BR’s truancy center offers ‘family triage’

Baton Rouge’s much-acclaimed truancy center has been up and running for about six months, achieving results that already are reverberating across the city-parish, Director Roxson Welch said.

But truancy among school-age youths, Welch said, is merely the tip of the iceberg.

It’s often a symptom of problems at home or with the family, Welch said. And it can serve as a red flag revealing that the student is in need of intervention before problems develop into something more serious.

Skipping classes is what brings many of the students to the Family and Youth Service Center, which opened Aug. 8 on Government Street, but once they’re there, the truants’ families are offered myriad other services such as counseling, anger management, homeless services and tutoring.

“The truancy part is the first indication that there is a problem brewing,” Welch said. “You can intervene in a child’s life very, very early and help them before they enter the juvenile justice center. When kids get that far, you have to deal with problems that are much more difficult to deal with.”

Welch said a staggering number of truant children have family situations in homes where violence and drugs often are the norm.

For example, she said, a family came to the center recently because of a truant 10-year-old. But after speaking with relatives, officials learned that the child had been in the room during a shooting that involved his mother’s boyfriend.

“The child was so close that he had blood on him, he was spattered in blood,” Welch said. Once that information was revealed, the Crime Victim’s services for the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, which is housed in the service center, set up free counseling for the student.

“If we don’t address the problems, that little boy is going to turn into the kind of kid we read about,” Welch said.

More than 2,000 families have come through the service center since it opened in August. In addition to the truancy center, the facility houses offices for agencies including the School Drug Task Force, dropout prevention, GED services, Homeless Services, the Sheriff’s Crime Victim’s Services, Baton Rouge Police Department’s Missing Persons, Betty’s Hope grief counseling, Child Welfare and Attendance and Capitol Area Human Services,which offers mental health and counseling.

Initial funding for the service center came from the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, the city-parish government, the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and the 19th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which each committed $100,000 in operating funds for the first three years of operations.

Twice a month, a representative from each agency housed in the center sits down to talk about the various cases, allowing personnel with other agencies to weigh in on what services they may be able to provide.

The collaboration has helped some agency representatives find people who would have otherwise fallen through the cracks, said Sgt. Carolyn Stapleton, victim services specialist for the Sheriff’s Office.

“There are kids I would have never reached, there are families I would have never reached,” said Stapleton, who connects crime victims with services such as legal advice, funeral costs, and counseling.

The children involved in these incidents almost always qualify for victim’s assistance, which is funded by state and federal dollars.

She said kids have come to the truancy center, and after talking with center personnel, the youths have revealed they witnessed a crime or have been the victim of abuse at home.

“We can get those kids into counseling,” Stapleton said. “That would be an unmet need if Family and Youth Service Center was not working so closely with me.”

District Attorney Hillar Moore III said it could take two to three years to see the full impact of the service center in the community, but he noted that the center already is providing valuable help to many families in need.

“This is a really long-term process, but really, from what I’m seeing, what they’re doing right now is triage on the families that walk in,” he said.

Moore and Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said that, in the long term, the center will have collected valuable data about kids and families that will help law enforcement and social services.

“It’s tremendous,” Gautreaux said. “That data is going to be very valuable in helping us assess where the problems really lie, and where most of these needs are coming from.”

Welch said representatives from the center also are able to keep a closer watch over all of the families and students who come through seeking services.

She said if students or families don’t show up for scheduled appointments, counseling or other services, then a representative follows up with them and reschedules.

If they don’t cooperate, and the students are truant, the information can be used to build a case to prosecute the parents.

“We’re following up and that’s been a real big problem before because they would just fall off the radar,” Welch said.