Lafayette program targets troubled juveniles for help

It’s been a year since the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office started a program to track youths who get into trouble, using the data gathered to determine which program would best help the young person — anger management, drug treatment, mental health therapy or all three.

Though too early to show numbers that would prove success in diverting youths from the road to ruin, the information gathered at the Juvenile Assessment Center on Poydras Street in Lafayette is nevertheless eye-opening.

For instance, nearly half of the 10- to 17-year-olds arrested since August 2013, when the JAC started recording numbers, live in the 70501 ZIP code. The area includes the northern and eastern sections of Lafayette.

And one in four of the kids arrested — 211 of the 834 picked up by police since August 2013 — are 15 years old, according to figures provided by JAC director Kennis Metoyer.

Jail officials at the Sheriff’s Office started the JAC last year to carry out Sheriff Mike Neustrom’s directive for a numbers-based program to help juveniles who get arrested. Those juveniles and their parents or guardians do not have to participate in the program.

“They always have the option of going straight to the court system,” Metoyer said.

The initial meetings with the youths include looking at what they’ve done to get in trouble, and examining a kid’s history with police and his grades and conduct at school to learn if the behavior is habitual, Metoyer said.

There’s also a meeting with parents.

“We’ll wrap it all up,” Metoyer said. “We’ll follow him week to week.”

Most bookings of young people occurred during the Monday through Friday school week, according to a review of arrests involving 834 youths from August 2013 through June 2014.

The data also show kids are more likely to be arrested for fights when school’s in session — the number rose 130 percent from August 2013 to September 2013 — and the arrests occur mostly at schools.

And there were very few high school seniors arrested.

“If a kid makes it to the 12th grade, he’s probably on the right track,” said Rob Reardon, director of corrections for the Sheriff’s Office.

The Juvenile Assessment Center provides a starting point for monitoring and helping troubled kids through the tough adolescent years. Government and nonprofit programs to help youths have been around for decades, but there was never one that sat down with the youth after an arrest then tracked them through the next few years.

Reardon said youth-help programs were always around but had no central starting point that linked the disparate programs.

“Everyone was doing their own thing,” he said.

Trained counselors on the Sheriff’s Office staff, as well as contract professionals, assess troubled youths to determine what program would help the most

Those with drug problems are referred to the Sheriff’s Office Milestones Program, while others with early signs of mental illness are sent to psychiatrists or psychologists for an appraisal and therapy.

A youth having difficulty because of the death of someone close is referred to nonprofit Healing House. And kids who fight a lot can go through anger management classes.

Not all youths go through the diversion.

Those who see early benefits from the Juvenile Assessment Center program are the public attorneys who defend the youths, most of them poor, against criminal charges.

“I think it’s been great for the kids. All the studies that have been done show kids get more harm than good out of being locked up,” said Paul Marx, director for the 15th Judicial District Public Defender Board, which provides criminal defense attorneys for poor people in Lafayette, Vermilion and Acadia parishes.