By Joe Todaro

In 1981, a group of women from Shreveport’s First Presbyterian Church returned from a conference with the idea to help local youth change the direction of their lives.

Carolyn W. Beaird, Marjorie B. Winkler, Lea Johnson and Babs Roggero attended a women’s conference at which they learned about a program that dealt with young people who had run afoul of the juvenile justice system. The program was designed to teach young people to take responsibility for their actions and provide them the opportunity to start over before committing offenses that would lead to more serious criminal charges. The First Presbyterian ladies started what became the Volunteers for Youth Justice (VYJ).

Today, VYJ has developed three so-called diversion programs for children and youth categorized as abused, neglected and at-risk. VYJ has developed a relationship with the Caddo Parish Juvenile Court that parish administrators call vital.

VYJ’s characterizes itself as “a volunteer-based, community supported non-profit organization whose mission is to provide a community caring for children, youth and families in crisis.”

WJ’s Director of Youth Programs Shonda Houston-Dotie and Development Director Amie Baham

The diversion programs VYJ has developed are Court Appointed Special Advocates, youth programs that include youth mentoring, Teen Court, conflict resolution training, court programs like Families in Need of Services and truancy. There is a voluntary leadership program where mentors work with students to identify a career path and make the decisions to reach their goals.

VYJ’s youth division deals with the diversion programs, according to Director of Youth Programs Shonda Houston-Dotie. “Caddo Juvenile Court or the District Attorney’s office sometimes refer students who have committed minor offenses to the VYJ programs,” said Dotie.

Teen Court allows teens to be judged by their peers. They provide school-based mentoring at three schools: J. S. Clark Elementary, Lakeshore Middle and Fair Park High. They have life skills classes called Power of Choice, which is a six-session program for students and their parents. Students learn about conflict resolution, sexual responsibility, goal setting and avoiding substance abuse. Parents have a counselor working with them on parenting skills.
The Stamp Out Shoplifting class lets kids know that shoplifting can be a gateway to more serious crimes, and the ways it affects consumers and retailers.

Juvenile Court also refers students on probation to VYJ to complete their probation requirements. “We do a program called Facts of Life,” said Dotie. “It’s an eight-session character building program dealing with values and morals and self-fulfilling ideas.”

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) are specially trained volunteers who serve as officers of the court and “friends” to children in need, according to the website. “Basically, when a child comes into foster care, a juvenile court judge decides whether he’s going to appoint a CASA to that case,” Dotie said. “We need volunteers, and it’s a more serious volunteer opportunity. You have to go to court. You have to speak to people who are involved in that child’s life.”

Amie Baham is the development director for the organization. She said CASA volunteers potentially play a huge role in a child’s life. “[CASA volunteers] go through 30 hours of training where 15 are in-house and 15 are on their own. Then, they become the voice of the child. They meet with the child and their caretakers, and report back what they think is best for the child.” Baham echoed the need for volunteers. At the time of this interview, there were 80 kids on the waiting list for a volunteer. “Our goal would be to have one-on-one. We would need up to 110 volunteers,” Baham said. Currently, they have less than 40.

Another important program, according to Dotie, is conflict resolution. Dotie said that about 500 students per year go through the program, which is coordinated with Caddo schools. If students get into a fight at school, the principal can refer them to VYJ for the Conflict Resolution program. “It’s a one-day class; three hours. The students come to learn what they could have done to avoid that fight.” According to Baham and Dotie, the majority of students referred to this program are middle school-aged girls. They said the program is keeping kids out of the “school to prison pipeline.” It prevents them from having to go to court and receiving a citation.

“Giving a kid a criminal record for fighting, something a lot of teens did growing up, is a wake-up call. It’s an opportunity, a one-time chance. They get to go to Conflict Resolution and Teen Court,” Dotie said.

Teen Court is designed to offer non-violent, first-time juvenile offenders their day in court testifying before their peers. They are judged by other kids and then encouraged to accept responsibility for their actions and make restitution for their offenses. Dotie and Baham said the sentences meted out by Teen Court are designed to increase the offender’s social skills, develop critical thinking and provide educational and constructive consequences for their actions.

Reva Whitaker has been a health care practitioner for 23 years. She currently works in higher education at Southern University and is a volunteer advocate in CASA. She is impressed with the Teen Court concept. “Teen Court is, to me, pretty significant in my life. It is a group that reels in kids who may have gotten into minor beefs at school,” Whitaker said. “It helps to curtail or prevent them from having another situation.”

VYJ states that kids in the programs run the whole gamut of socioeconomic levels. Sometimes, after students have been given requirements to fulfill by the juvenile court or the school system, they stay on beyond their “sentence.” Some former program participants return as guest speakers to students in the programs. Dotie said that the goal is to foster good civic involvement, teach youngsters how to be a good citizen and show them how to give back to the community. “The results have been gratifying,” she said. “By and large, they don’t get in trouble again. Our recidivism rate has been around five to seven percent.”

Families in Need of Services (FINS) was created to deal with status-offender youth, including truants, runaways and those whose behavior is ungovernable. It’s an informal legal process to identify self-destructive behavior by a child or family member. FINS attempts to offer the appropriate services before court intervention is necessary. Mandatory conferences are held during which the child and parent draw up an informal contract. A case plan is created to obtain needed services for the family and a volunteer works with them for a period of six months to ensure that the plan is executed.
Baham said that VYJ is always looking for volunteers and a person can find a niche depending on their talent and expertise. Mentors are only asked to visit their assigned students twice a month for a 30 to 45 minute visit. Dotie noted that all volunteers are vetted thoroughly before joining the programs. Background checks are performed for all volunteers; some are required to have fingerprints taken. “Minor issues in a person’s past would not preclude them from participating,” Dotie said. “But things like abuse or neglect would be grounds for refusal.” She said VYJ also does an extensive interview process before taking a volunteer to determine where they might be most effective.

On March 11, VYJ is hosting Gumbo Gladiators at Festival Plaza in downtown Shreveport. It’s the largest fundraiser of the year for VYJ and helps raise funds to recruit additional volunteers to advocate for students in foster care, strengthen community-based programs and expand school-based programs. It’s an opportunity for the community to sample the gumbo and find out more about the organization’s programs. Baham said there are even spots available for folks who want to build a team to compete in the competition.

Individuals who feel they might have something to offer as a VYJ volunteer are encouraged to call the office for more information at 318.425.4413, or visit online at www.vyjla.org.

Dotie said the decision would be personally fulfilling. “We’re dealing with kids who have seen people come and go out of their lives. We need people who are going to be committed. This is not just an opportunity to build your resume, to apply for a sorority. It is a real true commitment to that opportunity and to that child. They need to know that they can trust you. [Volunteers] need to be able to follow the child from beginning to end. Their attorney may change, their caseworker may change and the family situation has changed. But if that [volunteer] is the one constant person that they can count on, that goes a long way in helping that child succeed.”

Children are referred to VYJ for a variety of reasons, but most relate in some degree to their home situation. Abuse, poverty and neglect all are factors in leading a child to exhibit some kind of anti-social behavior.

“It goes back to poverty, I think. Why aren’t their needs being met and causing them think that [acting out or crime] is a lot better than what they are experiencing at home?” Dotie said. “Juvenile Court sets out to be more restorative and not so punitive.”
Since VYJ has been around, the population of young people ending up in the Juvenile Court has been reduced because some juveniles’ cases are handled outside the courthouse.

“Now, whom you will see in Juvenile Court are kids with more serious offenses,” Dotie said. “Over the years with the transition of trying to work with kids in the community and keep them out of jail, you’re seeing more serious offenders than you would have seen 15 years ago or 10 years ago.”
That reduction in numbers is something that Caddo Parish acknowledges. According to its website, the mission of the Department of Juvenile Services is to protect the community by enforcing court orders, ensuring that victims of juvenile crime are restored by “imposing accountability for offenses committed and to equip juvenile offenders with the required competencies to live productively and responsibly in the community.”
“Volunteers for Youth Justice plays a critical role in the services that we are able to provide for our juveniles,” according to Caddo Parish Administrator Dr. Woodrow Wilson.

Caddo Parish Director of Juvenile Services Clay Walker

Clay Walker is the Director of Juvenile Services and oversees the juvenile detention center and probation office. He said, “It is amazing the amount of money they save the parish due to the services they provide. The partnership is amazing.”

Walker estimates that VYJ saves the parish between $3 and $5 million dollars a year.

In 2006, Caddo voters rejected a tax proposal to increase the budget for the Juvenile Services division. At that time, Wilson said his goal was to remind Caddo voters that it was impossible to operate a state of the art Juvenile Court on the current budget.

Today, Clay Walker said the situation has not changed. “My tax for Juvenile Court was established in 1957, and it is stretched to the limit. We have roughly the same caseload (children arrested and children brought in) that Jefferson Parish has. Their budget is somewhere in the neighborhood of $11.5 million. Ours is $7.5 million,” Walker said. “VYJ fills the budget gap because our tax [was established in] 1957. The public service that’s being done is, rather than paying the taxes for it, collecting the donations and doing the fundraising. They’re doing the job that we should be doing.”
The adopted 2017 budget for Caddo Parish shows a total expenditure for the Department of Juvenile Services of $6.6 million.

According to the Caddo Clerk of Court’s office, the upcoming April 29 ballot in Caddo contains four proposals from the Caddo Parish Commission. One of those deals with the renewal of the millage dedicated to the Juvenile Justice System.

Critics of the proposed increase point out that in the 2015 actual spending was $7,074,399, and will rise to $7,796,962 in spending in 2017; an increase of 10.2 percent in spending in two years. The increase compares unfavorably to a 1.4 percent inflation rate increase (official) in 2015 and 2016, specifically, 0.1 percent in 2015 and 1.3 percent in 2016.

Another issue facing the parish is a new state mandate that 17-year-old offenders will start being referred to the juvenile systems statewide effective July 1, 2018. Walker said those individuals are now dealt with in the adult justice system. When the new law goes into effect, those individuals will be sent to the juvenile system. He noted no additional funding has been assigned to the change.

“The state’s new mandate for 17-year-olds will undoubtedly put an undue strain on our parish facilities. We will have to make hard decisions, even as it relates to what juveniles we would have to release in our facility to make additional room for the 17-year-olds that we would then be required to take in,” Wilson said. “The parish is actively working and engaging in discussions with other agencies to find solutions to address this new law, with no new current budget lines or allocated money to address this issue.”

“In 2015, 356 17-year-olds were arrested by [the Shreveport Police Department] alone. Adding 356 17-year-olds for our staff to deal with without an additional dime,” Walker said.

“It’s worse than if you added 356 kids to Byrd High School without adding a teacher, a classroom or a parking space. I will not be able to maintain public safety at the level that I am now without additional resources. Period.”

The 2015 annual report of the Judicial Council of the Louisiana Supreme Court on Juvenile Court cases says that Caddo dealt with 2,882 children’s cases. Baton Rouge dealt with 2,719. Jefferson Parish dealt with 2,000, while Orleans dealt with 992.

Dealing with children, according to Walker, is a priority and criminal sentencing may not be the best solution. “When a child gets arrested for shoplifting and that’s their only offense, it is not appropriate to use the detention center. The detention center is a 24-bed detention center with locked cells. It is essentially a prison for kids. The other children in there are generally in on serious violent or sexual felonies, attempted murder armed robbery, aggravated rape — relatively serious charges. You put a shoplifter in there because, in theory, you’re trying to teach him or her a lesson about stealing. And while they may learn some lessons like you would when you were grounded as a kid — maybe a disincentive to steal — they will also learn other lessons, bad ones. Those other kids will influence them.

“The way child and adolescent psychology works, they may meet a kid farther down the wrong path and they’ll think he’s cool. And they’ll follow him down that wrong path. We’ve proven, basically, that the outcomes for those lighter weight kids are worse if you put them in the deep end with other kids. If you leave them in the shallow end and you address them there, there are better outcomes,” Walker said.
“VYJ is the buffer Caddo Parish needs,” Walker said. “The takeaway is in spite of inadequate funding for the juvenile system, VYJ has managed to come up with the volunteers and money to provide the things that the parish cannot.” He called it a “stop-gap Band-Aid” fix rather than a well thought-out public safety solution.

Walker explained that a probation officer often has a caseload of juvenile offenders accused of serious crimes. Based on his current staffing and level of funding, he would rather that probation officer spend time following an armed robber than a youngster charged with shoplifting.

“VYJ follows the shoplifter. That scenario is more appropriate since VYJ has the tools and the money to pursue it. At the same time, VYJ’s involvement with such offenders does not dilute my primary responsibility of protecting the public safety. I can’t even explain on how many levels VYJ helps this community and keeps the community safer,” he said. “The fundamental thing to understand is that we have 24 beds in our detention center. Monroe has 60. There are 64,000 children in the parish. Ask any police officer in town, when they drop off a kid, how many kids are released and beat them back to the neighborhood.

“Because I have 24 beds, we have to make a triage decision about who stays. We do the best we can, and I submit. I hope we do a good job. Juvenile crime is still low. But we have 24 beds and 17 year-olds are coming.

“When we release a kid, we put them on an ankle monitor. After July 1, 2018, a kid with an ankle monitor is going to commit a horrible crime. People are going to say, ‘what the hell is that kid doing out with an ankle monitor?’ And I’m going to say, ‘I’ve been trying to tell everybody for three years that 24 beds is too few.’ That [1957 funding level] is going to come to a critical point where it’s simply not going to be enough. I don’t know the solution to that, but I feel that the community needs to know.”

In the meantime, VYJ will continue to seek out and train volunteers who are interested in helping kids refocus their priorities toward making this a better, safer community.

Baham and Dotie are quick to point out a good volunteer might not recognize themselves in the mirror. They encourage anyone with the spark of interest to think about giving VYJ a call. They suggest going online to see the list of programs, discover what each does and determine how they might fit into one of the programs.

“No matter what area you volunteer in, if you make the difference in the life of one child, that’s a huge difference,” Baham said. “That child is kept out of an abusive family relationship, or they have been mentored into going to college. All our programs make the difference in the life of a child.”