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New Court Gives Hope To Juvenile Offenders

Josh Allen, Mental Health Court graduate
Josh Allen, Mental Health Court graduate

A new program at the Dallas County Juvenile Department is offering a second chance to some teenagers who find themselves in juvenile court facing charges and possible jail time. KERA’s BJ Austin says the Department recently celebrated the first graduating class of its new “Mental Health Court”.

 “We hold it in here in this little, bitty courtroom.”

This is the first Mental Health Court in North Texas and the fifth in the state.

The program includes weekly counseling, therapy, in-home family sessions and school monitoring instead of incarceration. If successfully completed, the charges against the first-time offenders are dropped, and their records are wiped clean.

More than five thousand juveniles were processed into the Dallas County system last year. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates 70% of children in the juvenile justice system have at least one mental health disorder. Diane Boyd is Supervisor of the Juvenile Department’s “Special Needs Unit”.

Boyd: We have everything from schizo-affective, to bipolar to ADHD.

Juveniles must be diagnosed with a mental illness to participate in the program. And a parent or guardian must be willing to go through the program with the child. It’s called the wrap-around approach. The goal is to give the child, and the family, the skills and services they need to reverse the pattern of behavior that landed the child in the juvenile justice system.

Karla Lopez and Gerardo Briones, Mental Health Court probation officers, say this court fills an important need.

Lopez: I really think that one of the strengths is the therapy in the home; helping the families address the dynamics in the home, the communication skills.

Briones: As much as we can, when it’s the child that’s causing a problem, we’ll address that. But sometimes the child is just responding or reacting to something else that’s around them. And that’s what we try to look at and try to change.

16 year old Josh Allen is among the first six graduates of the Mental Health Court. The court moved him in with his grandparents because of a bad relationship with his Dad. Josh says issues at home caused problems elsewhere.

Allen: I always got in trouble in school for not listening; or talking too much, just being a trouble-maker.

But it’s what he did out of class that got him arrested.

Allen: I stole some money from my Dad. He called the cops on me. They put me in this deferred adjudication program. Once I started talking to the counseling program they had, she really helped control my anger problems toward my family and stuff like that. I know how to talk more freely instead of just building it up inside. The judge you can talk to once a week. And it was nice talking to him ‘cause he just gave me some good inspiration.

The day after Josh graduated from the Mental Health Court program, he graduated high school early. He’ll start El Centro College soon, and wants to become a firefighter.

Diane Boyd says it could have gone the other way with Josh; time in juvenile lockup, and a criminal record. She says that would have been a sad waste of a lot of potential. Boyd says at the first graduation ceremony, she was struck by how different the kids were after completing the program.

Boyd: Their appearance, I saw some dramatic changes; you know, their total appearance and dress – a very positive demeanor.

Boyd had a budget of zero to put the Mental Health Court together. She did it by reallocating resources. The non-profit Metrocare donates mental health services. And, Big Brothers-Big Sisters provides mentors that continue “after” graduation.

County Commissioners say it costs 13 dollars a day for a child in the Mental Health Court program: 127 dollars a day to incarcerate a juvenile. Probation officer Gerardo Briones says the new program may save money, but changing a child’s life is priceless.

Briones: The satisfaction that you get from the successes, you can’t put a price on that. It’s just very rewarding.

Briones is hoping to see more resources allocated to the Mental Health Court in the next Dallas County budget.

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.