Janesville79.8°

Janesville's juvenile diversion group well underway

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ANN MARIE AMES
August 1, 2008
— Like any cross-section of teens, these four looked like they had nothing in common.

They were different sizes and different shapes.


One drew attention to herself while another all but hid in the overstuffed couch.


One was black; three weren’t.


But they had one thing in common: a court order for a six-week educational program rather than a stint in juvenile detention.


Six kids are enrolled in the Wednesday morning detention diversion session at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 54 S. Jackson St., Janesville. The program—part of the juvenile justice division of the Rock County Human Service Department—is in the fourth week of its first six-week session.


It mirrors an ongoing program at Beloit’s Merrill Neighborhood Center.


On Wednesday, a Janesville Gazette reporter sat in on a class for 15- to 17-year-olds. Four of the six kids were there. The other two had other obligations, said their teacher, Juvenile Diversion Specialist Jennifer Ramsdail.


Kids sat in a circle on comfy couches and armchairs. Some had parole officers with them. One boy wore an electronic monitoring bracelet.


The class was in a sunny room at the church. Air-conditioners and fans buzzed to make the warm room more comfortable.


After the kids introduced themselves and shared one positive thing they had done the day before, Ramsdail introduced the day’s topic: success and purpose.


She wrote words and phrases on an easel while the kids brainstormed what those words meant.


“I’m surprised nobody said, ‘Money,’” Ramsdail said when the group ran out of ideas.


Next, kids used colored pencils to draw pictures in their journals about their image of success.


Then they talked about goals. Together, they came up with the steps one girl would need to take to achieve her goal of becoming a daycare teacher. The list included finishing high school, finishing two years at vocational school, keeping a clean record and practicing caring for children.


When they were done brainstorming as a group, each student set a goal in his or her notebook and listed the steps needed to get there. The four kids spent the rest of the first hour of class making a collage with words and pictures cut from magazines.


Talking and thinking about goals is important for teenagers. They tend to live in the moment, Ramsdail said.


“They need to be thinking, ‘Wow, 18 is really not that far away. What am I doing right now to get ready?’” Ramsdail said. “They can be making decisions right now that affect their future.”


The lesson continued with a discussion about how kids don’t have to live the same life their parents did, Ramsdail said.


“It’s important to not let those choices our parents made hold us back,” Ramsdail said. “We’re helping them to kind of break down.”


After four weeks, Ramsdail has seen results.


One participant is running away from home less, and his parents say (he) has a better attitude around the house, she said.


“(He) looks forward to coming here,” Ramsdail said. “This is a person who was not necessarily motivated before.”


Program aims to get kids away from detention—and keep them there

Rock County’s juvenile diversion program is designed to address many issues for many kids.


The new Janesville program housed in two leased rooms at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 54 S. Jackson St., mirrors an ongoing program at Beloit’s Merrill Neighborhood Center.


The county leases the rooms for $3,500 annually but so far has only a six-month lease with the church, said Jason Witt, deputy director of the Rock County Human Services Department.


The Janesville program is in the fourth week of its first six-week session.


The program, part of the Juvenile Justice Division of the human services department, has two parts:


-- The early intervention program can be voluntary or court-ordered. Kids can get into the program as part of a deferred prosecution agreement or be recommended by the juvenile probation supervisor.


Six of the 16 participants are in the early intervention program. The program is intended to keep kids with one or two minor violations from falling deeper into the criminal justice system.


-- The disparity in minority contact program is court-ordered in lieu of detention, said Jeremy Brown, juvenile probation supervisor and interim diversion supervisor. The program is made possible by a grant Rock County got to continue its success in addressing the disproportionate number of minorities in juvenile detention.


To earn the grant, Rock County had to prove its criminal justice officials were committed to change, prove it has made progress and show how officials use data to make decisions.


To that end, Ramsdail sends weekly reports to county data specialists that include notes on attendance, behavior and the gender and race of participants.


The disparity in minority contact program is about more than giving tools to minority kids, Brown said. It’s about keeping all kinds of kids out of detention if they don’t need to be there, he said.


“It’s been proven that detention does more harm than good,” Brown said. “Detention is not a deterrent.”


The tools include anger management classes, alcohol and drug addition classes and life skills lessons—all designed to minimize the fighting and the drug use that commonly get kids into detention.


“The reason a lot of these kids are on probation in the first place is because they don’t know how to handle their anger properly,” said Jennifer Ramsdail, juvenile diversion specialist. “I try to explain to them that anger itself is OK,” Ramsdail said. “It’s a natural human feeling. But knowing how to express that without hurting themselves and others is the key.”


Each session is six weeks long. Diversion specialists get a week-long break to prepare for the next six-week session. Kids who struggle with a six-week session may take the next one. Some lessons will be repeated and others will be new, Brown said.


Teens are divided into groups by age: 10 to 14 and 15 to 17. Groups meet twice a week for two weeks.


Sixteen kids are participating in Janesville this time around: four girls and 12 boys.


TO HELP

The detention diversion program, run by the juvenile justice division of the Rock County Human Services Department, operates in two leased rooms in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 54 S. Jackson St., Janesville.


The program is designed to keep kids from getting tangled in the criminal justice system. It also gives options other than jail for juveniles with minor violations.


County employees running the program hope to get the public involved. Here are some ways you can help:


-- Be a mentor. Many of the kids involved in the detention diversion program don’t have positive role models at home. It could be you.


-- Be a speaker. Talk to groups of kids about your job or something special you are involved with.


-- Donate school supplies, such as pens, scissors, paper or glue. On Wednesday, kids were cutting up used magazines to make a collage. Donate those or newspapers.


-- Donate relevant, multi-cultural prints or posters as wall decorations.


-- Donate furniture. Need to get rid of a gently used couch or comfy armchair? As the groups grow, so does the need for inviting places to sit during group discussions.


-- Donate a computer or board games. Juvenile diversion specialist Jennifer Ramsdail has picked out educational software she wants to buy, but the program doesn’t have a computer yet. Board games would be great, too, Ramsdail said.


To participate or learn more, call Jeremy Brown at (608) 757-5631.



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