Juvenile Treatment Center looks to innovative programming to rehabilitate youth offenders
In contrast to the stark facilities of the El Dorado County Juvenile Treatment Center is a hardworking and compassionate staff who has turned to innovative programming in an effort to rehabilitate the county’s young offenders, many of whom have grown up around addiction, abuse and neglect.
“We operate on a philosophy that programming for each child has to be tailored. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ for any kid’s particular problem set,” said El Dorado County Chief Probation Officer Brian Richart.
When Richart took over three and a half years ago, he removed some of the restrictions on staff and allowed them to implement programming that they thought would be beneficial for the kids in custody.
“If I changed anything, I gave them the opportunity to be the professionals they already were,” said Richart.
In addition to a regiment of school and therapy programs, the young offenders have the opportunity to participate in skill-building activities throughout the community and beyond.
“We started a sailing program with kids where we allow them the opportunity to go with four to five other youth to the San Francisco Bay and partnered with a nonprofit program, [Blue Water Foundation], that teaches the kids how to sail,” explained Richart, who as a sailor himself, goes out with the kids on the boat.
“It really boils down to how best do we connect with them,” he continued. “When we’re on the boat together and they are in this new environment, they start opening up and talking to you. You hear their stories. … You start thinking about your own kids, and you wonder how these kids survived the environment in which they were put through no choice of their own. You can’t help but hurt for them.”
The Juvenile Treatment Center offers book club, church services, Bible study, twice-weekly yoga classes by a volunteer from Tahoe Yoga Shala, and a drumming program taught by the “Drumchik,” Liz Broscoe. Live Violence Free teaches a course on healthy relationships, and most recently, Tahoe Valley Fire District came and provided two sessions to get the kids certified in CPR.
“It was really impactful for the kids. They now know that they can be helpful in an emergency,” said Kyle Heller, supervising deputy probation officer, who has worked for the county for 13 years.
“I grew up here. I came from this community. I was one of the kids that got a lot of help from this community, so I wanted to return that.”
For the staff at the Juvenile Treatment Center, it’s about finding activities that show the kids there are opportunities after they are released.
“We’ve had kids volunteer at the Family Resource Center and the Warm Room,” said Kaci Smith, assistant superintendent at the probation department. “We are always open for that type of opportunity if an agency needs assistance. We want to help provide the kids that life experience because that helps them build a foundation for the future.”
Through the ADVANCE program at Lake Tahoe Community College, which provides community education, in-custody students can now take their GED test at the facility instead of having to travel to Placerville.
Currently the Juvenile Treatment Center has 13 youth in custody, ranging in age from 14 to 18 years old. While a majority are low-risk offenders, the facility is facing a balancing act as it’s currently housing an unprecedented number of high-risk offenders.
“Right now I have five kids in custody for homicide cases in El Dorado County,” said Richart. “We do our best to maintain those security precautions while still providing them with a customized, heartfelt, mentor-coach relationship so that at least when they are with us, they are going to be able to build on those skills as human beings that we hope they take with them.”
Across the board, Richart has seen a significant drop in the number of low-risk offenders referred to the facility, but a concentration of high-risk offenders.
“We are seeing a lot of mental health issues in custody that we hadn’t seen in the past; we are seeing a lot of abuse and neglect,” he explained.
Regardless of whether a youth is in for drugs or homicide, it’s about providing them skills and education for wherever they may be headed next.
“When we sat down as a staff to discuss the direction of the department, one word kept coming up: compassion. And that’s what they show every day,” said Richart.