Amanda, 17, has had anger problems for as long as she can remember. The bullies at school don’t help. When her peers make fun of her, call her names, or throw things at her, she tries to keep her cool, but her frustration eventually boils over and she reacts with violence.
That’s how she ended up in the Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center for the first time. She was charged with assault. When she came back, with a criminal mischief charge after a fight at school, she was approached by a juvenile probation officer who told her about Bexar County’s Crossroads Girls Mental Health Court, a voluntary diversion program that addresses the mental health needs of 12- to 17-year-old girls before they get too deeply tangled in the juvenile justice system.
She was an ideal candidate for the program since each participant has committed a low-level offense – such as assault, running away from home, or marijuana possession – and has been diagnosed with a mental illness that doesn’t require hospitalization.
Amanda, who has a family history of incarceration and drug and alcohol abuse, weighed her options: She could continue down the path of repeated incarceration already forged for her by her late father and extended family, or she could get a handle on her anger issues and avoid getting sucked deeper into the criminal justice system, a system that’s difficult to escape, especially for a person of color like her.
“I was in this hole. I was thinking back on my life and I was like, ‘I don’t want to end up like my dad,’” Amanda told the Rivard Report in a recent interview. For privacy concerns, she has been given a pseudonym. “I thought about my family and I said, ‘I’m not going to turn out like them. So I joined (Crossroads).”
The Crossroads program, which was established in 2009, was created with two U.S. Justice Department grants that totaled more than $200,000 and has since evolved into a national model for serving mentally ill adolescents in the justice system. This year, it was one of five programs in the country to receive 2016 National Criminal Justice Association Outstanding Criminal Justice Program in the western region of the United States.
The program uses therapy and other tactics to address adolescent delinquency at its root causes, usually tied to some sort of trauma or mental health issues that are often overlooked or ignored in the justice system.
Nearly 120 Bexar County girls like Amanda have participated in Crossroads, 72 of which have “graduated” from the three-phase program. If completed, participants have the opportunity to have their criminal records sealed, essentially deleted from the justice system’s database, for a fresh start. Amanda joined the program earlier this year and is the eldest of more than 10 girls currently participating in it. The youngest is 12.
The Crossroads program is meant to be completed in a home setting since it involves a holistic approach to mental health treatment and detention diversion. Over the years, the activities have evolved to include more alternative therapy practices.
A few weeks ago, the girls completed Children and Horses Always Produce Success (CHAPS), an equine therapy program integrated into Crossroads for the first time this year. Interacting with the horses, which have proven to be highly reactive to human emotion, gave the girls the opportunity to examine how their actions or emotions can be interpreted by others. For many of them, simply being in the horses’ presence was enough to make them feel at ease after a long, difficult day.
“This is the best part of my day,” one participant said to herself as she walked her horse back to the stable. Amanda enjoyed CHAPS too, but had a special appreciation for some of the writing activities she and her peers completed together.
“The writing class gave me freedom to write what I felt,” she said. “I wrote poems about what I felt and everyone would listen to me (read them). I’ve never had someone listen to me – and it felt good.”
Along with the therapy, Crossroads girls are also expected to stay out of trouble and maintain good behavior at home and in school. All of the girls and their parents or guardians are required to report to 386th Juvenile District Court Judge Laura Parker, who created and oversees the Crossroads program. The girls meet with Parker every two weeks as a group to deliver personal progress reports alongside a participating adult.
Parker reviews each girl’s case in front of the entire group and can then impart sanctions – from extra community service hours to wearing a GPS monitor at all times – on those who have been acting up, whether it’s failing their regular drug test or receiving a bad report from their parents.
Girls who report good behavior can get rewarded.
“Being held accountable by a judge makes you more compliant,” Parker said. Requirements such as drug tests and curfew checks, which are required for each individual, become less frequent for each girl who continues to progress in the program with minimal to no offenses.
Throughout Amanda’s experience in the program, she’s noticed improvements in her overall attitude and in her ability to control her anger. Parole officers and therapists at Crossroads said Amanda has grown to become a positive example and mentor for the other girls.
“It makes me feel good, hearing that,” Amanda said. “I haven’t heard that in forever.”
Parker founded Crossroads in large part because she felt the criminal justice system is geared more toward boys and men, with little to no emphasis on the inmates’ mental wellbeing.
“We’ve put (girls) on the same probations that we put boys on, like ‘one size fits all,’” Parker said. “So we felt if we are more directed and individualized with the conditions and programming then we’d do better by the (participants).”
The Crossroads girls are required to participate in regular individual therapy appointments, community service activities, and team building exercises with fellow participants. During the summer or spring breaks, Crossroads girls’ are required to attend several life skills classes, which help build their self-sufficiency and social skills.
Girls can be in the Crossroads program anywhere from six months to one year, depending on each individual’s progress and compliance. Each phase of the program involves varying levels of requirements, decreasing in intensity as a girl progresses further into each phase.
The girls are assessed biweekly by Parker and a group of professionals, including therapists, case managers, probation officers, and juvenile prosecutors, before reporting to court with their parents as a group. Parker and her team discuss things like each girl’s behavior at school and home, illegal activity they’ve been involved in, family and relationship issues, and overall mental health.
“We discuss things they think I should address with the girl and her family that would be helpful and important,” Parker said.
Part of what makes Crossroads different from most diversion programs is that it places an emphasis on whole-family intervention and healing by providing therapy and resources for both participants and their parents and guardians.
“A lot of times their moms or caretakers also have substantial mental health needs, so we try to focus on the parent caretaker too,” Parker said. There are several programs for parents that involve communication and deescalation training, which can be very useful in high stress situations or arguments.
“We’ve trained the parents to be the ones who back down first and that leads to much better outcomes,” Parker said. “A lot of them have been empowered.”
While the County has developed this model program for adolescents with mental illnesses, similar practices for adults at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center have been recently called into question. In July there were four suicides in just four weeks, causing some to wonder if the preliminary mental health screenings at the jail need improvement. Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau, who has been a tireless champion for enhancing the County’s mental health resources and programs, admits that “jails and prisons are de facto mental institutions today.
“And I can tell you, jail is not the place for someone who has mental illness that can be treated to be,” she told the Rivard Report in a recent interview. About 21% of everyone in the Bexar County jail has some level of mental illness, Pamerleau said, which can range from personality disorders to full blown psychoses or schizophrenia.
Despite the suicide cases in July, the County continues to be a leader in mental health services. Each person is screened for mental illnesses or suicide before being admitted as an inmate. If they test positive for either, they are diverted to a care facility or placed in a special unit within the jail and kept on close watch by professional healthcare providers and specially-trained officers.
But of course, Pamerleau said, there’s still much more to be done, inside and outside the jail.
“We’re not about minimum standards. We’re about making sure that we’re doing the right things to protect the people who are in our custody,” she said. “We have a community nationwide who shoves mental illness in the closet, because it’s ’embarrassing’ or it’s something we don’t know how to deal with, but it’s not any different from someone having diabetes.”
It’s difficult to draw real comparisons between the mental health programs for adult inmates and the Crossroads Mental Health Court, Parker said. She supposes that her program has been so successful since it targets girls who haven’t been involved in the justice system for long. It’s more difficult to strike a chord with adults who have much longer mental health and criminal histories.
Thanks to a $249,980 grant from the Justice Department awarded to the County last year, adolescent boys will soon be able to participate in a program like Crossroads at the Males in Need of Direction, or MIND Court. It will be facilitated by 289th Juvenile District Court Judge Daphne Previti Austin.
Parker is excited to watch Crossroads continue to grow and to see what’s to come with the MIND Court. Seeing kids in the juvenile justice system evolve and do well, she said, “has been some of the most rewarding work of my career.
“I’m not here to judge them as a person, I’m here to make decisions about what’s in their best interest,” she said. “This gave me that opportunity.”
Amanda, who praised Parker for her balance of understanding and firmness, is grateful for the opportunity, too.
“I just thank God for everything,” she said. “I just thank everybody for giving me a second chance.”
Top image: Judge Laura Parker informs a Crossroads participant that she is being detained and will be receive a GPS tracking device. Photo by Scott Ball.