Monday, April 24, 2017

Visitors to the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility (Mart) campus will be greeted in a more welcoming gatehouse lobby in an effort to make the facility more family friendly. In addition to new and more soothing paint, more comfortable chairs and couches have been provided.

The family visitation area was also repainted and a reading center and interactive play area were created for younger children to play in and youth who have children here could sit with their child and read them a book. More than 200 books were ordered – 100 in English and 100 in Spanish.

Staff have been supportive of this renewed push toward family engagement and a family friendly environments. Staff appreciate the new color schemes and welcoming environment and parents have commented how much easier is it to visit their kids in a more family friendly environment rather than a correctional environment.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Youth incarcerated at the Ron Jackson facility in Brownwood, Texas, got a rare and well-earned opportunity for a field trip to reunite with service dogs they had trained when the dogs first emerged from their own humble beginnings at Texas animal shelters.

On January 11, 2017, four boys in the program, along with staff from Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD), traveled three and a half hours to Dripping Springs, Texas, near Austin, to visit the campus of Service Dogs, Inc. The boys and other TJJD youth have been working with trainers from Service Dogs, Inc. for over a year in the nation’s first and only juvenile offender service dog training program.

Achievement With Service) have been living with and training shelter dogs for pet adoption since 2010,” explains PAWS administrator and dog trainer for TJJD Cris Burton, M.Ed. “Youth must pass a psychological screening and have enough time left to work with the dogs through the 9-12 week training program.”

Burton discovered Service Dogs, Inc. when he attended a weeklong workshop at their Academy for Professional Dog Trainers. After the workshop, he approached Service Dogs, Inc. about a partnership.

For more than a year, trainers from Service Dogs, Inc. have traveled to the Ron Jackson campus once a month and held bi-weekly conference calls with the youth to monitor the dogs’ progress. “They are operating at a very sophisticated level of training,” says Al Kordowski, Director of Training at Service Dogs, Inc.

At Service Dogs, Inc. training center in January, the boys met the disabled clients, both injured veterans, who were receiving two of the service dogs they had helped train. They also hopped into wheelchairs and took the dogs through Service Dogs, Inc’s canine behavior obstacle course, a task usually not undertaken by professional dog trainers or SDI clients until the third day of a
week’s worth of training. Even more significantly, this was the first time the youth had worked dogs from a wheelchair.

“Their skill level was superior to many professional trainers who apply for jobs here,” said Sheri Soltes, Founder and President of Service Dogs, Inc. “We have been interviewing candidates for an associate trainer position. After seeing him in action, we would love to hire Brandon, who is about to complete his sentence.”

The program has proven to be a win-win for the youth, the dogs, the organizations involved and even the community.

“This program helps the youth develop a better sense of empathy,” says Troy Lowery, a Juvenile Corrections Officer VI who supervises the dorm where the youth live. “The canines help them connect to their unmet needs and their risk factors. The kids must be able to identify their unmet needs, such as feeling acceptance and belonging. They put their dog in their spot – the dog has unmet needs, maybe it’s been hurt – and it helps the youth understand.”

The youth follow a strict schedule of waking up at 5:00 am, taking the dogs out to toilet, bonding with them, then breakfast, school and other activities and lights out at 9:00 pm.

“I’ve gotten used to the structure,” says Brandon, who had been in the program for over a year and left TJJD at the end of January. “I’ve learned it’s going to be that way anywhere I go. This is going to help me in the long run. Plus, I get to do things I’ve never done before like visit here and go to Barktoberfest (a rescue dog event in Austin).”

Xavier has been in the PAWS program for almost a year. He says the program has taught him how to face his problems and overcome them by starting a conversation.

“With dogs, it’s not about only enforcing the dog’s behavior,” he says. “You learn to decrease the dog’s risk factors. Those are things like criminal thinking. Like the dog seeing a squirrel and thinking, ‘I’m fixing to go after that squirrel.’ When you use positive reinforcement to teach them, their skills go up and their risk factors go down.”

“I’ve learned how to express my feelings in a positive way,” he says. “It’s not always about looking for a fight or picking up a gun to express your feelings. You learn how to forgive so you’re not stuck in a dark place. If you don’t, you’re always going to have that criminal mentality. Life is not about taking someone’s life.”

“It’s been really good for me,” says Nicolas, who has been in the program for a year and four months. “I like it because we use positive reinforcement. You can’t be mean to the dogs. You learn patience and empathy, putting yourself in the dogs’ shoes so you can understand their feelings. If the dog is having trouble, you give them a break so they can deal with their frustration, then you come back to it.”

Service Dogs, Inc. adopts dogs from animal shelters and rescue organizations and trains them to help individuals living with deafness or mobility challenges. The 29-year old nonprofit provides the dogs free of charge and is supported through donations. The Ron Jackson facility can house and train twenty dogs, doubling Service Dogs, Inc’s capacity to train dogs for deaf and mobility challenged clients, thus significantly shortening the waiting list for a dog. TJJD and Service Dogs, Inc. are expanding the program to two additional facilities in Gainesville and Giddings this year.

Doug Fullerton received Anakin, a black Labrador retriever who was one of the first service dogs trained by the youth. A naval officer, Olympic trial athlete in multiple sports, MBA graduate of Duke University and father of two, Doug suffers from debilitating seizures that occur approximately every six weeks.

“I thought I had lost nearly everything that defined me. I was a significant athlete – gone. I was a young, significant career businessman – gone. Finally, I was a husband and father – nearly gone. I will never swim competitively again, compete in an area 10k running race hoping for a medal, turn a double-play on a hard-hit grounder, nor take another company public. My hands don’t have the dexterity or control to play Billy Joel songs on the piano anymore, I don’t have the endurance to hike to Machu Picchu with my wife (she went in August by herself), nor does my health allow me to go back onto the Board of any company,” wrote Doug in a letter to the PAWS administration after meeting them and the boys at Service Dogs, Inc’s training center. “However, I can now struggle through the episodes, I have the opportunity to positively engage in my sons’ lives (both in and out of school), I have the chance to be a better husband – both by providing my wife with more independence and by contributing more to the household (from chauffeur service to taking Heather out to dinner), and I can return to my men’s group Bible Study through the church.

“A great deal of the PAWS effort is never seen by those that have sacrificed in service to others, but please make no mistake, your program is highly valued, discussed, and significantly changing lives for the better … specifically, me, in this case. Additionally, you have allowed my children to have significant activities in their lives that had previously been curtailed. Anakin’s presence, thanks to you and your program, has a very significant ripple effect that is hard to track, yet has an impact upon lives far-ranging in this country and potentially even the world.”

Photo: Youth in the PAWS program at Texas Juvenile Justice Department’s Ron Jackson facility in Brownwood, Texas live with and train shelter dogs adopted by Service Dogs, Inc. to prepare them for advanced training

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

In 2008, TJJD began an annual family survey to determine how families feel about their child’s rehabilitation progress. The survey is available on the TJJD website and allows families to rate various issues such as education, medical care, case management, youth safety, and other areas of interest. The survey has also been provided to family members during visitation weekends and through mail outs. Survey results provide information on family views and provide guidance for areas of improvement.

In 2016, the agency collected 457 responses from family members across the state. 386 responses were in English and 71 in Spanish.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Angie Scalf, the Department Director for Rockwall County Juvenile Services, has been an outspoken advocate for changing the methodology of working with at-risk youth, providing more at-home services for the families, providing free outpatient drug counseling, and using innovative techniques to avoid detention, placement or commitment to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. The Department, which employs five probation officers and two licensed counselors, provides drug education, supportive outpatient drug counseling, intensive outpatient drug counseling, anger management, family preservation, individual counseling, a 1st Offender Program, a gardening program, in-house community service and Experiential Education.

Rockwall County’s Experiential Education Program began with the assistance of Marla Burns, an adventure-based counselor with Williamson County Juvenile Services and Texas State University. Burns facilitated several camp outs with youth and probation officers that set a template for the department to build on and modify to each youth’s own needs and strengths.

The goal of the Experiential Education program is for youth to begin the program shortly after being placed on probation and have them participate in all the activities for the entire time they are on probation. Youth report weekly to take part in activities including games, team building activities, and instructional time.

"Every week is a little different depending on what is going on, we try to utilize student holidays, and early release times during the school year," said Matt Margot, a probation officer that splits his time between the program and being the department’s Placement Officer. "One week, we might certify the kids in first aid and CPR, the next we might be teaching fly fishing or bike riding on a nearby trail. We try and have some day trips as well, going to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, or going to the nearby park to play Frisbee golf."

Goals include teaching basic camping skills such as cooking, putting up camp sites, and fire starting and safety. It also includes social skills, character development, and learning to work as a team. Youth are required to give up all electronic equipment once they get out of the vehicle for any camp out.

"I read awhile back that the human mind requires about 72 hours of time away from computers, cell phones, televisions, video games, etc. to actually get anything out of being outdoors, so we try and have at least a three-day, two-night camp out, but prefer the four-to-five-day camp outs instead," Margot said.

Today Rockwall County is able to serve approximately 15-20 youth a year in the Experiential Education Program. They average about six camp outs a year with an additional five to 10 day trips. The department recently hired Travis Moore, LPC-I, who had made a previous living by Fly Fishing as the General Manager for Tailwaters Fly Fishing Shop. Moore is a Certified Casting Instructor with experience in outdoor education and structured debriefing sessions after activities. Also helping with the program is Joe Klinkovsky, a veteran probation officer who is an avid outdoorsman, hunter and angler.

"Joe’s been a great counterpart these last few years, his outdoor knowledge and skills have been invaluable on these trips," Margot said. "All the staff that participate in the camping trips have certifications in either Advanced Wilderness 1st Aid or Wilderness 1st Aid, and are certified life guards."

The program is constantly evolving as staff evaluate what works and what doesn’t. Margot says it’s important to do activities that the kids want to do, not necessarily what you want the kids to do.

"The more interactive the better," he said. "Instead of rock climbing, where it’s usually one kid at a time, and the rest are sitting around watching, we discovered taking a caving tour where we crawl, climb, and squeeze through small spaces in the dark, keeps everyone going. Instead of just simple pier fishing, kids enjoy the challenge of putting on waders and walking out into the middle of a cold flowing river to fly fish."

Margot noted that last June, Rockwell County staff took a group of boys to Garner State Park, outside of Concan, Texas, where the group was able to hike to the top of the hill each morning, spend the day swimming and staying cool, and then each evening going to a local dance, which provided an opportunity to address social skills and proper etiquette when asking a young lady to dance.

"It was a great success, and we immediately made plans to visit again in 2017," Margot said. "We plan to have the boys take some dance lessons this year so they are a little more prepared for the dance. The boys we took in June have declared their plans to revisit Garner State Park after they get off probation."

While the Experiential Education Program operates on a minimum budget, staff at the Rockwall County Juvenile Services believe the future of the program is bright. The county hopes to apply for a TPWD COOP Grant to replace old and worn out gear and add some new components to the program.

According to Margot, "I genuinely think for all of us, the Experiential Education Program is the best part of our jobs. We get to interact with the kids in a way unlike we normally would as probation officers. They let their guard down and realize that we only want the best for them."

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

With the 85th Texas Legislative Session more than halfway complete, much time and energy is spent right now on the decisions being made at the Capitol. Several of us from TJJD are regularly at the Capitol talking about the needs of our system. Many of our county partners and juvenile justice practitioners are doing the same. In February, I testified before the Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations Committee to lay out the budget needs for both TJJD and county probation partners. Since that time, each committee has completed their work; in the coming weeks, we will see each bill discussed on the floor of each house.

While I wish I could say we received funding for all of our needs, the unusually tight fiscal climate this session means most of our exceptional item requests did not receive favorable review. The House allows for floor amendments to the budget. This is the only remaining opportunity for substantive changes to the budget before Conference Committee work. We are encouraged by the interest members show in our work and their willingness to continue to meet with us. While it appears that we will face a decrease in funding for probation departments and the state, we continue to meet with members in support of our budget. I encourage you to do the same.

I am happy to report that the Regionalization effort continues to progress. This youth diversion partnership between TJJD and county probation departments is instrumental in keeping more youth out of state placements. As of March 17, we received 164 diversion applications, approved 104, and 88 youth have been placed. We are ahead of our goal to divert at least 150 youth this fiscal year. Youth have been placed at 30 different placement facilities. To date, 53 counties, representing small, medium and large jurisdictions, have participated in Regionalization. This figure is particularly enlightening when you consider that through January of 2017, TJJD commitments have come from 66 counties.

TJJD recently made the difficult decision to close York Halfway House, effective March 31. While I am hesitant to relinquish a step-down resource, the population at York House has been well below capacity for several months. As such, the current fiscal environment necessitated the decision to close. Currently vacant positions throughout TJJD were offered to interested York House employees. Of the 21 employees at York House, all ten who were interested in continuing employment with TJJD in other locations have been placed in positions.

On a lighter note, during the first week in March, the agency hosted the fourth site visit of the Youth In Custody Practice Model. Approximately 60 staff were in Austin to continue developing a roadmap for implementing best practices in our work. TJJD staff were energetic and engaged and their input, participation and thoughtful commentary were all signs to me of an engaged and committed cadre of professionals never giving up on becoming better at what we do. The level of integration we can achieve knows no limits other than ourselves and I eagerly look forward to the next several months as this all comes together.

PHOTO: David Reilly

Monday, April 10, 2017

Governor Greg Abbott has appointed James Castro, Stephanie Moreno, and Allison Palmer and reappointed Pama Hencerling and Jimmy Smith to the Texas Juvenile Justice Board for terms set to expire February 1, 2023. The Board is charged to develop and implement rules to govern the department, executive director, and staff and to establish the mission and set goals for the department to emphasize keeping youth in home communities while balancing rehabilitative needs with public safety.

James Castro of Bergheim is the president and CEO of SAMSAT – San Antonio Museum of Science & Technology and former CEO of St. Peter – St. Joseph Children’s Home. He is licensed as a Professional Counselor, Marriage and Family Therapist and a Professional Counselor Supervisor. He currently serves on the Task Force on Improving Outcomes for Juveniles Adjudicated
of Sexual Offenses. He has supported many organizations including, the Texas Alliance of Child Family Services, Knights of Columbus and Boy Scouts of America. Castro received a Bachelor of Science from Franciscan University and a Master of Arts from St. Mary’s University.

Stephanie Moreno of Beeville is the county judge of Bee County. She is a vice president of the Coastal Bend Housing Finance Corp and a member of both the Coastal Bend Council of Governments and the State Bar of Texas. Moreno received a Bachelor of Arts from Texas State University and a Juris Doctor from Western New England School of Law.

Allison Palmer of San Angelo is the district attorney for the 51st Judicial District of Texas. She currently serves on the Task Force on Improving Outcomes for Juveniles Adjudicated of Sexual Offenses and is a member of the National District Attorneys’ Association, Texas District and County Attorneys’ Association and the State Bar of Texas. Palmer received a Bachelor of Arts from The University of Texas and a Juris Doctor from St. Mary’s School of Law.

Pama Hencerling of Victoria is the chief juvenile probation officer of Victoria and Goliad Counties. She is past president of the Texas Institute on Children and Youth and a member of the Central Texas Chiefs Association, Texas Probation Association and the Juvenile Justice Associate of Texas. Hencerling received a Bachelor of Science from Sam Houston State University.

Jimmy Smith of Midland is a commercial realtor and former county commissioner. He chaired the Texas Juvenile Justice Board Trust Committee, was the county representative to the Midland Teen Court, and is currently a reserve deputy for the Midland County Sheriff’s Department. Smith was honorably discharged from the United States Marine Corps.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

This past summer, Lone Star High School West at Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex worked to beautify the atrium in the center of the school. Students, along with teachers and JCO’s, painted concrete benches in a variety of colors and designs.

During the Fall 2016 semester, the school decided to continue the beautification by building a picnic table in one of the woodshop classes and planting flowers. In addition, the decision was made to finish the benches by holding a competition. The students were asked to create a design for a bench that fit the theme of “Believe in yourself, achieve your goals, be a success.” Staff then selected four benches that best fit the theme. The atrium is currently used for staff and student events, as well as for some class activities. The upgrades to the benches give students ownership and pride in their school.