Editor’s note: The Log Cabin Democrat is taking a deeper look at Faulkner County’s juvenile court system, its successes with the risk assessment tool now mandated across the state, Act 152 on juvenile justice reform and other related topics. This is the fifth story in the series.

Two women who have been involved with juvenile justice for years spoke to new juvenile probation officers from across the state Friday and encouraged them to seek programs that will change and better the lives of the youth they serve.

More than 30 juvenile officers from across the state met in Little Rock for a week-long training and certification beginning Monday at the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Each day, juvenile officers who began serving their districts within the last year learned how to properly serve the youth they serve. The conference also allows juvenile probation officers to network and learn what techniques and programs are working best in other districts across the state.

“It expands the view of juvenile officers from across the state about the way we do things around the state — how we need more unity in how we do things around the state and to learn what other people are doing and how they’re doing it,” AOC Juvenile Justice Specialist Faye Shepherd told the Log Cabin Democrat. “From our speakers, they learn the basics that will allow us to rehabilitate [youth] for the community’s sake.”

Leeanna Brown, who is the juvenile division chief of staff in the 20th Judicial District, and Lona Jeffrey, a 16th Judicial District juvenile probation officer, spoke to the new officers Friday morning regarding the need to have structured programs that bring positive role models into the lives of at-risk youth.

There are many factors that come into play regarding the need to ensure juveniles who find themselves in the court system are receiving programs to help build them up and encourage them. Such reasons include:

Many at-risk youth lack positive, social assets and interactions at home. These youth may not receive support from a parent. In some situations, neither parent helps support the child. Not having a role model to guide them. School officials sometimes are too busy to give the child the one-on-one attention they may need. At-risk youth tend to choose or gravitate to anti-social or poor-choice peer groups. Youth struggle fitting into mainstream adolescent life.

Keeping this in mind, Brown said it was crucial that teens and other at-risk youth have a positive person in their lives they can depend on. Through services offered by the court, at-risk youth can begin building those relationships and working to better structure their own lives.

Of the programs available within the 20th Judicial District, the juvenile chief of staff said the Boy’s Boxing Club was among her favorites.

While the program teaches troubled youth to protect themselves, gives them a role model they can depend on and places them in a structured environment, Brown said there was something about the program that stood out beyond these positive characteristics.

“Where it gets me is when a young man is standing before the judge in court and he may or may not have on or both of his parents behind him, but in the back of the courtroom sits the boxing coach,” she said. “That college boxer that works week to week with that boy [is there]. He’s there when [the boy] has good day’s in court, and he’s there when he has bad days in court … He believes in them.”

Ensuring after-school services were mandated to at-risk youth in the juvenile court system has not always been a requirement. The programs and systems placed in Faulkner County and across the 20th Judicial District — which includes Van Buren and Searcy counties — are now required by state law with the passing of Act 152.

Act 152 focuses on improving the lives of young offenders by utilizing “validated risk assessment tools” and providing a variety of options tailed to each juvenile’s specific needs.

Not every juvenile probation officer initially supported creating creative services for the youth in their district.

Jeffrey said she dreaded this process. But, after training with Brown to learn one of the systems needed to provide her daily tasks, she picked up a new-found interest and desire to find ways to create programs that would create positive influences for the at-risk youth in Heber Springs.

She said the goal was to travel to Conway and get trained on Contexte, which is a case management system. While working alongside Brown, the 16th Judicial District juvenile probation officer said she learned “it wasn’t about all the programs [Brown] had, it was about her excitement for the programs she had.”

Once against diverse programs tailored to youth’s many needs, Jeffrey went back to Heber Springs and excitedly told other juvenile officers they should create a sewing program. The idea was not well received, but Jeffrey said she’s going to keep pushing to help at-risk youth and get the rest of her team on board as well.

With help from those in the community, Jeffrey hopes to create book club groups and other such activities for Heber Springs teens.

One of the school district’s school resource officers has offered to get a victimology course for at-risk youth in the district. The two have hopes he can get the after-school program certified through the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy.

The structured assessment of violence risk in youth (SAVRY) assessments help juvenile officers determine what services would best fit each at-risk child’s needs. The questionnaires help officials determine if a juvenile offender is at a low, moderate or high risk of re-offending.

Through recent years, after implementing SAVRY assessments, Faulkner County has witnessed a 57% reduction in juvenile detention numbers:

In 2015, 495 juveniles were placed behind bars. In 2016, 380 were detained. In 2017, 262 juveniles were detained in the county jail. In 2018, juvenile detainee numbers dropped to 212.

The programs instated in Faulkner County go beyond “not locking kids up,” but instead instill a foundation of resources at-risk youth can turn to and gain useful skills to last them a lifetime, Juvenile Circuit Judge Troy B. Braswell has said.

Brown said the SAVRYs have changed her outlook completely.

Earlier this year, she aided in the assessment of a Van Buren County teen who she believed was “DYS bound.”

The Division of Youth Services is typically the last option for juvenile offenders. However, the boy had a violent record and was accused of holding his girlfriend hostage and trying to escape from the Van Buren County Courthouse on a separate occasion.

The SAVRY assessment revealed the boy was raised around violence.

“When I got done [with the assessment] three hours later, I sat back and I thought, ‘He's not received any services from anyone at all ... no one ever,’” she said. “He was so violent and aggressive, well his norm consisted of his parents running each other with their cars and his parents throwing bricks at each other.”

After being ordered to participate in the lifeskills class offered through the court as well as the Basic Blue class, where he interacts with a law enforcement officer, the boy has shown tremendous progress, Brown said.

This at-risk teen has not violated his probation since he was given the chance to participate in these programs and now has a job.

“It really makes a difference,” Brown said.

Staff writer Marisa Hicks can be reached at mhicks@thecabin.net.