Local News Spotlight

Jackson County’s Family Court focuses on rehabilitation, not jail

The Jackson County effort is critical with year-end closing of residential center.

Updated: 2012-10-17T05:33:25Z


The Kansas City Star

Mary felt stumped.

Was there anything that her troublesome 17-year-old son actually cared about?

“His room looks like an episode of ‘Hoarders,’ ” Mary told a Jackson County counselor leading the family group therapy session one night last week. “He really doesn’t have anything of value.”

Jeanne Fruth, the counselor, probed gently for tools that Mary could employ, either as reward or consequence, to encourage Chuck, her son, to improve his behavior.

And the answer would be important.

Keeping youths like Chuck, who is on juvenile probation, from entering state youth corrections facilities is a priority for Jackson County’s Family Court system. For years, the court has led the state and the nation in finding ways to keep youths out of pre-trial detention.

Now the court hopes to extend that success to convicted youths. And the issue just became more important, with the announced year-end closing of the McCune Residential Center, the only secure facility in Jackson County where juvenile offenders can be housed after judges decide their cases.

In the future, juvenile offenders will be sent to more remote state facilities, farther from the family support that studies have shown is critical to cutting recidivism.

A year-old Family Court project is giving families guidance and tools to manage troubled teenagers, thus allowing them to live at home rather than in county or state custody. That can save taxpayer money and give the youths a better shot at a more productive life, experts said.

“One of the big shifts in the country is the idea that incarceration is damaging,” said Pamela Behle, the court’s director of assessment and development. “When we take kids and incarcerate them with other offenders, they start sharing their thinking.”

Progress isn’t always easy or even obvious, as Tuesday evening’s session showed.

Sitting around classroom tables at Hilltop Residential Center in Lee’s Summit, a half dozen parents and grandparents munched on pizza and tossed out ideas for Mary — such as granting or limiting television or phone privileges — but none seemed to resonate with her.

Fruth, who leads the weekly “Parenting with Love and Limits” sessions, finally concluded the discussion, saying they could follow up later at Mary’s home.

“Talk to your husband and brainstorm on something (Chuck) cares about,” Fruth said.

That Jackson County can consider branching out into new family coaching programs largely is due to its success in finding alternatives to juvenile detention, said Juvenile Officer Mary Marquez.

“It has enabled us to look at kids differently,” Marquez said.

The Missouri Supreme Court recently honored Jackson County courts for work in this area, which was inspired by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s vision that, rather than just incubate another generation of criminals, juvenile courts actually can nurture children to become healthy adults.

Since 1995, Jackson County has seen a 62 percent decline in its average daily juvenile detention population and a 56 percent decline in the number of youths it commits to state correctional facilities.

The county’s juvenile detention center now regularly operates well below its 58-bed capacity, which the county reduced from 68 beds in 2008. Before 2006, when the court began aggressively seeking ways to limit its juvenile jail population, the center regularly operated at or near capacity.

As a result, the Family Court’s rate of youths failing to show up for court appearances has held steady at 3 percent, while the rate of kids being re-arrested before their trial date dropped from 13 percent in 2005 to 6 percent in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Still, the county has not lost sight of the hard fact that some youths always will need to be jailed, Behle said.

“We never take our eye off public safety,” Behle said. “That’s a core value.”

With fewer resources devoted to jailing children, the county can encourage the families of kids in the juvenile justice system.

Parenting with Love and Limits is the court’s latest effort to provide parents with tools to manage troubled teens and provide the kind of home structure they need to succeed.

Limited to 36 families a year, the program serves parents and their children through weekly home and group sessions for eight weeks. Scott Sells, who developed the program and consults with the county on its progress, said it teaches parents how to contract for good behavior with children who may be violent or confrontational.

Parents also learn backup strategies when their kids try to derail those efforts through arguments and endless negotiation. And, critically, parents get practical guidance on renewing a loving relationship with a child who has grown cold and distant.

“Parents want a playbook,” Sells said. “You wouldn’t expect the Kansas City Chiefs to go out on the field without a playbook.”

County officials soon will double the number of parents who can participate in Parenting with Love and Limits, Marquez said. And the Family Court hopes to eventually extend the program to the families of youths housed at Hilltop, a residential juvenile program that is less restrictive than McCune and allows youths to visit their families on weekends.

The idea, Sells said, is to give children who have worked hard in an institution the stable family structure to continue making progress once they get home.

Those families often can be surprised by their capacity for improvement.

“They can get so caught up in the negativity that they’ve lost track of the good things in their lives,” said Glenda Bainbridge, field program manager for the Family Court. “I don’t care how bad things are, there’s always something good you can build on.”

Mary and her son may have found something like that near the end of the group session Tuesday.

For nearly an hour, the parents and grandparents helped Mary cinch down a written behavior contract for Chuck, tightening language and eliminating loopholes. Mary would present the contract to her son at a home visit with Fruth.

And after a break, the children and grandchildren burst in the classroom door from their own group session next door.

One by one, the boys stood at the front of the classroom and shared something that their care-givers had done in the last week that they truly appreciated.

Having their laundry done seemed particularly popular among the early presenters.

But Chuck, taller and older than most of the other boys, thought for himself. He was impressed, he said, that his parents surprised him with a meal, which they brought to him at his job.

“They went to Walmart, got me a sandwich and included me when I was not around,” he said.

Parents love to see any progress, Fruth said later. Even small steps.

“They’re empowered and feel they can do something,” she said.

To contact Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to mmorris@kcstar.com.

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