POCATELLO — Kids should be helped, not criminalized.
That’s the philosophy behind The Village: A Place for Youth and Families, a new center dedicated to getting youth back on track, in school, and out of the court system.
It’s the brainchild of Todd Mauger, the chief juvenile probation officer for Bannock County, who is striving to ensure that no child goes without the services they need — whether it’s tobacco cessation classes, group therapy, or psychiatric help.
And it shouldn’t take a citation — being written up by a law enforcement officer for offenses like tobacco use or truancy — to get them.
The Village in Action — here’s how it works:
—A law enforcement officer cites a child or teen for misbehavior or criminal activity OR school officials or families seek help on behalf of a child who is struggling.
—Staff at The Village then assess and screen the child, seeing if supports and services — rather than punitive measures like court and detention — could help address the root problems they’re facing.
—The child can return to the Village for counseling, substance abuse classes, or other services.
—The Village also serves as a place for children to wait if they’ve been arrested or detained, and officers cannot reach their parents.
Instead, Mauger envisions a system where children get the services they need early on, and avoid traveling down a path that leads them to the criminal justice system.
By partnering with families, schools, hospitals, and agencies like child protective services, Mauger and his team at The Village hope to address problems when they first arise. It’s a shift that will likely take years — but it’ll be worth the investment.
The Village is one of eight such centers around the state, which were funded in part (or in whole) by grants from the Idaho Department of Juvenile Justice. The Legislature invested $6.5 million so each of the state’s judicial districts would have a “safe teen assessment center” — a statewide implementation that’s the first of its kind nationwide.
At stake are kids who really aren’t criminally-minded, Mauger said — but who are often coping with difficult situations that are beyond their years. And once they’re entered into the juvenile justice system, they’re often “stereotyped, isolated, and shamed,” Mauger said.
And then a toxic cycle is perpetuated — kids come to see themselves as dysfunctional or as juvenile delinquents, Kate Miller, a truancy court coordinator, said. “We’re just trying to break the cycle.”
So instead of ending up in the “cold, hard” environment of the juvenile justice system, kids can instead go to The Village, where bright motivational sayings fill the walls, and where a cadre of caring adults is waiting to assess them and link them to services.
“I want the families to know that there’s an open door somewhere, and people that are genuinely wanting to help,” Amy Price, a prevention specialist, said.
Building a rapport and relationship with families is another of The Village’s missions. Families are welcome to reach out directly for help and support, and staff at The Village can now spend much more time getting to know them.
Beforehand, Mauger said he would only get five to ten minutes to talk with families before a court hearing, and would have to try to match them with services based on that minimal information. Now, he can spend hours getting to know them.
“We’re really getting to the nuts and bolts of it. In the past you’d work with a family for about three months before you really understood the dynamics of what’s going on,” he said.
Previously, he might have identified that a child had a conflict disorder, but now he can also determine whether it’s rooted in trauma, anxiety, or depression.
And providing support to those kids works, frequently keeping them out of trouble and out of court.
Mauger said there are about 1,000 youth citations every year in Bannock County, and usually about 58% of those children are taken off the juvenile justice track and paired with services — which is called “diverting.” And 85% of those students and families are successful.
The services provided can even be life-saving.
“If a kid’s suicidal, getting them into the right counseling could take weeks — and they don’t have weeks,” Mauger said.
Some children are on six-month wait lists to see a psychiatrist. But at The Village, a university psychiatrist is available every Monday afternoon, so kids can get in much sooner.
Whether families need help motivating their teenager to attend class or cutting through red tape to get their child services needed, The Village is there to help — preferably before law enforcement officers or judges ever get involved.
“We are so excited about this facility and what it will mean for our local youth and their families,” Mauger said in a press release. “Kids will no longer be funneled into juvenile detention or probation for problems that can be solved at home with a little help from our community resources.”