Before a recent meeting of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors, Chief Probation Officer Mark Ferriera gave a presentation on the county's new Youth Assessment Center, a “one-stop shop” where justice-involved youth can be assessed and receive services all under one roof.
The center was conceived in 1996 and was brought to a pilot program for the 2019-20 and full implementation in the current year.
Meanwhile the California State Senate passed Senate Bill 439 which was signed into law and went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, it prohibited anyone under the age of 12 from being booked into Juvenile Hall or enter the juvenile justice system unless they were accused of murder or four specified sex offenses. The bill also mandated counties to come up programs to deal with minors under the 12 who committed a crime.
Between 2008 and 2019 the Probation Department processed an average of four bookings and 28 citations per year for youth 11 years of age or younger. Primarily those crimes involved battery, assault, theft and other property crimes.
To establish the center – which also served those under the age of 18 – the county partnered with Sierra Vista with a mission to prevent and intervene with wayward youth, diverting them away from the justice system.
Each year youth in the county under 18 receive around 600 citations for low- to medium-level offenses per year. Ferreira said most of those youth are “experiencing family issues that have led to poor decision making and law enforcement contact.”
“The ultimate goal of the Youth Assessment Center is to break the cycle of criminal justice involvement through a needs based approach utilizing referrals to community based organizations,” he told supervisors.”
Juvenile Probation Manager Dave Chapman told supervisors that effective Jan. 1, 2020, state lawmakers changed the terminology of troubled youth from “at risk” to “at promise” in all educational and penal code language.
“The stigma of ‘at-risk,’ they want to try and remove that and kind of have a little bit more of a positive perspective on who we’re really trying to deal with and that’s really kind of the core of what we do at the Youth Assessment Center – is try to start at the ground level, the early intervention and work with these youth before they actually enter the system,” said Chapman. He added that restorative justice concept has been around a while and the YAC calls for youth to reconcile with victims and understand the impact they had on their victim or victims.
Karina Franco of Sierra Vista Child & Family Services said the goal is to change the mindset of youth, help them gain respect for others and become accountable by repairing the harm done to others. Another goal is to address needs of the youth and families so that they are less likely to offend again.
Franco said previously the old method of discipline the focus was on the offender, “you’ve done something wrong, you’re going to pay the price for that.” She said the new approach calls for the offender and victim to talk and reconcile through “a restorative circle process or conference.”
“It really allows for repair of the damages and building empathy within that youth to move forward from the situation,” said Franco.
The YAC has four primary services:
• Case management with an emphasis on mental health support for offender and families;
• Victim-Offender Restitution Services, focusing on keeping the youth accountable while allowing the victim to be recompensed.
• Helping families deal with conflict.
• Counseling and referral services to connect kids to resources and getting them involved in extracurricular activities.
Referrals are made by schools, county probation and law enforcement officers with a goal of streamlining the referral process to minimize impact on police. Teens referred will be contacted within 10 days.
Youth will not be referred to the YAC if they have had a prior felony charge or be accused of very serious crimes. Services can be provided to youth without citation or arrest. Chapman said the program is voluntary with both youth and their parents or guardians willing to participate.
Franco noted that the YAC operates in west Modesto with flexible hours and evening appointments and no language barriers. There is no cost to families who participate.
“We are not pushing them to go into services but really hearing them, listening and making sure that we’re making those appropriate referrals,” said Franco.
She gave one example whereby a youth was referred to the YAC for a battery and being drunk at home. He and his parents agreed to participate. Because COVID restrictions, the center make computer devices available for families without them so that counseling could occur via Zoom. An assessment was made and services delivered. The boy was “able to own his situation” by talking it through his family. The mother said the communication between her and son has improved. He is also being tutored for school needs.
Supervisor Terry Withrow said he liked what he heard.
“It’s everything that I think we need to do as far as our focus on prevention and getting to these kids early,” said Withrow. He added the program is intended to break the cycle of dysfunction by getting to kids and their families earlier.
“I look forward to you coming back, as you have more data and results on this and we’ll throw all the money in the world at you with good data and good results because it will be such a great investment for us and take away from all the other money we spend throughout the year,” Withrow told Chapman and Franco.