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

Thanks, But No Thanks

Rachel wanted some pretty things for her new baby. She didn't have money or a job, so she bought her infant's new clothes with a stolen credit card. Even though at 16 she's already a mother of two, by law Rachel is a juvenile, which was about the only good thing she had going for her six months ago when she was convicted of credit card fraud--that and the fact she committed her crime in Tarrant County.

Because it was her first offense and the misdeed was not violent, she drew a probated sentence and was put into the nonprofit Tarrant County Advocate Program. The program, under contract with the juvenile probation department, provides a community-based alternative to confinement in a Texas Youth Commission facility.

T-CAP's intensive "wrap-around" plan lasts typically five to six months and works with the whole family, if there is one, director Tiwana Bell says. T-CAP provides at-risk kids daily mentoring, academics, on-the-job employment training, counseling, sex education and group therapy. It helps them and their families connect to an array of social services and surrounds the family with a support system that will be "solidly in place once the kids are on their own," Bell says.

Rachel is one of their success stories. "She's a real good mother and a hard worker" who now has her GED and has stayed out of trouble. That doesn't mean she's home free, says Bell, who has a master's degree in social work and has been dealing with troubled kids for 13 years.

As with most of the youths who go through the program, the conditions that landed Rachel in court are still in place: poverty, immaturity and an overwhelmed social-service system. She married the father of her children, but he, too, is only 16. They live in the Cavile public housing project in Fort Worth's Stop Six neighborhood, a predominantly minority area marked by pockets of high unemployment, home to the poorest of Fort Worth's poor. He has a minimum-wage job, but she can no longer work because she lost her baby sitter. She's on the waiting list for subsidized day care, which could be a year away.

Still, Bell believes Rachel will not show up in the criminal justice system again because of the survival tools that T-CAP gave her. "She responded; she never missed a counseling or a mentoring session; she showed up on time for work every day; she has a support system. Now she knows she's not alone. Even though she's out of the program, officially," Bell says, "we try and keep up with these kids. They know our door is always open."

Rachel's opportunity to stay at home with her kids and turn her life around instead of being locked up is primarily the result of a controversial decision made five years ago. Today that decision is being heralded as one that has made Tarrant County's juvenile justice system a "guiding light for reform" for the nation.

In 1995, Texas counties were looking to divvy up a $37.5 million windfall from the Texas Legislature, to be used for construction of local boot camps for juvenile offenders between the ages of 10 and 16. The idea was to keep more delinquent kids in the county where the offense occurred--at county expense--and free the overburdened Texas Youth Commission to deal with more dangerous, violent offenders.

Seven of the state's most populous counties were set to get half of the total amount, with Tarrant County's share somewhere around $4.5 million. In the face of critics who would later accuse the county of being soft on juvenile crime, Tarrant County said no thanks. It was the only local government body in Texas to do so.

Two overriding factors drove the decision, says Carey Cockerell, director of juvenile services in the county since 1984 and a former 13-year employee of TYC. With the blessing of the Tarrant County juvenile board, which is made up of all the county's district judges, Cockerell did some research before accepting the money.

First, he looked into boot camps elsewhere and found that they "weren't very successful." Keeping kids in their homes or in foster care and working with them in a variety of comprehensive programs that included their families, churches, schools and social services worked as well or better than the boot camps, he found. Three years down the line, after kids left the camp, Cockerell says, there was no difference in their rate of recidivism from that of kids who were treated in community-based programs. In some cases it was higher for the boot camp graduates.

Coupled with that fact was the long-term cost of the boot camp option.

The state's money had strings and restrictions. Its use was limited to the construction of the boot camps only, Cockerell says. The county would have to assume all operational costs, including staffing, for the duration of the camps' life, which according to the state's other requirement, would be 20 years. Cockerell and his staff estimated that costs to the county over that time would be between $70 million and $80 million. The literature on boot camps and their outcomes, he said, didn't support such spending, especially in exchange for a mere $4.5 million from the state.

With that kind of math, he says, a committee of the juvenile board decided the state's gift wasn't so generous after all. The county opted to continue to put its resources into an extensive array of non-lockup programs such as T-CAP; the Lena Pope Home's family intervention and preservation program; community service and restitution; drug treatment; and sending kids to the Fort Worth school district's alternative school, Pathways. The county maintains 72 pretrial detention beds at its Scott D. Moore Juvenile Justice Center on Kimbo Road in north Fort Worth (which also houses the administration offices and the juvenile courts) and a 16-bed residential center at Eagle Mountain Lake for kids with severe behavioral problems.

It also has a small unit for youths who get in trouble while on probation and are given "residential time-out" for up to 30 days, says Lyn Willis, assistant to Cockerell. Seven months ago the county added an intensive program for juvenile sex offenders in an unused "pod" in the detention center. Ten kids are under treatment there now. The department asked for money to start the program because outside facilities for youth sex offenders were falling down on the job. "They come back in a year and are offending again, right away," she says.

The department also contracts with 60 non-lockup centers of various kinds outside the county, paid for by the state's Juvenile Probation Commission from state funds apportioned to the county according to the size of its juvenile population. None is a TYC facility.

In 1996 the county added progressive sanctions to its range of options, which allow judges to increase kids' punishments each time they show up in the system, with the ultimate trip to TYC hanging over their heads if they don't straighten up.

For each delinquent in a TYC facility, Texans spend $34,000 a year, according to Texas Youth Commission figures. (A year at Houston's Rice University, by comparison, is $14,000, according to TYC's Web page.)

More than half of Tarrant's $18.2 million annual juvenile budget comes from the county, with additional funding from the state and feds. Yearly per capita spending for juvenile services is $121, compared with $195 in Dallas County. In 2000, the county prosecuted 3,164 juvenile offenders, with only 178 sent on to TYC. The rest were put on probation and into community-based programs.

"Our basic philosophy," Cockerell says, "is to keep kids in the context of the neighborhood community, as long as the public's safety isn't compromised. We think it's the best and far cheaper way to go."

Critics point to a missing link in the county's otherwise laudatory efforts to save its young at-risk kids. They can get help only if they first break the law. The real key, juvenile workers say, is getting to kids before they're in the criminal system. "In the best of all possible worlds, that's what we would do, but we don't have the resources for all that needs to be done," says Jean Boyd, presiding judge of the 323rd District Court, which hears all juvenile cases.

Still, Boyd says, the county is seen nationally as "on the cutting edge" of juvenile-justice reform. The 47-year-old judge started out with the district attorney's office in 1979 and moved to the juvenile court in the early 1980s as an associate judge under now-retired justice Scott Moore, her mentor. She and Moore both sat on the committee that chose to turn down the state's boot camp money. Time has proven it was the right decision, they say. Other states, as well as many of the Texas counties that took the money for boot camps and found no magic cure, "are sending their people here on a regular basis to take a look at what we do," Boyd says.

Moore, who sat on the 323rd district bench for more than two decades before retiring in 1993, set the tone for creative alternatives years ago, juvenile court observers say. He was known early on for sending nonviolent kids to Job Corps, for example, as an alternative to TYC. He hired Cockerell and helped develop and implement many of the programs now in place, including T-CAP. His approach toward juvenile crime, he says, had always been rehabilitation, to find alternatives to TYC or adult prison whenever possible. No matter how serious the crime, "you have to remember at all times, they're still juveniles."

Prosecutor Barbara Griffin, chief of the Tarrant County district attorney's juvenile division, says "intelligent minds differ" on how severe juvenile punishment should be. For her, crimes of violence against persons "should be dealt with severely," with intervention "as quickly as possible" on lesser crimes. Tarrant County's juvenile probation office is doing something right, she says, because her office is seeing fewer and fewer juvenile offenders come back into the system.

The most disagreement among juvenile system veterans concerns determinate sentencing, used here very little under Moore, but with increasing regularity under Boyd. The unique-to-Texas law, on the books since 1987 and updated in 1995, gives prosecutors and judges an added weapon for getting young, violent offenders off the streets without certifying them as adults. Under determinate sentencing, a kid convicted of one of a whole slew of categories of violent crimes against people, including capital murder, can be sentenced to as many as 40 years in prison. The sentences begin in a TYC facility with its emphasis on restoration and rehabilitation. If an inmate stays out of trouble, responds to the programs, gets his GED and generally turns his life around by the time he's 16, the theory goes, he can avoid the finishing schools of the state prison system.

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.

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.

Both Green and Bell said that it's an amazing transformation when members of rival gangs go on out-of-town trips together. "Just getting out of the neighborhood and away from the image they think they have to keep up is all it takes," Bell says. "They are suddenly just like any other kids having fun, laughing, doing things together, helping each other. When their environment changes, they're just kids again."

Green, a divorced father of two daughters, lost one of his children at 22 to murder in Brooklyn. It is one of the reasons he wants to save kids. Most, he says, turn out successfully. The ones who don't haunt him. His first kid in the program was killed by someone who jumped him soon after he graduated. Another was sniffing glue and driving, ran into a tree, killing himself and two of his cousins. One died of a drug overdose. "Such a waste," he says.

The downside of the program is the short time--five to six months--that a child can participate. "Some of these kids need a lot more time than that," Green says. "They're making up for a lifetime of neglect."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >