Thanks, But No Thanks

Turning down millions in state money to build juvenile boot camps, Tarrant County opted for a different approach--one that works

Despite a Fort Worth Star-Telegram series in 1997 that was critical of Tarrant County's approach, others cite the county as a model for the country. In April 1998, a PBS documentary featured Tarrant County's juvenile justice system as an example of innovative approaches that work without sending kids to jail. "Tarrant County...has designed its programs with the goal of identifying problems and providing...interventions at the earliest point," series producer and criminologist Roger Graef said. The county reduces juvenile violence by providing "the most extensive set of options for judges I've yet seen," he said.

And in a lengthy study released June 6 by Richard Mendel, a researcher for the nonpartisan American Youth Policy Forum in Washington, D.C., Tarrant County's juvenile probation agency is profiled as one of seven "lighthouse programs" in the nation worthy of emulation. Its emphasis on treatment and community-based supervision is far more successful than the "lock 'em up and throw away the key approach" used in most other Texas counties, Mendel wrote.

The star of both the PBS series and Mendel's report was T-CAP.

The Tarrant County Advocate Program's Tiwana Bell says the kids "know our door is always open."
Francine Sustaita
The Tarrant County Advocate Program's Tiwana Bell says the kids "know our door is always open."

In 1992, Cockerell, on a nationwide mission to find correctional programs that could serve as alternatives to TYC, found Youth Advocate Programs Inc. in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a mentoring and advocacy nonprofit group founded by Thomas L. Jeffers in 1975. Jeffers and a whole cadre of juvenile-justice reformers had put together an alternative to detention and incarceration of juvenile delinquents, with an emphasis on education and employment. Those tools, they believed, could break the cycle of poverty that the vast majority of youthful offenders have in common.

Cockerell was impressed and got a small grant for YAP to set up the Tarrant County Advocate Program in one high-crime ZIP code. After a year, there was a 44 percent drop in the numbers of kids from that neighborhood who were committed to juvenile facilities. T-CAP was born.

Today, it is a cornerstone of the county's juvenile justice alternatives, operating countywide. An average of about 380 kids a year go through its program. During 1999, the most recent year for which T-CAP has tracking data, it claimed a 91 percent success rate (kids who complete their program without getting into trouble). Of those who got in trouble again, about 7 percent wound up in TYC or some other residential facility, 1 percent were certified to stand trial as adults, and 1 percent were simply AWOL. Yearly cost to the taxpayers: $1,032,000.

Typical of the kids in the program, says Steve Richmond, assistant to T-CAP's Tiwana Bell, is a 13-year-old boy who came home from a visit with cousins in Louisiana to find his single mother had moved out, taken everything and left no forwarding address.

"The kids we see are the sons and daughters of the generation destroyed by crack when it first hit the street," Richmond says. "They're the little cousins of yesterday's gang members," who are now for the most part in prison or dead. "Violence is down; the gangs are dying off. What we're seeing are the wannabes and the kids without parents, or parents so destroyed by drugs that they can't take care of them. These children are trying to get a pair of pants, get eats, a place to stay."

John Green has been a T-Cap mentor since the program's inception. "I have a child 10 years old, already on probation for drugs. Where did he learn this? This is learned behavior, from his family," he says, his voice rising in intensity. "'I don't get it,' I tell the kid. 'Why?' I ask. 'Nothin' else to do,' he says."

Green is a tall, muscular man with a shiny round globe of a head, piercing eyes behind small, gold-rimmed glasses, a tiny gold earring in one ear and a gold cross dangling around his neck. At the end of the day, when the prosecutors and judges and reporters have gone home, when the studies are put in file 13 and the documentaries are archived, the real reason the Tarrant County program is successful is the work of people like him, trying to save throwaway kids one at a time.

The 54-year-old New York native with a degree in criminal justice is now a devout, praise-the-Lord Christian who knows the territory of the boys he mentors. "I was a heroin addict in Brooklyn," he says matter-of-factly. "Been clean 17 years on October 31." He saw an ad when T-CAP was organizing and was hired right away. "There's not much in the way of salary, but this is what I need to be doing. This is what God wants me to do." Mentors' salaries are less than starting pay for social workers--"a lot less," he says

Green works with four or five kids at any given time. Many live with single moms or with a grandmother while mother cools her heels in jail. Dads are practically nonexistent. Consistency, he said, is the key to success. "These kids have got to know they can count on you being there. They've been stomped on enough."

When a boy is first assigned to him, Green says, he goes to the kid's house, gives him and the family an overview of the program, talks about his offense, talks about conflict resolution, asks him what he likes to do and lets the kid make his choice. He finds out what the family needs and connects them to whatever agencies will help. He finds the probationer a job with one of several contractors that T-CAP uses for job training, takes him to his counseling sessions, AA meetings, church, court, wherever the boy needs to go. "T-CAP pays the kid's salary while he's in the program. An employer can't go wrong," he says. Green meets with the kid four or five days a week, takes him out to dinner or to Six Flags. ("Some of these kids have never been in a restaurant...They are awed by the experience.") He also takes them on outings with other kids in the program.

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