To Keep Teens Out of Jail, Travis County Pilots First of its Kind Program for Those Accused of Assaulting Caregivers

District Attorney José Garza announces a new diversion program for juveniles Wednesday, Nov. 8 (Photo by John Anderson)

Teen misbehaves. Mom says she’s taking teen’s phone away. Teen says no. Mom says yes. Teen throws phone at Mom, bruising her. Mom calls 911. Should that teen go to prison?

What about this: Nine-year-old misbehaves. Grandpa takes off his belt. Fifteen-year-old, who has experienced the belt, says no. Grandpa disagrees. Fifteen-year-old goes after grandpa, punching him. Grandpa calls 911. Should that teen go to prison?

District Attorney José Garza and a number of Austin police think probably not. But, until this fall, law enforcement arriving at these kinds of scenes have had little choice but to pick teenagers up on suspicion of assaulting a family member and book them into the juvenile jail, Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center. There, kids are pulled out of their schools and enter the juvenile court system, often for the first time. And this isn’t rare – assault on a caregiver is one of the most frequent criminal accusations kids face, Garza said.

“Zero percent of the time is it clear that the child is the primary problem,” D.A. Garza told the Chronicle. And yet, said Channing Neary, director of youth justice at the D.A.’s office, “In our current structure, it is the child who’s put in handcuffs. It is the child who goes to jail. It’s the child who is ‘at fault.’”

Transformation Project, a new program implemented by the D.A.’s office, police, and a team of nonprofits, will create an alternative with two primary aims: restoring peace in families and diverting children away from the legal system. The particular model Travis County is piloting has not been attempted in the United States before, but it’s based on scientific findings about interventions that effectively curb domestic violence. Because it’s new and evidence-based, the University of Texas will study its effects.

“We know our criminal response to domestic violence is not working. The jury is out,” said Krystal McLeod, an expert in restorative justice at New York University who helped form Travis County’s juvenile diversion program. “With this program we have the opportunity to transform the juvenile justice system as we know it. We got into this work wanting to interrupt the intergenerational transmission of violence, and that’s what this could do.”

Uncharted Territory

About 20 years ago, a group of social scientists arrived in New York City at the invitation of NYU’s Center on Violence and Recovery. Considering all of their research, they put their heads together and imagined a program that might stop cycles of violence in their tracks.

They developed two models, one to be used in the context of the legal system and one that would be divorced from it. The first they called Circles of Peace. These counseling circles would involve the offender, a clinician, advocates, family members, and, after a few such sessions, the victim. In this safe circle, they’d be able to communicate without violence. This could be used as an alternative to jail time. The other model, called a healing circle, would be the same, but could happen at people’s request, without an arrest or court case.

If it sounds like a pipe dream, that’s because it kind of was. Counties that considered implementing this kind of model often balked at the idea of involving victims, even though victims and offenders often continue to live together.

“For domestic violence the lore has been you never include the victim because there’s an idea that they’ll say something that humiliates their partner and get beaten at home, but the data are not showing that,” said Julia Babcock, a University of Houston psychologist focused on domestic violence. In fact, programs that include the victim “seem to be more powerful.”

Babcock knows this because a smattering of jurisdictions across the country have developed Circles of Peace programs, and in most cases, researchers have studied the outcomes.

Babcock’s recent meta-analysis – an evaluation of many evaluations – looks at various domestic violence programs across the country. (It’s undergoing peer review now, so hasn’t been published yet.) Babcock found that in Utah and Arizona counties that implemented Circles of Peace models, offenders were significantly less likely to be involved in a future violent incident.

But the existing Circles of Peace models have all involved adults arrested for intimate partner violence. Attempting this model for juveniles is, as far as Babcock knows, unheard of – though she expects it would be easier to swallow for more communities. She points out that one of the primary anxieties communities have about Circles of Peace is keeping victims and offenders in contact. When the involved parties are parents and children, though, a continued relationship is all but guaranteed.

The Travis County pilot involves another element that Garza calls “revolutionary.” Youths will be allowed to stay in a respite center away from their parents. It’s a non-secure facility, so unlike in jail, they’ll be able to continue classes wherever they go to school. Travis County is one of a handful to provide this for juveniles accused of assault. The experts we interviewed for this story could only think of two other such respite centers in the country: one in King County, Wash. (Seattle), and one in Pima County, Ariz. (Tucson). While both connect kids to resources and present an alternative to jail, neither King nor Pima Counties pair their respite programs with Circles of Peace.

What Success Means

The simplest way to measure success is to look at future violent acts. The pilot program started in earnest in September and has funding to run for two years. Each year will see 25 to 30 kids aged 15 to 17 working through Circles of Peace sessions. LifeWorks, a nonprofit advocate for youth, has run a respite facility before for runaways, and they’re in charge of the facility now.

After the child is stabilized at LifeWorks, they’ll be connected to resources that further stabilize the family and enable them to start Circles of Peace. That second piece, where the family is connected to wraparound services, is handled by the BIPOC-led Excellence and Advancement Foundation. “What we know is that once a kid is at this age 15, 16 years old, the harm has likely been happening for some time,” said Dr. Courtney Robinson, executive director of EAF. Their staff will connect with the child’s school, and look into tutoring needs. Next, they talk with the parents about basics: “Do they have any food insecurity? Do they need a mattress? Are they looking for work?” Robinson said. Most importantly, EAF staff does once-a-week visits at the kid’s school and at home during the entire program, which lasts at a minimum for nine months.

These cases are unique and complex, Robinson stresses. “It isn’t like if parents did this one thing, that would fix it. Or if a child did this one thing, that would fix it all. There just isn’t a panacea. So that’s the critical role, I think, that we play, in figuring out what a family needs, and then helping to ready them for the restorative circles. Once you begin to communicate and figure things out as a family, then those are tools that you can use forever. But we have to first try and get them out of crisis mode.”

Amala Foundation handles the circles, but they’re also preparing families before getting the caregiver and child in the same circle. “We make sure that folks are fully equipped,” said Executive Director Maria Arobbo. That involves one-on-one coaching with kids and caregivers, as well as with any other community members they want to bring, the facilitator, nonprofits, and a safety partner. The pre-circle process takes weeks alone, and the circles can last up to three months, depending on the specific family’s needs.

Everyone involved is hoping to see reduced instances of future assaults and arrests, compared to juveniles who don’t go through the program. That can be measured in a few months. But long-term, McLeod said a successful program that interrupts violence early in Austinites’ lives could have sweeping effects.

“If I had a magic wand and could pick one issue that we can address differently to transform communities and the criminal justice system, it’s domestic violence,” McLeod said. “It’s one of the major causes of homelessness. [Studies] connect domestic violence to mass shootings. If you look at Sandy Hook or Uvalde, they start with domestic violence, shooting the grandmother, shooting the mother.”

In the Circles of Peace program implemented in Arizona, McLeod points out that, on top of seeing a decrease in domestic violence incidents from people who went through the program, they saw decreases in other kinds of arrests, too.

Garza’s office has been particularly focused on reducing gun violence, and he said this program is a critical component of those plans. “Accountability is an important part of our violence prevention strategy, but it’s wholly insufficient. We have to do more to address the root causes. This is a key part of our gun violence prevention strategy, because gun violence is often domestic violence. But it’s also a key part of our goal to treat kids like kids and do our best to keep young people out of jail.”

Chronicle staff writer Lina Fisher contributed to this report.

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