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Keeping Them from Returning

Young offender project connects youth to community.

Several county agencies aim to put a stop to "kids committing crimes" through the Young Offender Project, said Hope Stonerook, contract and youth projects administrator for the county Department of Social Services.

The project is directed toward youth 13 years and under who are involved in the juvenile justice system to prevent them from becoming repeat offenders. The state Department of Criminal Justice Services awarded the county a $216,400 grant to implement the multi-year project with renewal options up to $541,100 over five years.

"Right now where we have a lot of programs, we don’t have anything to work with this very specific population," Stonerook said.

Seventy youth offenders ages 14 and under were detained at the county Juvenile Detention Center from April 1996, the month the center opened, to June 2000. They were detained an average of 3.6 times, and 47 percent were arrested six or more times after their first detention with 16 percent arrested 15 or more times, according to a county study completed in 2002.

"As the population grows, which it is in that range, we expect to have more and more kids in the system. That’s why we wanted to get a program going," Stonerook said.

The program is expected to reach 60 youth each year, according to historical data of the number of youth under age 14 who come to the Juvenile Court Intake Unit or through the court system. Most or all of these youth were diverted to other county programs for juvenile offenders instead of being sent to the Juvenile Detention Center.

THE YOUNG OFFENDER Project has two main components, "Reconnecting Youth" and "Functional Family Therapy," which are expected to be in place next year.

Reconnecting Youth is a 12-week community-based program that involves group activities and individual work to encourage young offenders to stay in school and to engage in positive activities. The program provides weekly classes to teach life skills, including self-esteem enhancement, personal control strategies and interpersonal communication techniques with parents and others. Classes are tentatively scheduled to begin in January 2004.

During each program session, offenders and their families will be assigned to a counselor, providing mentoring and showing parents and their children how to interact and do inexpensive activities together or with other families, such as hiking, biking or going on picnics.

"A lot of kids who are involved in criminal activity are isolated from their communities, and this is a tool to connect them back in," Stonerook said. "The hope is they will continue to engage in the activities even after the completion of the program."

The program also aims to connect the youth to their families and schools, said David Carver, a juvenile probation officer and coordinator of Reconnecting Youth for the Juvenile Court Service Unit. "The goal is to get them involved in activities they never experienced before as individuals and families and continue to do that after they graduate," he said. "They just don't have to hang out. They can do things with Mom and Dad and still have fun."

The program is the only one in the Juvenile Court Service Unit that uses recreation as a program component, Carver said. "What we're trying to do is get to these kids before they become entrenched in the criminal justice system and get them involved in positive activities so they don't re-offend," Carver said. "We're going to show them positive things to do ... so the negative things kids come across won't be as attractive."

THE SERVICES for the Reconnecting Youth program will be contracted out to an outside vendor, a process expected to take three months. Services for the second program, Functional Family Therapy, will be handled by the county Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services.

The department will be site certified with seven to eight therapists receiving training to become licensed program providers. The state tentatively scheduled the first training session in December for Loudoun and two other localities in the eastern end of the state. Functional Family Therapy, LLC will provide the training on a contract basis on a specific therapeutic model focused on strengthening family relationships.

"We think it will be helpful to the services we provide people," said Roger Biraben, director of the Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. "We want to get them as early as possible and get them to become productive."

In Loudoun, the average age of youth coming in for court services is 16 years. Research shows that nationwide, youth who commit crimes when they are under the age of 14 are more likely to become repeat and serious offenders, Stonerook said. "We found we weren’t identifying kids until they were older," she said. "If you identify the problem at a younger age, if you put the appropriate services in place, you have a better chance at changing behavior. When they get older, it’s hard to change a lot of that behavior."

The agencies working with the Young Offender Project include the departments of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services; the Juvenile Court Service Unit; Social Services; and Parks, Recreation and Community Services.