Who knew that an innovative initiative that is showing dramatic success in decreasing the number of children incarcerated in Clayton County was actually sparked by a “failure” in the system. So goes the story of how Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske was inspired to create the Finding Alternatives for Safety and Treatment (FAST) panel, a program that statistics show is having a major impact in the county.
Teske says the case of a young man now serving a life sentence for murder actually prompted the idea for to him to start the program.
“The system had failed him on so many levels; by the time he’d gotten to the seventh grade he was reading on a first grade level and no one had ever intervened,” recalls Teske, of the teen who, after years of run-ins with the law, ultimately gunned down a security guard during a botched robbery.
Several studies have linked lack of education to criminal behavior. Teske firmly believes that if school leaders and social service agencies had intervened earlier, he would have evaded the very gang life that ended up taking away his life and that of an innocent man.
“A man would be alive today and [the boy] would not be in prison for life if something had been done,” says Teske, who has served as chairperson of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families and a member of the Federal Advisory Committee that consults the president and Congress on juvenile justice issues. He hopes the FAST Panel will help divert young offenders like that teen from a life of crime.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings the FAST panel, made up of a diverse mix of experts — including child welfare authorities, school psychologists, mental health counselors, child welfare group representatives and community volunteers — convenes to get the back story on the children who end up in front of Clayton County’s Juvenile Court Judges. Members are trained in juvenile justice and child welfare issues, undergo background checks and take an oath vowing not to violate the young offender’s privacy.
The panel interviews the child’s parent or guardian and then makes recommendations to the judge about what should happen next. Teske says the hearings streamline court appearances and allow juvenile judges to make more informed decisions. He follows the panel’s suggestions 95 percent of the time.
The overall objective, he says, is to mobilize social service agencies to address the wide-range of underlying issues – everything from mental health to abuse – that are likely contributing to a child’s decision to act out.
“We focus on alternatives to detention,” explains panel member John Goolsbee, of Clayton County’s Department of Family and Children Services. “The idea is not to put children in jail, but to treat them so that they have the opportunity to become productive citizens.”
By all accounts the program is working well.
“We’ve reduced juvenile detention rates by 95 percent and reduced racial disparities by 70 percent,” gushes Teske, noting that prior to the effort African-Americans were disproportionately represented in Clayton’s juvenile system. The disparities have been reduced, he says, through an assessment process that assists high-risk youth in getting increased access to the services needed to return to the community sooner.
Adds Teske. “When we started in 2003, our average daily population (of Clayton County children) in the RYDC (Regional Youth Detention Center) was 100 – that means more than 40 kids were sleeping on the floor. Now the average daily population is 12.4.”
Probation officer caseloads have dipped from 150 county children per officer to 30. Supporters say Clayton County’s collaborative approach has also resulted in better communication between the agencies involved and has drastically improved services for children.
Panel volunteer CeeCee Anderson, a former special education teacher, says the initiative’s benefits are plentiful.
“We’ve gotten the parents more involved; we hold everyone accountable; the parents and the schools,” she says. “You have to take the village approach. Many of these kids are begging for love.”
During a recent meeting, panel members, seated at a long wooden table sipped coffee and listened intently as a single mother dabbed tears from her eyes while sharing her frustrations with her 14-year-old son, who she claims stole money from her purse. Administrators at his school had apparently determined that he was precocious enough to skip a grade in school, but his severe behavioral problems, she says, prevent him from advancing. The delegation unanimously recommended that he be assigned a male mentor and undergo counseling to deal with what they suspect is deep-seated anger issues related to his father’s absence in his life.
Panel volunteer Henry Walker was pleased with the hearing’s outcome.
“[The mother] had no idea that she had so much support available to her in the community and that’s why we’re here,” adds Walker, a retired Boy Scouts of America executive. “We talk to the parents and try to provide solutions that will aid and assist them. That’s what happened here today and that’s what we will continue to do moving forward.”
Chandra R. Thomas is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 Atlanta. She has served as a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow at Atlanta's Carter Center and as a Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow at The Ohio State University.