Juvenile therapy programs see success
by Sarah Fay Campbell
Coweta County Juvenile Court has been awarded a $237,456 grant to continue and expand its intensive counseling programs used to help juvenile offenders and their families.
Last year, the court received a $150,000 grant to start the “functional family therapy” program. The new grants and program initiatives are a product of the state’s complete rewrite of the juvenile code, also known as “juvenile justice reform.” Portions of the reform package went into effect last summer, and the rest took effect on Jan. 1, 2014.
The grant will be used to continue functional family therapy (FFT) for many kids with serious offenses, as well as to fund the “Thinking for a Change” program.
“Thinking for a Change is less intense, and intended for kids who are off track but perhaps not in need of more serious, remedial help,” said Coweta Juvenile Court Judge Joe Wyant.
“With FFT, a counselor goes into the home and meets not just with the kids but with the parents and siblings in order to figure out where the problems might lie,” said Wyant.
“Many kids who end up in juvenile court have a home situation that is not ideal. The counselor will try to deal with that problem so the kid doesn’t continue to have issues,” Wyant said.
Coweta Juvenile Court applied for $263,000 last year, to offer both FFT and Thinking for a Change, but only received the $150,000 for FFT.
“For this year’s grant application, we were able to show them that we were reducing the number of kids that were going into our youth detention center. We have been successful with that. We felt that we were a good investment,” Wyant said.
The state is trying to save money by reducing the number of offenders who have to go to the Regional Youth Detention Centers.
“ The idea is that we look at those kids that are on the cusp of being send into an RYDC and try to prevent it with intensive family therapy,” said Wyant.
When a juvenile offender is facing time in an RYDC, it’s usually for a serious, violent felony. Or, the juvenile has a long history with juvenile court.
“It may not be an aggravated assault, but it might be the kid’s fifth time up there for burglary, that kind of thing,” Wyant said.
“So far, FFT seems to be bearing fruit. We are having some good results,” said Wyant.
There are juveniles in Coweta who commit serious crimes, but most are minor.
One issue amongst juveniles is drug use. “There aren’t a lot of treatment options available,” Wyant said. “And until they are weaned off the substance they’re addicted to, they’re going to commit crimes, like entering auto and burglary.”
“Even with therapy, you’re not going to undo 15 years of neglect and bad choices in 12 weeks.But it does help.”
More consistent communication and open dialogue seems to be a primary factor in youths who have found success with the program.
“I can point to a dozen examples I’ve heard of – well, he used to just leave, he used to just get mad and leave and now he stays and talks about it,” Wyant said. “It might not seem like a big deal, but it is.”
Dealing with the underlying issues that cause juveniles to commit crimes is not just cheaper than sending them to juvenile jails, it’s better.
“Jail isn’t the best place for a child,” Wyant said.
“If I’m sending a kid to jail it’s because I think that we are at the end of the road [with community services] and the kid presents a danger to those around him.”
In addition to counseling programs, juvenile court has been working with other groups.
Every Wednesday, a group of mentors led by math teacher Richard Tai, comes to work with the kids. “He and his group have been phenomenal,” Wyant said. “They kind of teach them how to learn and to act as mentors.”
The court has also worked with the SPARK program out of the University of West Georgia. College students work with juvenile offenders over a 12-week period. “To let them know they are not alone,” Wyant said. “Sometimes the kids will come to court with a dead look in their eyes. They’re not engaged or involved in their own life. The student mentors try to provide interest.”
Wyant continues to explore other organizations interested in working with juvenile court kids.