas will work together over the next few months to create a united message, Carter said. If they do not, the youth within the system will be the ones to suffer.
Rod Knott, the probation service supervisor, said without counseling and family services, they are just policing people. He said he has learned, in his 28 years of service, policing alone does not fix the problem.
“Where you start making a difference is on the preventative side,” Knott said, “so that the younger brother doesn’t come into the system.”
Additionally, Knott said, the resulting recidivism simply costs taxpayers more money. Each juvenile takes an average of $120 per day to house and supervise, he said. Knott said the state could put these kids through college for all of the money it was spending on policing them.
In response to potential cuts to prevention and intervention funding, Tyler quoted a professor she had when she was studying marriage and family therapy.
“The best way to create change” she said, “is to teach that there are other experiences out there.”
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