Yuma County puts troubled kids behind bars only as a last resort, and starts addressing the needs of the ones who might head down the wrong path before they do.
The rest of the state and other parts of the nation have only recently adopted the county’s rehabilitative approach to juvenile justice.
For Tim Hardy, Yuma County Juvenile Justice Center director, it’s something he has been doing since at least 1997, a few years before the most recent batch of kids he oversees were born.
In the past, the interest of public safety officers and educators diverged around kids on probation, Hardy said.
At school, he saw them treated differently, identified as probationers and subjected to stricter rules that may have led to expulsion for even minor infractions.
When law enforcement got involved, the odds were against them. Domestic violence situation involving parents would end with children taken to detention – detaining a child was simply easier than finding someone else to take care of them. So, they went to detention where they could be exposed to juveniles with criminal histories.
Hardy saw these kids as being left behind.
Decades later, a high school now sits just a few hundred feet from Hardy’s office in the justice center and kids can find the help they need in a renovated detention unit.
Hardy’s mission is to provide education and community services when others give up.
“Our definition of success is much different,” he said. “Success is anything that kid wants it to be.”
The state Administrative Office of the Courts in 2013 teamed with Kids at Hope, a Phoenix-based program that turns away from the concept of “bad kids,” to train leaders working with juveniles in each county.
Every county has since incorporated the Kids at Hope ideology to some degree, but state Juvenile Justice Services Division Director Joseph Kelroy said Yuma County has done the most to embrace it, standing out for its “early and enthusiastic adoption” on several fronts.
‘It’s pretty basic’
The philosophy easily aligned with Hardy’s longtime outlook on the kids he worked with throughout his career, but Kids at Hope also gave him a tool. After the training, he immediately began spreading the word.
He formed a community committee now 75 members strong, including juvenile court staff, principals and police chiefs. His committee has trained about 4,500 adults to rethink their approach to children in need. And 15 schools serving an estimated 15,000 students across the county have introduced Kids at Hope into their curriculum at little to no additional cost to taxpayers.
But what really sticks out in the minds of Kelroy and his colleagues at the Administration Office of the Courts hours away from Hardy’s justice complex is the Yuma County Hope Assessment Center, a voluntary alternative to detention for children ages 8 to 17.
Grant Rader supervises the assessment center today, but 25 years ago, he was on juvenile probation himself. Hardy was his surveillance officer.
Rader said his mom was constantly working, home at 8 p.m. on a good day, and his dad was in prison. He was walking himself to school in kindergarten, and as he got older, he said the streets were raising him. He got into trouble, hung around gang members, some “pretty bad dudes,” and landed himself on probation at 15 – for what exactly he wouldn’t say because of a personal policy not to tell “war stories.”
He was protective of his mom, an immigrant from Mexico whose struggle with English often drew rude comments. Rader translated for her everywhere they went, and he came to expect people’s cruelty.
Hardy surprised him with respect and kindness.
“Kids, not just kids who get in trouble, all kids have the ability to know when someone’s doing it for a paycheck or just being fake,” he said, recalling how Hardy’s attitude toward him as a probationer made the difference. “It’s pretty basic: Kids do better when they have adults who care about them. The more adults who care about them, the better they do. Be that guy. Be that person.”
Using data Rader keeps meticulously on his desktop, he calculated about 45 percent of kids at the assessment center are brought in by a parent, most often their mothers. Police officers may make the call in other cases, or schools may refer a troubled child. Sometimes kids just walk through the back door, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The children are interviewed by staff members with backgrounds in juvenile detention and referred to community services like counseling. Those better suited for detention may be booked instead, especially in cases referred to the center by law enforcement because of crimes.
The doors on what used to be cells are open, the beds available for naps or an overnight rest when a child has nowhere else to go. If they’re around during meal time, they receive meals brought in from the adult jail three times a day. Books and board games are free to anyone who is interested, and a TV is mounted next to the wall where the showers used to be.
The kids who come into the assessment center can only be there for 23 hours at a time, and they are free to walk out the backdoor whenever they want.
After Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Scott Bales toured the center in 2015, he wanted one in every county, Hardy said.
Some have followed Yuma’s example, like in Pima and Yavapai counties where the model was tailored to fit those communities. And others are on the way, such as in Graham County where leadership is considering shutting down three detention center units and leaving the last open for a program similar to the assessment center.
The concept hasn’t always been easy to sell to the community. Rader said some perceive the assessment center approach as “soft on crime,” but he thinks that’s the old-school way of looking at juvenile justice.
“The legal matter, that’s still going to catch up with them,” he said of the kids who are referred to the center rather than detention. “They’re still going to face the consequences of their actions. You can either inform them, educate them, inspire them to be better or just put them down. I can hold you accountable and still inspire you to be better.”
Before the assessment center, juveniles may have been referred for charges, appeared in court and then received the services they need 30 days or more after the initial offense. The assessment center allows needs to be identified and addressed immediately, translating to a greater likelihood that the kids and their families will follow through.
Rader said everything at the center is free of charge with no additional cost to taxpayers because it uses funding for services that would have been available anyway. The program is simply moving treatment up in line.
And the approach has been nothing short of successful. According to his most recent data analysis, Rader said 90 percent of the kids who went through the assessment center were not referred for an offense during the next year.
Instead, kids like Yuma High School senior Sincere Madrid are free to make plans for college and careers that once seemed impossible.
Madrid was brought to the assessment center after his abusive father went to prison. He said he was reluctant to talk to officers at the center at first, but then he met Rader, who showed the teen a way forward like Hardy once did.
“Most people think, ‘Oh, you grew up in a single-parent household, and you’re life is full of misery. You can’t really go nowhere,’” Madrid said. “I proved people wrong.”
“It’s not about how you start,” Rader added. “Everyone starts 0-0 in the game, right? It’s how you finish.”
Two decades before the Hope Assessment Center opened in 2014, AZTEC High School was built beside the detention center. It’s a charter school under the Yuma County Juvenile Court, the first and believed to be the only charter school of its kind in the country.
As director of the justice center, Hardy is also the school superintendent.
AZTEC welcomed 45 students on probation when the campus opened in 1995 as Az-Tec, a technical school focused primarily on construction.
Today, about 35 percent of the student body is on probation each year – and within walking distance of probation officers – though that fluctuates.
Hardy said maximum enrollment is 140 students, but about 350 students rotate in and out of AZTEC each school year in addition to the students who will stay on for the duration. According to the school’s state report card, the attendance rate in the 2014-2015 school year was 78 percent, and the dropout rate the following year was 28 percent.
AZTEC Principal Steve Pallack said 245 enrolled over the course of last school year, and 13 seniors graduated.
Pallack noted a consistent challenge has been getting kids to show up, especially since attendance translates to the funding schools receive each year.
The school takes in kids who are in trouble more often. There are kids who have been expelled for behavior or truancy and kids who have been on the wrong side of law because of gang association, drug use and other crimes running the gamut of severity. Some may stick around for a semester while they’re suspended from traditional public school, while others focus on credit recovery through AZTEC’s accelerated system where longer periods earn credits faster.
Pallack acknowledged his school’s low performance in terms of statewide testing standards. AZTEC received a C grade from the state for the 2013-2014 school year, and 2016 AzMERIT scores reflect a proficiency rate of about 2 percent in both math and English.
Still, the graduation rate is above 30 percent, according to the state report card, and to Pallack and Hardy, that means they’re reaching kids who may never have graduated without AZTEC.
The construction focus has long since given way to more standard curriculum, though a single teacher may be responsible for a subject’s entire department.
Mark Olin is essentially the social studies department – he teaches history classes and an elective “Latino Experience” class.
After 17 years at AZTEC, the former military man has come to admire his students, 90 percent of whom come from “very messed up, broken backgrounds.
“If we can get them here, they’re heroes just for getting out of bed, dealing with all the crap they have to deal with on a regular basis in their lives that you and I probably never even dreamed, and getting here,” he said. “I don’t care if it takes them four years, six years, seven years to make it through here, they’ll make it.”
AZTEC High: One student’s journey to hope
AZTEC High School in Yuma is filled with personal stories of despair that turned to hope and gratitude.
Aracely Ramos is one of them. She said her life was already ruined when she was just 7 years old.
She felt alone, often ran away and found jail more appealing than her own home. She got into trouble with the law and recalled once cutting her ankle bracelet off out of desperation to leave.
By the time she was 20, she had three children.
She walked onto AZTEC High School’s grounds for the first time as a freshman on probation, and she recalled being swollen from the first pregnancy as a junior, still intent on getting an education. The schools that came before had classes too large for teachers to give her the one-on-one time she needed, leaving her to disappear into the bathroom to cry out of frustration.
She left AZTEC at 17 after her son was born. A second pregnancy soon after and then the third delayed her return.
The AZTEC staff had not forgotten about her and tried to reach out with online alternatives, but she was a single mom. She worked all day at a job she lied on her application to get, claiming she already had a high school diploma.
“I just don’t want my baby to be like me, like me, like me,” she said. “I want there to be something in his future. He always talks about space, so I feel like he’s going to be working in the sky. I don’t know what he can be, I just want him to do it.”
She said she doesn’t know where she would be today – a homeless shelter or a Mexico jail – had she not finally returned to what her own family mocked as “the juvi school.”
At AZTEC, she found help from staff who got to know her, and at 21, she earned her diploma and walked the graduation line at the school’s June ceremony this year.
She now attends Arizona Western College where she is pursuing a degree in early childhood education.
Her 4-year-old son will go to preschool next year. She daydreams about putting him into his uniform, packing his little lunch box and sending him off to learn, coming home to tell her all about it.
She’d like to send him to AZTEC one day.
“These people have taught me everything. They taught me how to speak. They taught me how to have manners. Everything,” she said. “My life has been horrible, and that’s why they say I’m a warrior, a star. I’m strong. And now that I have the chance to do something, I’m doing it with nothing holding me back.”