When middle schooler Alex walked up to the judge’s bench with his mother on Thursday, you could feel the tension between them. The docket was full and the family was running late. Despite missing their names being called, the judge agreed to see them.

Alex told the judge that the program wasn’t helping. His mother tearfully echoed a similar sentiment, explaining why his participation in the program felt like a lost cause.

“It’s hard to get here, and I’m tired after work,” Alex’s mother said. She recounted to the judge experiences at home over the last two weeks where Alex slammed doors and threw tantrums. “He doesn’t know how to control himself,” she said.

Committing a low-level offense is what landed Alex, who has been given a pseudonym for privacy concerns, in the Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center. He was referred by the Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center to participate in the Males In Need of Direction (MIND) Court, a voluntary diversion program that addresses the mental health needs of 10 – to 16-year-old boys before they get too deeply tangled in the juvenile justice system.

MIND Court, made possible through a $249,980 grant from the United States Justice Department awarded to the County in 2016, has been overseen by Judge Daphne Previti Austin since its inception. Participants who complete the program may have their criminal records sealed – essentially deleted from the justice system’s database – for a fresh start.

Austin told the Rivard Report that because the program is so time-consuming and structured, she tries to limit the Mind Court to 12 participants at a time. “They have to be very invested.”

Judge Daphne Previti Austin.
Judge Daphne Previti Austin. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

MIND Court is a six-month program where participants work through various phases. This involves varying levels of commitment and requirements, which decrease as participants progress further into each phase. Participants have their own individualized treatment plan that is needs-specific.

The youth are assessed biweekly by Austin and a probation team, which includes a therapist, case manager, probation officer, and a juvenile prosecutor. All participants report to court with their parents. Austin and her team discuss things such as behavior at school and home, illegal activity participants have been involved in, family and relationship issues, and overall mental health.

Robert Flores is a senior probation officer who has been working with MIND Court since its inception. He told the Rivard Report that the program is special because it doesn’t just focus on a clinical diagnosis as the main reason for disruptive or destructive behavior.

“We are identifying the diagnosis [or behavioral] concern, educating family and youth on what it means to have a certain diagnosis, what to expect, [and] how medication plays a role [in behavior change],” Flores said.

The MIND program components are meant to be completed in a home setting to help the family and probation team address any environmental factors that may be contributing to behavior struggles.

Communities in Schools (CIS) works with MIND Court to provide therapeutic services for program participants, both at school and at home.

CIS Juvenile Specialty Court Coordinator Serena Leach, who sets up students with mental health support at school, said CIS helps families bridge the gaps between parent and child, and child and school by working with students to help pinpoint issues and introducing concepts to help all family members to better manage their emotions. 

CIS offers therapeutic services that focus on coping skills, teen parenting, academics, and more. Leach noted that part of what makes the program successful is the probation team’s collaborative effort in referring families to services that help meet their needs.

Austin told the Rivard Report that many of the families in MIND Court struggle with finances, housing, food insecurity, transportation issues, and educational challenges.

“A lot of these kids have unstable home lives,” Austin said. “Helping to navigate those systems and connecting them to services so there are less stressors in the home helps both the parent and the child.”

Probation Deputy Chief Administrator Jeannie Von Stultz told the Rivard Report that some typical diagnoses seen through MIND Court include bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mood disorders, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I don’t think that the community realizes that we see a lot of kids with PTSD,” Von Stultz said. “They have been through a lot in a very short time being alive.”

Alex and his mother told the judge that they struggle with transportation and feel the program’s attendance demands are nearly impossible to meet. Coupled with perceived slow progress regarding behavior change, both mother and son told the judge they felt overwhelmed.

Austin responded that the probation team is there for the entire family, and before court adjourned, set the family up with transportation to get Alex to and from weekend events required by the program.

Speaking to Alex and his mother, Austin highlighted the progress that Alex has made, citing his consistently clean drug tests and recent use of emotional regulation techniques, which helped him abstain from fighting in school.

“It doesn’t happen overnight –  he is taking steps,” Austin said in response to the family saying they feel overwhelmed. “It’s only been a few months. I encourage you to keep working on it.”

On Sundays, the boys participate in Children and Horses Always Produce Success (CHAPS), an equine therapy program integrated into the juvenile mental health courts in 2016. Interacting with the horses, which has proven to be highly reactive to human emotion, gives participants the opportunity to examine how their actions or emotions can be interpreted by others.

Crossroads participants take a break as they receive instruction during equine therapy at Children and Horses Always Produce Success (CHAPS). Photo by Scott Ball.
Crossroads participants take a break as they receive instruction during equine therapy at Children and Horses Always Produce Success (CHAPS) in 2016. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

This past Thursday, the program celebrated the opening of its Salado Wilderness Trail, a 1.25 mile long hiking and equestrian trail made possible by a $100,000 grant from Impact San Antonio. The wilderness trail aims to provide children with the opportunity to hike, learn about the benefits of spending time outdoors and staying active, and to take classes on conservation, entomology, and botany.

The female counterpart to MIND Court is the Crossroads program, which works with girls ages 12-17 who are struggling with mental health concerns. Both MIND and Crossroads participate in equine therapy through CHAPS.

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. In 2016, it was one of five programs in the country to receive the National Criminal Justice Association Outstanding Criminal Justice Program in the western region of the United States.

So far, 89 girls have successfully completed the Crossroads program.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s 89 people stable in the community,” Austin said.

Von Stultz said the important thing for people both in and out of the program is to recognize is that children often get in trouble because they are unable to manage their mental health symptoms., often ending with them doing something destructive.

“When you talk to the child and family, you find that they don’t have the resources needed to manage their health,” she said. “These children and families  feel like they are at the very end – at the worst part of their lives.

“The family doesn’t know what to do, the child feels helpless, and if the child doesn’t get the help they need it will get worse. It’s a critical time to intervene and help the child and family build on the strengths they do have.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.