A new course of action
JANESVILLE The boys had been looking forward to a visitor in their small living space.
They shook hands politely, as they had been told to do. They were animated and cheerful, breathlessly explaining their day-to-day routines.
Eric jumped up and pulled a heavy three-ring binder from a bookshelf. He pointed out journal entries, diagrams and worksheets from daily course work.
Vivacious and articulate, the two boys sounded like any teen boys proud to demonstrate what they'd been learning in school.
Then the visitor asked why they were in the small room with concrete block walls.
"Felony escape and theft," the tall, thin John said automatically.
Then he paused, and his face crumpled.
He put his head on the table, embarrassed to admit his mistakes to a friendly stranger.
Ed Pearson hopes the boy's pain is enough to finally stop him from ending up at the Rock County Youth Services Center, where he's been living for nearly six months. His most recent stay was his longest.
The boys are two of the first three participants in the Rock County Juvenile Justice Division's Alternative to Corrections by Taking Immediate Ownership of New Skills program. Participants are confined for six months in the county's youth services center, formerly known as juvenile detention. Pearson is the center superintendent.
Participating in ACTIONS could help young criminals make positive changes in their lives rather than learn bad habits in juvenile corrections, Pearson said. The ACTIONS program also is less expensive than corrections, he said.
In state corrections, "kids from Orfordville are in with kids from Milwaukee," Pearson said. "You spend $90,000 to $100,000, (for about a year) and what have they learned? How to be a Milwaukee inner-city youth."
The youth services center houses several programs. Most youth are at the county facility for only days or weeks at a time. Some get shelter services while they await foster care placement. Some can't stay at home but are not accepted into foster homes.
Others are waiting for court appearances or have been sentenced to short stays for crimes.
Juveniles sentenced to terms longer than six months historically have stayed at state corrections facilities such as Lincoln Hills School in Irma. A recent change in state law allows county facilities to handle some corrections cases in house, said Lance Horozewski, the county's juvenile justice division manager.
The ACTIONS program is housed in one of the secure pods in the youth services center. As many as four youth can participate; currently three are in the program.
ACTIONS youth get programming as opposed to doing time at a state juvenile corrections facility. They are expected to stay at least six months inside the youth services center.
The pod designated for ACTIONS youth has been modified from spaces for youth in "regular" short-term detention. The ACTIONS walls are decorated with handmade motivational posters. The boys have comforters on their bunks and a hard, vinyl "couch" as opposed to a steel bench.
"If a kid is going to be here six months, we want them to be comfortable," Pearson said. "We don't want to make it day camp, but I don't want them sitting on a steel bench."
ACTIONS programming is delivered in three phases:
-- Assessment. Assessing each youth takes two to three weeks, Horozewski said. Workers get to know the youth and their families, assess them for addiction and mental health issues and come up with an individualized school plan.
To participate, youth must be between the ages of 15 and 17. They must not have a significant mental illness, and they must have been deemed a danger to the community, Horozewski said.
Although a formal assessment is important, workers already were familiar with the three boys participating in ACTIONS. Each had a history at the youth services center, and that is likely to be typical of future participants, as well, Horozewski said.
"These are kids we've been working with for a very, very long time," he said.
-- Treatment. Programming includes the usual array found in a diversion program: aggression replacement, addiction recovery and restorative justice. This programming, along with an education in some fashion, is available to all youth in corrections at a state facility or in detention at a county facility.
For education, many youth at the Rock County facility use a system designed by the PLATO Learning Company to earn remedial high school credits. The Janesville School District recently installed 10 computers at the youth services center, improving opportunities for students to access PLATO for schoolwork, Pearson said.
One of the ACTIONS participants is on track to graduate from a Janesville high school, Pearson said.
The school coordinated an education plan for the boy, who is a high school junior, so he can keep up with his classmates, Pearson said.
One thing that makes ACTIONS different from other juvenile programs is family counseling, Horozewski said. Counselors meet with youth and their families together and separately.
Including families in treatment for high-risk youth is a key to success, he said.
-- Transition. All three boys in the program are in transition.
The phase includes short home visits and in-home family therapy sessions. The first few visits are short; they get longer as time goes on.
Youth are monitored via GPS bracelet while on home visits.
During The Gazette's visit, one boy said he was having his first overnight stay at home on Thanksgiving. He looked forward to playing video games with his brother.
The transition phase, including the family visits, is one of the reasons ACTIONS is an excellent substitute for time in a state corrections facility, Horozewski said.
"In corrections, they get no family treatment, no sort of transition," Horozewski said. "They are in the correctional facility and then out. If you think about teenagers, they don't do well with big changes."
Because the program is so new, the county does not have costs calculated at this time. The program should be considerably less expensive than sending a youth to corrections, Horozewski said. The county pays $287 per day to send one juvenile to a state detention facility, Horozewski said. That comes out to about $105,000 per year.
Last year, the county sent 29 youth to corrections, Horozewski said.
The county has budgeted $70,000 this year for mental health treatment in the juvenile justice division, although not all of that is for ACTIONS participants, Horozewski said.
It's a small price to avoid the high cost and low result of corrections, he said.
"That (cost of corrections) starts adding up very quickly, and the results are poor," Horozewski said. "It's not a great investment in tax dollars."
Not dead time
Eric and John told The Gazette they have changed a lot in the five months they have been in ACTIONS.
The Gazette is not using the boys' real names to protect their identities. Both were 15 when they were sentenced, and both are now 16.
The third participating boy was out of the building for a scheduled outing during The Gazette's visit.
Eric said the biggest thing he's learned is how to manage his impulsive behavior. He does so by managing his impulsive thoughts, he said.
Impulsivity led him to break into homes and to steal cars, he said.
"I can't stop it (an impulsive thought) from entering my mind," Eric said. "I used to try to distract myself, but it would still be there. Now, instead of trying to distract myself, I tell myself why it's wrong."
It took a while before he was willing to participate, Eric said.
"At first when you get in here, you're all stubborn. After two or three weeks of sitting and being bullheaded, I decided I might as well try it."
Another big change has been the relationship between the three boys, he said.
When the boys met, "all three of us hated each other," Eric said. "Now, I am sticking my neck out for them. If they got in trouble, I'd talk them through it."
John said he's lucky to get the opportunity to participate in ACTIONS. The six-month stay is a long commitment for a 16-year-old, but he thinks it will be worth it in the end, he said.
"I sat time in here," John said. "But it's not dead time."
Who are they?
So far, three teen boys are participating in the ACTIONS program at the Rock County Youth Services Center. Each is nearing the end of his program.
Here is a description of them when they started:
-- 16-year-old Janesville boy convicted of escape, theft, receiving stolen property, battery, obstructing an officer and operating a vehicle without owner consent.
-- 16-year-old Janesville boy convicted of criminal damage to property, disorderly conduct, possession of marijuana, battery, obstructing, theft and concealing stolen property.
-- 15-year-old Janesville boy convicted of operating a vehicle without owner consent, battery by prisoner, criminal damage to property, substantial battery, possession of marijuana, disorderly conduct and theft.
About the center
Rock County Youth Services Center staff members always are looking for ways to make time spent in the facility valuable for children and teens. Here are a few highlights of the facility:
-- At least 85 percent of the facility's population is boys, Supervisor Ed Pearson said. Boys and girls spend most of their time in separate programming.
A few programs are not gender specific, and youth spend time together, he said.
"They have to learn how to be appropriate together," Pearson said.
-- The county recently was awarded $34,390 from the Department of Corrections to pay for a program that would allow diversions participants to attend the Boys & Girls Club of Janesville.
These would be young people participating in the diversions program as an alternative to a stay in the jail, not those sentenced to a state corrections facility.
-- Next year, Pearson and his staff hope to get funding to build a secure outdoor recreation facility for juveniles. No such facility is available at this time.
-- The juvenile justice program accepts donations of materials for youth in shelter care and other programs. Especially welcome are art supplies, reading materials or unopened snacks. To donate or volunteer, call Ed Pearson at 608-757-5437.