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Agencies collaborate to rehabilitate at risk youth

September 18, 2018

Dieter Cantu was 16 years old when he had his first altercation with law enforcement.

The San Antonio native was arrested in October of 2005 for aggravated robbery and placed in the Texas Youth Commission. In February 2009, he was released.

“During that period, my time was taken away from me. Time that I can never get back,” he said. “I made an oath to myself that I would change the systems so that other youth don’t have the same experience. I would not allow myself to become complacent while young people are out here losing their freedom.”

Twelve years later, Cantu is making good on his oath as the program manager for the new Harris County Youth Collective, or HCYC. The collective, which on Monday held its official launch at Big Brothers and Big Sisters, focuses on the intersection of child protective services and the juvenile justice system.

Over 30 private and public agencies at both state and local levels are collaborating to change the way these systems work with more nurturing and numerous services and resources. The collective serves dual-status youth, classified as children ages 10 to 17 who reside in both the child protective and juvenile justice systems. Harris County currently has 138 dual-status youth — both originally from the county and transported to the county from other jurisdictions —, who many classify as the most vulnerable children.

“What we really hope is that instead of a young person that could potentially be pushed further in the juvenile justice system because they don’t have the right support or the right people advocating for them, or a young person who may not be in a placement that is as supportive as they need, all these structures need to shift,” HCYC Executive Director Kelly Sowards Opot said alongside attendees that included Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and District Attorney Kim Ogg.

The teamwork, Opot said, is necessary for two agencies that traditionally have different goals that tend to counteract each other: the juvenile probation department to protect the public, and child protective services to protect children and families. The idea is to for the two systems to take context from the other to inform dual-status youth’s sentences, services and placements.

The most critical context to take into account, speakers said, is the trauma these youth face that may impact their development and behavior.

“We’ve asked our juvenile justice side to look at this as traumatic experiences these kids have had that are manifesting themselves now, so let’s think about ways that we can support them rather than punish them,” Opot said.

Ogg echoed Opot’s thought process, saying that these children should be looked at in “a different light, not because they deserve more, but because they have had less support.”

While the current number of dual-status youth may appear to be relatively small, HCYC estimated that each year approximately 200 youth become dual status in Harris County. Emmett stressed that the impact of having such a collective team of resources and people working to support and rehabilitate these youths will have a “ripple effect” through generations.

Organizations involved in HCYC include Child Advocates of Harris County, Houston Independent School District and The Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD. The collective is also partnering with Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, which has worked with five other Texas jurisdictions including Travis and Bexar counties, to adapt the Crossover Youth Practice Model to Harris County.

“We want to groom individuals to be successful in life,” Cantu said. “I’d like to focus on school, inclusion, reintegration, prevention, equity, discipline, and restorative justice practices.”

Massarah.Mikati@chron.com

@massarahmikati

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