Alabama family says juvenile program ‘saved son’s life’
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Inside their apartment complex in Auburn, family members talk about Meleke Burton and the changes he has gone through.
In the span of a few months, Burton has gone from being housed in a youth detention facility to planning for the fall semester at AUM. And he has already decided to pursue nursing, following in his mother’s footsteps.
Stacey Hughley, Burton’s mom, couldn’t be happier.
She credits his success to Youth Villages, a Department of Youth Services-funded program that works with juvenile offenders in Lee and Macon counties. The program seeks to get youth offenders out of detainment, or avoid it all together, and provides in-home services to deal with whatever issues they are facing. Experts, including those pushing for juvenile justice reform this last legislative session, believe these types of programs can save the state money while reducing recidivism.
A bill this last session attempted to reinvest $35 million saved from housing youth offenders in DYS facilities back into their communities to help with truancy issues, drug abuse, family counseling and other early intervention services. It attempted to require risk assessments, remove court fines and fees from juveniles’ cases in certain situation and form an oversight committee as well as give judges discretion in putting youth offenders on the sex offender registry.
“Not only is it economical to treat them in their own home, their own school. It is more effective,” said Rep. Jim Hill during session. Hill carried the bill in the House. It eventually failed to gather enough momentum to make it through the Senate, buried under other bills as the short session wrapped up.
As legislators were gearing up for the legislative session this last January, Burton and Hughley were in a predicament. They were in a Lee County courtroom, unable to corral their arguing and outbursts that often ended with police at their door.
“He was at a point where I didn’t know how to communicate with him,” Hughley said. “I was about to give up ... I felt like I had my back against the wall.”
There were times when she would come home from work and sit in the car. It didn’t feel worth it to fight anymore.
“It’s sad to say, but his future didn’t look bright to me,” she said.
It’s hard to believe that the soft-spoken Burton even has the ability to yell. He was mostly quiet as his mother talking, though he opened up some when asked about his past.
Frustrations used to build until he couldn’t help but argue with his family. Nowadays, Burton said he tries not to focus on what brought him into the Lee County courtroom in January. He’d rather talk about his future and goals.
Going to college. Becoming a nurse like his mom. That helps remind him that arguing, refusing to back down and having the police called isn’t going to put him closer to those aspirations.
“I always had goals, but I wasn’t always going towards them.” Burton said. “I’ve never blamed anyone else for what I’ve done.”
Shelby Thompson, regional supervisor at Youth Villages, said the program started about 11 years ago in Alabama. They provide family and community based therapy and use evidence based programs to measure their results.
The local group only takes on about 16 or so cases at a time, she said, and they usually serve about 50 in a year.
It can cost an average of $50,000 to $80,000 — with costs sometimes ballooning to $150,000 — to house a child in a facility away from their home, Christy Cain deGraffenried, executive director at Alabama Children First, said previously to the Montgomery Advertiser. Even if a youth offender needed the most expensive type of therapy offered locally, it would only cost about $8,000 per kid. Those savings make these types of reform fiscally responsible as well as more rehabilitative, she said.
She believes that most judges who recommend youth to the program know that keeping juvenile offenders in their homes is cheaper and more effective, but some of the current laws deter them from doing so.
For Burton, that round-the-clock service was invaluable. It allowed him to contact Vernesia Womack, a clinical supervisor with Youth Villages, whenever he was struggling.
By building coping and communication skills, the family said that they are able to move past issues that seem trivial but can foster resentment and anger. Sometimes, it is as simple as just letting go of their gripes.
Womack said the family is a perfect example of how support and guidance can help solve issues that seem impossible to overcome.
When talking about the family’s tough situation now, Hughley was often close to tears, continually praising the program in between laughs and smiles. The program’s effect in her mind is clear and she was sure to repeat it several times.
“It saved my son’s life.”
Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com