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September 17, 2011

New program aims to help juvenile offenders

CULLMAN — Cullman County’s juvenile probation office is one of those services that a few people know very well — and one that’s all but invisible to everybody else.

The office, which carries out the decisions of courts where juvenile offenders are concerned, is one part judicial enforcer and one part social service. Those whose work involves heavy interaction with young people often in bad situations see, secondhand, the effects that social breakdowns can have on the lives of children who grow up in bad circumstances.

When a young person’s done something that’s against the law, and officials conclude that their home life isn’t helping things, the state can intervene by removing them from their homes and placing them in foster care — not an ideal method of remediation, in many cases.

“It’s a blend, really — it’s a blend of trying to do everything you can to heal the family and get them on their feet, but then there is a punitive side to it,” said Cullman Juvenile Probation Services director Brenda Howell Friday. “Of course, there has to be consequences for illegal behavior, but if there is something that can be done to improve a person’s situation, we make every effort to do that.”

A large grant recently awarded to the local juvenile probation office aims to establish some new practices that will allow local workers to help remediate young people, along with their families, whose domestic lives might otherwise contribute to future legal and social problems. The new service, called the Youth Advocate Program, employs methods that Howell says have proven effective in other counties both in Alabama and throughout the United States.

“It’s the first year here, but this program has been very successful for over 35 years all over the country,” Howell said Friday. “Where it has been implemented, it has been very successful. It’s just one of the programs that our department of youth services feels will utilize our funding better.”

The grant, a $211,000 award from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is renewable annually, with continuation that’s based on performance. In Cullman, it will likely employ at least two new full-time workers, along with half a dozen more part-time youth advocates that Howell said could be drawn from standing members of the community who have a track record of strengthening families.

“They will be people who are in our community and they can come from all kinds of backgrounds,” said Howell. “I can visualize some of them having a counseling or a social work background; teachers; ministers — really, anybody with a human services background would be appropriate — you just mainly have to have a heart for children and families and be able to assess what their needs are.”

Howell said the program’s effectiveness relies heavily on addressing the many factors that can create distress and strain in a young person’s home life. That’s a challenge, since young people who come enter the cycle of crime and recitivism early in life often come from backgrounds in which their parents — or parent — do not take initiative to make a home environment that helps children thrive.

“One of the goals is to decrease the institutionalizing of juveniles,” said Howell. “These are children who would otherwise be placed in a residential placement away from their homes, and the idea behind this is to get them help, to work with the family in their own community. It’s my understanding that, if a child has needs that can be addressed at home; if maybe school performance is part of the problem, we’ll work with them. These advocates will be with them, if there’s dysfunction in the family.

“Part of the hours the youth advocates will spend each week are actually in home with the family, and then part of their time is spent doing things outside the home. It’s about meeting them where they are to address their needs.”

Howell said the new program is slated to begin Oct. 1, although that date isn’t firm. Juvenile services and the Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. must still set up a staff and furnish an office for the new staff. The Cullman County Commission, which will administer the program through a grant reimbursement agreement, will finance the startup costs, though those will be repaid once the first grant money — which is disbursed quarterly — arrives.

“It looks like an excellent thing for troubled youth; for the people who needs this kind of help the most,” said county commission chairman James Graves after the commission agreed to assist in implementing the program at its Tuesday meeting. “If it can help some young folks get their lives on track, and keep them out of our courts and on the right track — and it doesn’t cost the county any money to do it — then by all means, we want to give it our blessing.”

* Benjamin Bullard may be contacted at 256-734-2131, ext. 270, or bbullard@cullmantimes.com.

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