Communities Helping Kids: Why Diversion, Outreach, and Counseling Programs Serve Troubled Children-And Society-Better Than Prisons

Article excerpt

WITH THE TEMPERATURE CREEPING ABOVE 97 degrees in Austin, Texas, Melissa Barlow hurtles along Interstate 35 in a Toyota Corolla, the air conditioner blasting. It s a Thursday in June, and she has a tight schedule. Barlow supervises caseworkers in an innovative program that helps youthful offenders stay at home--instead of prison--while attending school, undergoing drug treatment, getting career training, and finding jobs. All these kids are referred, either by courts or by probation officers, as an alternative to incarceration.

Although it's still morning, it has already been one of those days. A caseworker Barlow oversees is out of town; a second called in sick at 6 a.m. Now Barlow has less than an hour to arrive at the other end of Austin in order to prepare a teenager named Elena for a job interview and get her there on time.

In the 21st-century tech-and-tourism boomtown of Austin, traffic can be fierce. Barlow won't have time to dally with Elena; she needs to visit nine other teenage parolees in their homes. The rounds will last another six hours--and that's assuming all the clients are where they're supposed to be at the appointed times.

As Barlow cruises up 1-35, the downtown glitters to the west, outside the driver's side. A cloudless sky frames the new 33-story Frost Bank Tower, the city's tallest, and the graceful brick towers of the University of Texas, which has an endowment of nearly $10 billion. Just beyond the campus is the state Capitol, home of Governor Rick Perry, who's quoted in today's newspapers expressing regret that the Supreme Court has forced him to commute the sentences of 28 minors from death row.

To the east rises the jagged, low-lying silhouette of the other Austin--the unglamorous, strip-mailed capital that tourists don't see. Barlow swings east off the highway, past pawn shops and shuttered motels, past parched lawns and parked trucks that sell tacos to gardeners and house painters. She swings into a subsidized housing complex, a mass of pale blue vinyl siding and whitewashed cinder blocks.

She arrives at a first-floor apartment without a number and knocks on the door. There's no doorbell. No one answers.

She knocks loudly this time. The metal-reinforced door opens to reveal an apartment with the curtains drawn. A fan roars in a corner. A young teenage boy sleeps on a couch. The room's dominant feature is a television hooked into VHS and DVD players. Elena, eyes downcast, greets Barlow. Elena doesn't trust many adults, but she likes Barlow's agency, the Southwest Key Program, and its Outreach and Tracking project.

Elena desperately needs a job. Her father moved away when she was in middle school. By age 13, Elena was fighting with other girls, pummeling her older brother, smoking cigarettes laced with embalming fluid, having sex and hanging out with a gang called LC, or Los Cholos. She has run away from home, gotten into fights with classmates, gotten high on cocaine, crack, and rubber cement. She cycled in and out of the juvenile-justice system more times than she remembers. In a desperate moment, she head-butted a policeman who was called to halt a quarrel at her apartment. Now, three years later, she shows up at 6 a.m. every weekday for her court-ordered community service at the YMCA. She's stopped the fights, the drinking, and the drugs--but she's pregnant and single.

Barlow asks Elena if she knows the address of the place where she's applying for the job. She does. Barlow asks if she needs a bus pass to get back home. She does. Elena is dressed in slacks and a loose navy-blue top that conceals her belly quite well. While she doesn't want to lie to employers, she also doesn't want to advertise the fact that she's seven and a half months pregnant.

"OK" Elena says in a voice that's barely above a whisper. Heading for the Toyota, she flashes a tentative smile. "I'm ready." By day's end, Barlow learns that Elena spent more than an hour interviewing for a $9-per-hour job at a calling center--and got turned down. …