Georgia’s First After School and Youth Development Conference

John LashThe first Georgia After School and Youth Development Conference is taking place in Athens, Ga. January 9 – 11. The event was organized by GUIDE, Gwinnet United in Drug Education, Inc., and supported by the state’s Department of Human Services, the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, and the Department of Education. I was fortunate to be able to attend part of the conference on Thursday, and to sit down with a few of the presenters.

The focus of the conference, embodied in the theme “Together towards Tomorrow,” is a set of unified standards for after school and summer programs that will enable the government, providers, and grant makers to make decisions based on the latest evidence about what really works. Collaboratively developed by several government and nonprofit agencies over nearly a year, the standards are comprised of eight Quality Elements:

  • Programming and Activities
  • Linkages with the School Day
  • Health, Nutrition and Physical Fitness
  • Environment and Climate
  • Relationships, Culture and Diversity
  • Staffing and Professional Development
  • Organizational Practices
  • Evaluation and Outcomes

Each of these elements are viewed as important in developing programs that are engaging, mesh with and support school activities, develop skills outside the scope of the school curriculum and that rely on evidence-based practices and measurable outcomes of targeted traits.

Thursday morning Judge Steven Teske (a frequent contributor to JJIE) spoke to the gathering about the innovative approach Clayton County has taken to reduce the number of kids declared delinquent. A big part of his talk focused on the negative outcomes of youth involvement with police and courts. The deeper into the system the kid goes, from handcuffing to incarceration, the odds of dropping out of school and participating in future crimes goes up.

Another speaker I was able to sit down with was Jill Riemer, Executive Director of the Georgia Afterschool Investment Council. GAIC is a nonprofit whose mission is to increase the quality and availability of after school programs around the state. They serve as a resource for programs of all types, and provide networking, training, curriculum development, and other assistance.

GAIC played a role in the creation of the state wide standards and Jill was excited to see the level of energy that was palpable among attendees. There are thousands of programs around the state and it is difficult to track what they do and how effective they are. The common standards are a huge step towards increasing the effectiveness of programs and allowing those with the mission of supporting such programs a way to decide where and how to invest their resources.

Now the concern for kids that motivates so many of those who attended the conference will be augmented by tools that will help them select what really works.

The Economics of Juvenile Justice

Our Constitution sets forth in the preamble that one of the goals of government is to "promote the general welfare." This requires good policy decisions by our leaders that promote a strong economy.

We are fortunate living in the land of the "free and the brave"—to exercise freedoms others only dream of. And many have money in their pockets to feed their family. Is it because we are one of the wealthiest nations in the world that we take economics for granted when it comes to criminal and juvenile justice issues? And that by spending more money to build prisons we can jail our way to safety?

When my Mom accused me of wrongdoing—most I did, but some I did not—the feeling of anger would rise up in me during those few and far between innocent moments. With a self-righteous tone I would blurt out "I am innocent. You're not fair!"  My Mom was quick to say that she learned just enough law to know that the Constitution did not apply to her unreasonable searches and seizures, bias decisions and unfair inquisitions.

When that didnt work, I pulled out the guilt gun and shot her with the "But Mom—I would'nt lie. Don't you trust me?"

"It has nothing to do with trust," she would say. "I care enough for you not to trust you completely."

My Mom's theory that absolute trust destroys relationships has proven to be a fact of life for me and for others.  Whether as a parent or spouse, believing that loving someone and complete trust are the same will in time result in taking our loved one for granted—that they will never lie to us, cheat on us, or take advantage of us. When we think, talk and act this way, we take for granted their love and become lazy. We stop asking questions of our kids when they don't come home on time, or don't bring their friends by the house.

Many times in court parents exclaim with the same indignation I showed my Mom. "My baby would never do that!" they say. Yeah—tell my Mom that!

For years we have heard just enough policymakers and political pundits tell us that we must get tough on crime. So, we build prisons for adults and kids. We have been doing it for so long its become a way of life—like a tradition. Like our love for our spouse or kids, we trust our way of life and believe there is no need to question that which we trust. So we take it for granted and make incarceration the answer to criminal justice.

We take incarceration for granted to such an extent that we pump millions of dollars into the youth and adult prison construction industry and we call it an investment thinking we get a good return in community safety. But, do we?

Georgia's Department of Juvenile Justice is budgeted $300 million of which nearly two-thirds is used to operate out of home facilities. It can cost more than $90,000 per bed per year. What's the investment? More than half are convicted within three years of release.

Some respond "that's not bad considering these are the hard core kids who are difficult to rehabilitate."

Wrong. Over half of the facilities are filled with low risk youth, misdemeanants and status offenders. Our youth prisons--the razor wire facilities--include 39 percent low risk and 37 percent medium risk youth.

The irrefutable research shows that placing low risk youth alongside high risk youth will turn low risk youth into serious high risk delinquents. Yet, the general public believes otherwise because they trust the system. Tey take for granted that the millions invested in youth facilities are protecting the community.

Georgia is not alone. Many states mirror the inefficient use of taxpayers monies when it comes to troubled youth.

As I understand the concept of investment, I doubt our juvenile justice systems would last long if it were publicly traded on the stock market.

Recently, my court was visited by a group from our State Advisory Group, Governor's Office for Children and Families, to conduct a site visit and review the status of an alternative "deep-end" program we call "Second Chance." These kids were facing up to five years in a youth prison.

In attendance were five graduates of the program: armed robbery with a gun, robbery by force, attempted murder and aggravated assault cases. A couple of these kids were facing a mandatory minimum of 20 years in adult court.

They told their story of redemption, of being snatched from the jaws of prison and being delivered into a world of surveillance, cognitive restructuring, family counseling, after-school programming, community service, multi-systemic therapy, drug counseling and getting their high school diploma. Today they are employed and in college or entering the military.

As I heard their testimonies, I did the math. At a cost of $90,000 annually to house each kid is $450,000. The recommendation for each kid at sentencing was three years. That's a cost savings to the state of $1,350,000. It cost us only $40,000. That's a cost savings of $1,310,000.

Let's not forget that, if committed, four out of five of these kids would have committed another crime after their release from prison. Now they are paying taxes and contributing to the revenues of our state to help "promote the general welfare" of our citizens—and these were scary kids!

Dont get me wrong. I have to send some kids away because this program, despite its intensive level of surveillance and services, is not going to protect the community. It's a sad fact of life for some, but it shouldn't be for over half the population now housed in our facilities who are low risk to hurt others.

In Clayton County, our commitment rates have declined 43 percent by implementing evidence based practices alongside intensive surveillance mechanisms. Our filings have declined 67 percent.

The economics of juvenile justice is simple. The more we get smart about who gets committed, the more money we save to help kids become taxpayers.

Now thats a good investment strategy!

Amid Continuing Controversy, Beyond Scared Straight Set to Begin Second Season

beyond-scared-straight_320The second season of “Beyond Scared Straight” begins Thursday night and with it come renewed questions about its effectiveness. The reality program follows at-risk teens as they are threatened, screamed at, and harassed by prison inmates in an attempt to get them to change their ways. The show was A&E Network’s most watched debut in its history with 3.7 million viewers.

As JJIE reported at the time of the show’s debut in January, juvenile justice experts are concerned the show may be sending the wrong message. They point to studies that say scared straight-style programs are not only ineffective, but also counter-productive.

Joe Vignati is the head of justice programs at the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in Georgia. In January, he wrote in an op-ed on that “the research is clear, once the trauma of Scared Straight has worn off, meta-analysis shows that this intervention actually INCREASES the odds of offending compared to a no-treatment control group.”

scared_straight_seriesThe program's producer, Arnold Shapiro, claims the studies are wrong. He says current scared straight programs incorporate counseling along with the yelling making them more beneficial.

“Academic studies don’t work,” Shapiro told JJIE in January.  “It’s all about follow-up.  I’ve done more follow-up than anyone. Scared Straight: 20 Years Later is the longest study ever done.”

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges issued a statement in January claiming, “’Beyond Scared Straight’ misrepresents the effectivenesss of such interventions with youthful offenders . . . It is clear these types of interventions as portrayed are neither developmentally appropriate nor trauma-informed.”

Family Feud: Family Connection Partnership and its $8M Budget in Limbo

Buried in the Governor’s budget is a plan that is stirring up conflict among children’s advocates in Georgia, pitting supporters of two child welfare agencies against each other.

The plan would fold the Georgia Family Connection Partnership, a 20-year old statewide public-private collaboration, and its budget of nearly $8 Million into the Governor’s Office for Children and Families (GOCF) effective July 1, 2011. Currently the Partnership is attached to the Department of Human Services.

Officials of the GOCF say the change would save the state money and simplify access to information and services. Opponents of the move counter that it would undermine the Partnership’s commitment to community-based decision-making, jeopardize its private funding, and increase the size of state government.

This is the second recent attempt to increase the scope of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, an agency created two years ago by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue. Last year he tried to move the Georgia Commission on Family Violence to the Office, a move rejected by the state legislature in the past and opposed by many former commission members. Perdue replaced a majority of those members in the closing months of his administration. The issue remains under study.

Perdue formed the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in 2008 to fund and coordinate the state’s efforts in prevention, intervention and treatment services for children and families, including programs dealing with juvenile crime and drug abuse. The Office also maintains statistics on juvenile arrests, detention and probation.

The Georgia Family Connection Partnership has its roots in a pilot initiative established by then-Gov. Zell Miller in 1991 after Georgia placed 50th in the first KIDS COUNT, a national assessment of the welfare of children by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That project evolved into the Partnership, which provides research, planning and technical assistance to help local communities improve the lives of children, By 2004, all of Georgia’s 159 counties had become part of the Family Connection Partnership network. The Partnership has received funding from the Casey, Wal-Mart, Woodruff and Kaiser Foundations.

Gaye Smith

In a blog post on the Family Connection website, Executive Director Gaye Smith said the proposed move caught her by surprise. Supporters are posting notes on Facebook and other Internet sites.

The issue has been simmering for the last two weeks, and came out at the first meeting of the Children & Youth Committee of the Georgia House of Representatives on Tuesday.

Gaye Smith was the kickoff speaker, introduced by Chairwoman Judy Manning (R-Marietta) to brief members on the status of children in Georgia. Although the proposed budget change was not actually on the agenda, state Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta) asked Smith about its implications.

“We feel like some things might be at risk,” Smith said, including “the private sector funding we have received up to this point over the last 20 years.” The proposal came “as a surprise to us,” she said.

The only other invited speaker also opposed the move. Pat Willis, executive director of the advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children, told the committee that her organization would like to see the Partnership preserved in its current form. A blog on the Voices website says, “The logic behind this move is baffling… [Family Connection Partnership] has a reputation for good, reliable work in 159 counties of the state and helps multitudes of families. It secures decent funding from the private sector (much of which would be lost if absorbed into GOCF)…All that said we are left with the inevitable question: What problem would this move solve? I don’t have an answer. Do you?”

Jen Bennecke

The Governor's Office for Children and Families Executive Director Jen Bennecke was in the audience, but was not asked to speak. When we asked her about the possible consolidation after the meeting, Bennecke said it would promote “both efficiency and effectiveness....We’re looking at how can we better use our resources, and how can we improve outcomes.”

GOCF and the Partnership have prepared dueling documents presenting their arguments for and against the move. Here are some excerpts:

  • GOCF: The transfer would “maximize the state’s ability to leverage. . .state, federal and other funds to improve outcomes for children and families.”
  • Partnership: “Georgia Family Connection leverages $5 for every $1 of state funding from other local, state and federal funds . . .The change would in fact eliminate Georgia’s ability to match funds, and Georgia Family Connection risks losing private investments.”
  • GOCF: “As a unified agency it can better align its resources to facilitate collaborative solutions to statewide and local issues.”
  • Partnership: “Expanding GOCF, a state agency, runs contrary to a signature component of Gov. [Nathan] Deal’s budget—curbing the growth of the number of state employees. Beyond that we, like Gov. Deal, believe money is leveraged best in the form of local-state partnerships, and that Georgians should have the opportunity to shape investment in their communities.”
  • GOCF: “Governor’s Budget Recommendation would eliminate 5 positions and transfer $7,432,386 in state funds to GOCF.”
  • Partnership: “Because [the Partnership] is not a state agency, this proposed elimination of five positions does not reduce the state personnel head count and associated salaries. . .”

In its handout GOCF promises that the local Family Connection Partnerships will continue, as will the “planning, assessment and collaboration” that Partnership coordinators do in Georgia communities.

Rep. Sanford Bishop

Concern in some of those communities has reached the U.S. Capitol where Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA) weighed in, writing a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal. “Calhoun County Family Connection, Early County Family Connection along with many other local organizations have expressed concern regarding the proposed consolidation and transfer of appropriated funds from Georgia Family Connection Partnership to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families,” Bishop wrote. “During these challenging economic times, it is vital that the many public-private partnerships that Georgia Family Connection Partnership has developed over many years continue into the future. . . . It therefore is important to ensure Georgia Family Connection’s continued success across the state, and I urge you to keep their concerns in mind as you finalize the state’s FY12 budget.”

The proposed 2012 budget must go through a gauntlet of hearings, votes and negotiations before it becomes final. At this point nothing is certain about the proposed move except that it is encountering strong opposition.

Judge Steve Teske: The Blame Game – The Winner Loses and The Kids are Hurt

It was 1999, I was recently appointed to the juvenile bench, and we had a new presiding judge. A meeting was called to discuss the direction of the court.   Among several issues, we were concerned about the number of complaints filed by School Resource Officers (SRO) and decided to meet with the Chief of Police to discuss other alternatives to filing complaints.  We were prepared for the meeting. We had data reflecting an increase in referrals by over 1,000 percent since the inception of the SRO program in the mid nineties.  The data was broken down by offenses and most were misdemeanors primarily involving school fights, disorderly conduct, and disrupting public school.

It was a frustrating meeting to say the least. Despite our preparedness, we were not talking the same language.  To our surprise, the Chief (who has since retired) was excited about the numbers.  He interpreted them to mean his officers were doing an excellent job.  Looking back at it, he was right - from his perspective!  We failed to consider the work culture of law enforcement.  Police grade themselves, in part, by the number of arrests they make.  After all, isn’t that what police do? The Chief made it quite clear to us: if my officers witness a crime, they are trained to make an arrest.   We walked away disappointed and scratching our heads.  We felt we had to accept what was referred to us - that we had no control over the decisions of police in schools.  As frustrating as this was, we were jurists.  We must respect the sound constitutional principle of separation of powers.  We had to find another approach.

It was just as well, at least for the time-being.  This forced us to do some introspection of our own court process.  As much as we wanted the police to refrain from arresting kids for conduct once handled by the school disciplinary process, maybe we could make changes in how we responded to these kids when they were referred to us, to minimize the negative effects of arresting kids for minor school offenses.

One would think that common sense would have us question the use of handcuffs and court appearances as an appropriate response to school infractions. I know what some of you right brain functioning readers are thinking, “Steve, isn’t this conduct a crime?”  You‘re right, it is a crime, but it’s been a crime since the genesis of the public education system and was never treated as a crime until we placed police on school campuses.  That’s because we knew then what the research today supports - that the stigma of being arrested is difficult for many kids to accept and have to shoulder.

For example, we now know that court appearance hinders educational attainment, increasing the probability of dropping out, and that dropping out, in turn, may set in motion a number of negative outcomes including unemployment (Bernburg & Krohn, 2003) and increased criminal involvement (Jarjoura, 1993, 1996; Thornberry, Moore, & Christenson, 1985). Kids arrested on school campus are twice as likely to not graduate and four times more likely if they appear in court. (Sweeten, 2006). This research makes clear, even for the most punitive minded person, that a kid’s contact with the juvenile justice system, particularly for youths with limited prior delinquency, may have unintended negative consequences.

It was for these reasons we wanted to stop the flow of referrals into the court.  Why?  Because the harm was occurring on campus and was likely irreversible.  The irony was that kids were being arrested and referred to court for “rehabilitation.”  Yet, the mere arrest or appearance in court made rehabilitation efforts useless and a waste of time and resources.  The damage was already done, and made worse by sending the kid to court.  And it still continues in most jurisdictions throughout the country.

Before we go further, I want to make clear what some, I am sure, will not see so clearly.  It’s not about “slapping” kids on the hand.  It’s not about blaming the police or the schools.  It’s not about arresting students when they commit violent crimes.  On the contrary, it’s about common sense - about arresting the kids that scare us - not the kids that make us mad.  It’s about letting police be police, not disciplinarians.  It’s about better management of our resources and time.  Every time the police leave the campus to transport a student on a misdemeanor offense, the campus is left open and unprotected for the scarier students to pounce on other students - or worse, for an intruder with a weapon to enter the campus with no defense.  It would be unfortunate if, God forbid, a student or intruder shoots up the school while the school resource officer is at court intake booking a kid for mouthing off or fighting. Most important, it’s about improving outcomes for our students by keeping them in school and punishing sensibly.

It begs the question - is there is a correlation between overuse of arrests on school campuses and the continual decrease in graduation rates?  The graduation rate across the country reached its peak at 77 percent in 1969. This rate fell to 68 percent by 2007.  In Clayton County, during the time we engaged the Chief of Police, our graduation rates were beginning to decline.  By 2003, the rates hit an all-time low of 58 percent, and the school arrests hit an all-time high of 1,400 (an increase of more than 2,000 percent since the employment of SROs), and felony juvenile crimes were rising at a fast pace.

The latter statistic begs another question: is there a correlation between graduation rates and juvenile crime?  Common sense, at least, suggested there was a correlation.  We already knew that arresting kids for minor school offenses, and at an alarming rate, were harmful.  Certainly it can’t be good for community safety when more kids are dropping out and therefore wandering the streets, unemployed, hanging out, and doing who knows what.

By 2003, it was time to take drastic action.  It was time to bring the schools and police together.  They were not going to come together on their own.  It would require the juvenile judges to make this happen.  We discussed our role as judges in engaging community stakeholders to talk about juvenile justice and other related concerns.  How could we, as judges, watch this happen and not take any action?  We certainly didn’t have any legal or ethical barriers.  In fact, our juvenile code in Georgia authorizes judges to engage stakeholders for the purpose of developing protocols to address delinquency cases and for prevention (O.C.G.A. 15-11-10).  Furthermore, our judicial canons encourage judges to “engage in activities to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice.” (Canon 4).  This includes allowing judges to “consult with an executive or legislative body or official, but only on matters concerning the administration of justice.” (Canon 4).

We agreed that the harm to many kids was a systemic failure and involved “matters of administration of justice.”  There is no justice when the system harms kids. We had a moral and legal obligation to do something.  We also considered our position in the juvenile justice system.  It made practical sense that we take the lead, and not acting would be an injustice.

Practical sense because juvenile justice as a “system” is an atypical system.  Consider the definition of a system, which includes a boundary with inputs and outputs.  Inputs enter the system in the form of demands and supports and the system works to produce a desired outcome.  We can all agree that the desired outcome in any juvenile justice system is the reduction in recidivism among juvenile offenders.  However, we now know from what has been dubbed the “What Works” research that reduction in recidivism requires a system to:

  • Target high risk juvenile offenders
  • Assess their delinquent-producing needs
  • Match those needs with evidence-based programs
  • Provide intensive supervision.

Although simple in concept, it’s complex in application because the delinquent-producing needs (cognition, family function, school-connectedness, substance abuse, anti-social peers, and weak problem solving skills) are addressed using treatment programs provided by different systems, as opposed to a single system as contemplated by the traditional definition of a “system.”

For example, consider the following groups whose unique function can be tailored to combat those factors that produce delinquency in youth:

  • Schools - School connectedness is the second greatest buffer against delinquency. (US Surgeon General. (2001), Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General).  We know that school connectedness is linked to lower levels of substance abuse, violence, suicide attempts, pregnancy, & emotional distress. ( Journal of School Health 72/4).
  • Social Services - Family function is the greatest buffer against delinquency. Kids raised in poor functioning families bring their baggage to schools and oftentimes dump it on teachers and other students or commit crimes in the neighborhoods.  These kids and their parents require social services in the home to address their poor functional traits. These families may require multi-systemic therapy (MST), functional family therapy, or intensive wrap-around services.
  • Mental Health - Many youth are using marijuana and other illicit substances and require mental health services for education and treatment.  The use of drugs connects kids to poor social peers and decreases their school connectedness due to truancy and inability to learn in the classroom when they attend.
  • Probation - School based probation and other surveillance tools play a crucial role in breaking up the anti-social network of friends contributing to a kid’s delinquent behavior.  Probation officers can move the court for protective orders that restrain other youth from having contact with a delinquent kid, if the kid refuses to follow the instructions of his probation officer to not have contact with his anti-social peers.  This tool has proven to be quite effective when non-court involved kids are brought to court with their parents.  It is embarrassing to say the least.
  • Other Community Service Providers - There are a number of non-profit and for-profit providers with expertise in evidence based programs on the “What Works” list.  These include programs previously mentioned and others such as cognitive restructuring, mentoring, and other behavioral treatment programs.
  • Courts - On the bench, judges have at their creative disposal legal tools to assist probation officers in their efforts to break up a delinquent kid’s anti-social network of peers including, but not limited to, protective orders, restraints on freedom of movement and contact with others, and conditions requiring pro-social involvement in after-school programs.  Off the bench, judges, especially in Georgia, possess the authority under OCGA 15-11-10 to engage the aforementioned groups and develop protocols that connect them to better serve kids in the community.

Consequently, troubled youth with multiple needs may require multiple programs provided by multiple systems - systems that possess their own budgets, rules, regulations, and agendas.  In other words, they often do not communicate although they are oftentimes working with the same child.

What we have learned from this systems perspective is that the juvenile justice system is not only the court or probation, but a multi faceted system - a system that requires the integration of inputs from multiple systems to achieve a single desired outcome of prevention and reduced recidivism.   Unfortunately, many systems are not achieving the desired outcome because the systems are not integrated with a specific aim to achieve the desired outcomes of juvenile justice.  This atypical system, therefore, requires an atypical approach to connect these groups to improve outcomes for youth.  This atypical approach is the juvenile judge.

It is atypical only because many judges remain uncomfortable stepping into a role off the bench.  This is understandable. For some judges, it’s a matter of personality. They are uncomfortable engaging the public. For others, they don’t see it as a judicial responsibility, believing in the traditional notion of presiding on the bench and dispensing justice through court orders.  I am sure there are other perspectives but these are the prevailing reasons opposing a judicial role for community advocacy or system reform.  I want to be clear and point out that this judicial perspective does favor system reform and advocacy - but it’s not a judicial function.

Regardless, there are a growing number of juvenile judges that embrace the dichotomy of judicial leadership - dispensing justice on the bench through court orders and advocating for justice off the bench through system change.  This growing contingent feels compelled to take action off the bench and engage the community.  They cite as support the approval of the judicial canons and the statutory authority to engage the community to develop protocols as previously mentioned.

Notwithstanding the laws and canons of ethics in support of judicial engagement of the community, there is something to be said about the moral implications of participating in a system that threatens the well-being of children and failure to take action to eliminate the threat when we know that handcuffing the wrong kids is harmful.  It’s all too easy to find reasons why we can’t do anything.  As I travel the country, I have heard judges and administrators say, “I can’t help what they send me” or “I don’t control who the police arrest.”  These statements are true, to an extent.  They are true when we elect not to engage the system to make changes.  How do we reconcile a contradiction between the law which obligates juvenile courts (O.C.G.A. 15-11-1) to assist, protect, and restore children whose well-being is threatened, and a systemic practiced in many jurisdictions across this country in which the courts passively participate in conduct that hurts children?

Notwithstanding these differences, it makes sense for judges to take the lead in bringing about local system change.  It is in the courtroom where we find all these groups intersecting in the lives of kids.  The judges witness on a daily basis this disconnect between these groups despite treating the same child.  If the courtroom is the intersection of juvenile justice, the juvenile judge is the traffic cop. (Teske & Huff, Juvenile & Family Court Journal, Spring 2010, 54).  The judge is in a strategic position to bring stakeholders together when others cannot.  The role of the judge in system reform is simple - ask and they will come.

With the assistance of the Annie E. Casey Foundation Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI), this multi-system integrated approach using the judge’s “traffic cop” role to bring the group leaders to the table has been used in several jurisdictions around the country to reduce school suspension, expulsions, and arrests, while simultaneously building a system of care to assess and treat these disruptive students and their families.  It can be done - it has been done!

Judge Brian Huff in Birmingham, AL, Judge Jay Blitzman in Middlesex County, MA, Judge Kimberly Browne in Columbus, OH, Judge James Burgess in Wichita, KS, Judge Angela Roberts of Richmond, VA, and Judge Jimmie Edwards of St. Louis, MO are a few of the many judges around the country engaging the community to revitalize juvenile justice systems to protect children against harmful decisions of adults.  I am also fortunate to be working alongside many judges in Georgia who likewise engage their communities to enhance their systems.  Judges Peggy Walker, Michael Key, John Sumner, Britt Hammond, Robin Shearer, Sandra Miller, and the list goes, are a few of the Georgia juvenile judges engaging the community to improve outcomes for children.

The dirty work of juvenile justice doesn’t happen at the state or federal level.  It happens in the local communities where the children and families live.  It’s at the local level where agencies, providers, volunteers, probation officers, and judges live with our children and cross paths when our children get in trouble.  Juvenile delinquency is primarily a community problem to be solved by the community.  We appreciate state and federal assistance to support our local efforts to prevent and treat delinquency but in the words of that James Bond movie theme sung by Sheena Easton, “Nobody does it better” than our local judges and the community stakeholders.

The fact that judges and community stakeholders can do it better brings with it the responsibility that our local systems are operating at their best to not only respond to delinquent youth, but to prevent harmful contact between the juvenile justice system and the youth in our schools and community.  If the best work is at the local level, the best reform efforts to improve outcomes are at the local level.  Pointing the finger at each other doesn’t improve our system.  It’s called the blame game and it’s dysfunctional.  Systems must focus on problem solving and that begins with talking to each other.  So, who’s going to bring the stakeholders together in your community?


The Hon. Steven Teske has been a judge at the Clayton County Juvenile Court for more than 10 years. He represents Georgia on the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. Judge Teske also chairs the Board of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, and serves on the Judicial Advisory Council to the Board of the State Department of Juvenile Justice.  He's a leader in the Annie E. Casey Foundation Detention Reform Initiative and a nationally recognized speaker on juvenile justice issues.

New Research on Children Sold for Sex in Georgia

Every month, an estimated three to five hundred girls are being sold for sex in Georgia, according to a new fact sheet from the Governor’s Office for Children and Families. The Office monitors the problem and reports that girls as young as 12 are serving 10-15 men per night and sometimes up to 45 a night during periods of high demand, including sporting events and conventions.

The fact sheet, which is released four times a year, is based on research done by Shared Hope International, The Shapiro Group and Citizens Against Trafficking.

Researchers say girls who’ve been exploited often keep silent out of fear of physical and psychological abuse from their trafficker/pimp. Many are tattooed, branded or scarred, a method used by pimps to mark ownership and control over emotionally vulnerable girls, Citizens Against Trafficking reports.

The fact sheet also describes Georgia Care Connection Office, an office started by the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, which supplies sexually exploited children with services and care plans to meet their physical and emotional needs.

Committee to Study Future of Georgia Commission on Family Violence

The Georgia Commission on Family Violence set up a governance committee Friday in the midst of ongoing questions about where in state government the agency belongs.
In its 2010 session, the state legislature attached the 37-member commission’s budget to the Administrative Office of the Courts within the judicial branch, and there is strong support for having it remain there. But there are also those—reportedly including Gov. Sonny Perdue—who would like to see it come under the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in the executive branch.  The possibility of moving the agency raises questions about its future, as reported Thursday.
At the commission’s quarterly meeting, chairwoman Peggy Walker, a Douglas County juvenile court judge, asked members to volunteer for the new governance committee which will study the benefits and drawbacks to moving the agency, and look at how other states handle similar agencies.
The committee will be headed by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Shawn LaGrua and will include Pardons and Paroles board member James Donald,  Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Fox, majority whip Rep. Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta), Henry County Solicitor General Charles Spanos and Robert Thornton, criminal services director of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which includes representatives of several other agencies and councils.
The full commission will consider the committee’s recommendation and determine whether to  pass it on to the state legislature, which has the final say-so.

Gayle White is a freelance reporter who spent 36 years at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, covering politics, religion, health and courts.

Future Uncertain for Georgia Commission on Family Violence

The Georgia Commission on Family Violence has bounced among state agencies for the last 18 years - from Human Resources to the Administrative Office of the Courts to Corrections and back to the Courts. Now there are new questions about its future. 

In the most recent change, the General Assembly voted late in the 2010 session to move the agency’s $428,000 budget from the Department of Corrections in the executive branch to the Administrative Office of the Courts in the judicial branch—but failed to amend the law to actually move the agency because time ran out. Corrections transferred management to the Courts by agreement.

Now there’s discussion about moving the Commission again, this time to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, an agency created by outgoing Governor Sonny Perdue two years ago. Supporters say services should be combined under one umbrella. But the legislature has rejected such a move in the past.

The Commission is scheduled to meet on Friday under the leadership of Judge Peggy Walker, a Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge elected as chairwoman in September. Walker said this week that she will ask members of the Commission to form a committee to look at how it should be governed. The governance committee will examine the pros and cons of different arrangements, look at how other states handle similar agencies, and make a recommendation to the full Commission. Proposed changes must go to the legislature.

“We will be looking at where the Commission can best be attached to serve its functions,” Walker said. “The critical issue is the independence of the Commission. . . The focus will absolutely be on the work, not the politics.”

The Commission was formed in 1992 to develop a comprehensive state-wide plan for ending family violence. The agency conducts research, provides training, monitors legislation, certifies intervention programs, and co-ordinates the statewide Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project. It also offers guidance and works with task forces in local communities.

A degree of autonomy is crucial, Walker said, because to fulfill its function the Commission has to point out flaws in the state’s system. “We have to be able to look at where the gaps are and where the problems are, and we have to be able to have very frank discussions,” Walker said.

Friday’s gathering will be the first full meeting for many of the 37 commissioners. Perdue made 24 appointments in August, including two reappointments. The new group took office in September. Besides the governor’s appointees, the Commission includes by statute three members each from the state house and senate, and representatives of some state agencies and departments.

Some outgoing members oppose a possible move to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, partially out of fear that the move would eventually mean elimination of the Commission.

Two years ago, the governor tried to do away with the Commission; in the 2010 session, the governor’s office proposed cutting its budget and transferring the rest to the Office for Children and Families. The legislature rejected both proposals, instead placing the Commission under the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange has obtained a copy of a proposed Intergovernmental Agreement among the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, the Georgia Department of Corrections and the Commission on Family Violence that would give administrative oversight of the Commission to the Office for Children and Families. The agreement, which would have taken effect on Sept. 10, has not been addressed by the Commission.

Some Commission supporters speculate that an effort is underway to accomplish administratively what could not be done legislatively.

In a letter to new members, outgoing member Judge Clarence Seeliger of DeKalb County expressed concern that supporting a move to the Office for Children and Families was a “pre-condition” of being appointed for new members.

Walker, who has been on the Commission since 2006 and was just reappointed, said Perdue “never made it a pre-condition of appointment to adopt any position,” although, she said, “the governor made it clear what he wanted.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, as head of the judicial branch where the Commission is now housed, said she doesn’t believe she has the authority to transfer the budget without action by the state legislature. “Every indication I have is that the Commission is functioning very well,” she said.

Hunstein takes great interest in the work of the Commission. She headed a group formed by the Supreme Court in 1989 that looked at issues of gender bias statewide. “One of the most significant findings was that there was a real problem with domestic violence cases and how they were being handled by law enforcement and the judiciary system,” she said. That group recommended creation of a statewide commission on domestic violence. The Commission on Family Violence resulted.

Perdue formed the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in 2008 to coordinate and fund prevention, intervention and treatment services for children, including programs dealing with juvenile crime. The office also maintains statistics on juvenile arrests, detention and probation. Discussions are underway for the possible transfer of about $13 million in funding for domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers from the Department of Human Services to the Office.

The Governor's Office for Children and Families announced in August that it was forming a new family violence unit that would “develop a comprehensive strategic plan for eliminating family violence.” To “jump start” the development, there were six regional hearings around the state in September and October.

Executive Director Jennifer Bennecke attended the September meeting of the Commission on Family Violence and was questioned about her agency’s role in domestic violence.

“I’m trying to figure out why we have two different state agencies doing the same thing,” one legislative member of the Commission told her. “It’s the duty of the Commission to do this. I’m trying to figure out why your office is doing this.”

In a telephone interview this week, Bennecke said her office “has a number of strengths. We want to see how we can contribute.” She said conversations are ongoing about what the roles of various entities will be. “How we all work together collectively is still under discussion.”

Asked whether she would like to see the Commission come under her office, she said, “I wouldn’t personally say I want to go on the record about that . . . I’m looking for my direction from the governor, whom I report to.”

In January, that governor will be Nathan Deal. And the legislature will convene again with some new members. It’s unclear what that will mean for who controls work against domestic violence in Georgia.

Judge Steve Teske: The Good Shepherd

I was thirteen years old when I was called to the principal’s office. As I sat in the waiting area, I could hear two police officers from inside the office telling the principal they were going to arrest me. My stomach got weak and my eyes began to well up with tears. My world crashed all around me. At that moment I wished I could turn back the hands of time - I couldn’t. I wanted to escape. I had nowhere to go. I can only imagine how many kids wish the same thing when confronted by a police officer or sitting in a detention cell.

In my 11 years on the bench, I have asked kids countless times: “What were you thinking?” I already knew the answer: they weren’t.

It started as a dare. Our school was new and had all the state-of-the-art gadgets for a school in 1973. One of those gadgets included fire doors that were controlled from the principal’s office. They said the doors could not be closed. I thought differently. With my friends egging me on, I made my plans to escape from the lunch room. I brought to school that day some pliers, wire cutters, and a screw driver. The lunch room was in the round building which was connected by a hallway to the classroom buildings. There were fire doors in the hallway between the lunch room and the class rooms. I hurriedly took the screws off the panel, snipped a couple of wires, crossed them, and suddenly the doors began to move - they were closing. I was startled by the sound of the fire alarm. That’s right - the closing of the doors triggered the fire alarm.

I heard the students coming from the lunch room toward the hallway only to be stopped by the closed doors. The room filled with students and teachers. There was wall to wall flesh. Without warning, the door on the other end of the hallway closed, and people were trapped. Students began to panic and people were pushing and shoving. I looked on with fear, knowing I caused this panic. I heard a crash to my right and turned around to see a girl with cerebral palsy on a metal walker fall from the frantic pushing. I picked her up and held her up against the wall. A teacher saw me.

The police and fire department arrived and rescued us from the hallway of flesh and panic. Like the others, I went to class hoping I would not be discovered. When the class period ended, and as I walked to my next class, a couple of teachers hollered out thanks for helping save that girl. Another called me a brave young man. I learned that teachers gossip as much as the students. I was enjoying the hero status. During the last period, the principal’s secretary called my teacher and asked him to send me to the principal’s office. I was convinced the principal had heard of my heroics and wanted to thank me. I enjoyed the walk to his office. I did not know, however, that my conniving venture was captured on a video camera.

The police and firemen were mad. They wanted their pound of flesh. Who could blame them? As I sat there, my stomach in knots, tears welling up in my eyes, and believing my life was over, I contemplated the end of my life - not physically - emotionally. I believed instantaneously that I would never make anything of myself. What do I tell my parents? Will they get me out of jail? Will I get to go home? Will I be placed in a home for boys? What will it be like to be away from my parents, my brother and sisters, and my friends? I was scared and I wanted to take it all back. I wanted to start the day all over again.

I then heard my principal, Dr. Kimball, plead with the officers not to arrest me. I held my breath in hope. I wanted to pray, but couldn’t hear Dr. Kimball’s words and my thoughts to God at the same time. He told the officers that I was a good student, a bit rambunctious, but a good kid. He said I was smart, and pointed out my devious accomplishment; that it was something not any student could pull off. He admitted it was stupid, but still showed some ingenuity. The police were not impressed.

Finally, Dr. Kimball promised them that I would be punished severely. One of the officers asked Dr. Kimball why he cared so much that “the kid” not be arrested. His answer: “He is not a juvenile delinquent!” He explained to them that although I committed a crime, it was out of stupidity, not delinquency. The officers, thank God, listened to him and they left the school without me.

I later attended my disciplinary hearing. I was suspended. Dr. Kimball honored his word to the officers. Thinking outside the box, he issued a gag rule. Students were forbidden to talk to me and the other three accomplices I had convinced to act as my lookouts. I was grounded for a long time at home; not to mention the other punishments I had to endure at the hands of my parents. I thanked Dr. Kimball for saving me from jail. He simply stated, “Never forget the mercy and forgiveness extended to you Mr. Teske, especially if you find yourself in a position of authority over others.”

His words haunt me often when I am wearing the robe. Does this kid or that kid deserve mercy? Does he scare us or does he make us mad? Is what he did the result of being wired as a kid to do stupid things, not thinking? Or is he delinquent in need of treatment and supervision?

Today, with police on campus, we are seeing many students arrested and referred to juvenile court for conduct far less serious than what I did at 13. Students are arrested for fighting, mouthing off, and disrupting school; matters traditionally handled by school administrators and now too often turned over to police on campus. A long time school resource officer (SRO) with the Clayton County Police, Officer Robert Gardner, once described this dilemma by way of analogy to a shepherd and his flock. I have since dubbed it “The Allegory of the Good Shepherd.”

Gardner says that any given middle or high school consists of sheep and wolves. Most of the student body is like sheep. Only a handful is wolves. The goal of the SRO is the protection of the sheep from the wolves. Just as sheep do from time to time, they become curious and wander from the flock. The shepherd must guide them back to the flock, or they will be killed by the wolves. Officer Gardner analogizes the shepherd to the SRO, and sheep to those students who make adults mad. He sums it up quite simply: “The SRO should be protecting the sheep from the wolves, not helping the wolves victimize the sheep.”

Officer Gardner has not transported a single student to intake in two years! He has filed only six complaints in that same period. Yet the safety of the school has improved dramatically. Weapons on campus have fallen approximately 70 percent. He was named “Officer of the Year.” An honor bestowed upon him by the vote of the entire department.  Why?  Because they credit him with helping to solve many crimes in the community, including violent felonies. I will share how he does this as a SRO on another day. But suffice it to say that a zero tolerance approach resulting in arrests is ineffective. In fact, it’s harmful.

It matters how we respond to the sheep in our schools because school arrests increase the risk of dropping out of school. Court appearance further increases the risk (Sweeten, 2006). We didn’t have police on campus in my day, and principals didn’t call police to their campus. Dr. Kimball didn’t call the police - I did when I caused the fire alarm to sound. But that did not stop my principal from intervening. He was my shepherd. He saved me!

Today, many principals have abdicated their disciplinary role to SROs. Ironically, this transfer has placed SROs in a unique position to improve school safety, solve crimes in the community, and improve graduation rates. It takes a good shepherd to keep kids safe. A good shepherd can distinguish the wandering sheep from the wolves. When this occurs, everyone benefits. Officer Gardner has saved many kids from dropping out of school under his shepherding eye.

Sadly, the failure to be a good shepherd harms kids. It makes them worse. When that happens, it harms us. It is a vicious cycle. It needs to be broken.


The Hon. Steven Teske has been a judge at the Clayton County Juvenile Court for more than 10 years. He represents Georgia on the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. Judge Teske also chairs the Board of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, and serves on the Judicial Advisory Council to the Board of the State Department of Juvenile Justice.  He's a leader in the Annie E. Casey Foundation Detention Reform Initiative and a nationally recognized speaker on juvenile justice issues.

Judicial Insight

When a writer comes along who touches your conscience, you want to tell people.  So we are pleased to tell you that Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County Juvenile Court is now writing for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange at  He is currently sharing stories from his childhood and his life that are filled with surprise and insight. His stories are sometimes funny, often poignant, and always make you think.

In The Good Shepherd,” we hear about the dare that almost got him arrested, and the middle school principal who saved his bacon.

In “Making Adults Mad –When Did That Become a Crime?” he reveals what happened when he got his first BB gun for Christmas.

In “The Silent Majority” he talks about the unsung heroes who help “crossover” kids.

Judge Teske has been on the bench for more than 10 years. He represents Georgia on the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice, chairs the Board of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, and serves on the Judicial Advisory Council to the Board of the State Department of Juvenile Justice.  He's a leader in the Annie E. Casey Foundation Detention Reform Initiative and a nationally recognized speaker on juvenile justice issues.

You’ll find Judge Teske’s regular blog post under Ideas and Opinions on our home page.  Feel free to agree or disagree, and share your stories with our growing community at


Got a juvenile justice story idea?  Contact editor Ellen Miller at  Miller is a mulit-media journalist, and former television news reporter and news director.  She has more than two dozen awards for her work in newsrooms in Chicago, Nashville, Charlotte, Sacramento and Cleveland.