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Who’s Responsible?

February 02, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Family, Pat LaMarche

‘Step Up’ Program Could Lessen Youth Incarceration

by Pat LaMarche

{Editor’s Note: NCV Contributor Pat LaMarche is on a journey to explore homelessness and poverty in the U.S. NCV will post updates from her travels…}

Photo: be careful my loved ones.  do not read my upcoming stories unless you have a rebar reinforced heart and a stupid filter on your brain.According to the Equal Justice Initiative, more than 70,000 children are doing time in either juvenile or adult facilities. During our EPIC Journey, the Babes of Wrath tour of the places poor people live, we stopped into the Coconino Juvenile detention facility in Flagstaff, Arizona.

First of all, I can’t say enough good about the staff that work with the inmates in that county kids’ jail. Everyone — from Bryon Matsuda, the Director of Juvenile Services, to the guards who escorted the kids from their classes to their cells — treated these kids with dignity and respect. Secondly, they’ve got a whole different way of incarcerating children there. They use a model invented by Matsuda — who willingly shares credit with his best friend and his “higher power” — that helps kids to “Step Up” and out of the situation that landed them in jail in the first place.

Matsuda sat down with me after I had spent two days with the kids both in lock up and out on probation and gave me the Cliff’s Notes version of how the program works for the kids and for their parents. It’s a relatively simple system of incentives and rewards. There is recognition for accomplishments in everything from school work to character development. And virtually nothing is left to chance, because Matsuda works with the parents as well.

Matsuda’s work with parents shows them what’s going on in their kid’s development, but also lets them determine if their own parenting skills might need some work. They also figure out if the problem is more due to the child’s peer group or to the wider community. The parent is taught to recognize troublesome situations. At least the willing parents are.

Dennis Chavez, one of the youth care workers, admits that it’s difficult to fix a child and then send them back out into broken surroundings. And the kids agree. One 16-year old — I’ll call him Graham — explained, “The last time I came in [to jail] was before Thanksgiving. I had been in 48 days. I was out for eight days when I flunked a piss test. It was stupid. I don’t know how long I’ll be in this time.” Graham said that he was playing video games with kids smoking weed. He’d turned them down the first few times they asked, but then gave in and smoked too.

Out of the 13 kids doing time while Diane and I were visiting, four of them volunteered to explain what’s been going on in their lives and how they got into trouble in the first place — Graham was one of them.

The four guys all had one thing in common. They all got in trouble — initially at least — for drugs. Every one of the kids who was willing to talk admitted to using before they were in double digits age-wise. One of them — Gilbert — got turned onto dope by his uncle. Gilbert started with marijuana and moved on to cocaine. There pretty much isn’t a drug now that he hasn’t at least come in contact with, but he’s grateful for his time in juvenile jail because it keeps him clean for a while. Gilbert doesn’t want to end up like his uncle — dead now from his meth use. Nor does Gilbert want to end up like his dad or big brother — doing real time in prison for meth.

Michael, another 16-year old who is admittedly small for his age, told me about some of his violations after his initial drug arrests — most of them involved domestic violence and running away. Michael doesn’t get along well with his father. They fight a lot and his dad throws him out from time to time. Michael doesn’t think of that as being homeless. Or at least he didn’t until Diane showed him her film “On the Edge” and he realized that sleeping in a men’s room in the park constituted homeless. Michael does know that running off violates his probation, “in about 7 different ways.” That gets him sent back to Coconino County juvenile detention and back where he can’t skip school, can’t use drugs, and has learned to own his mistakes and recognize his bad choices.

But that all leads me to one big question — and maybe this is too complicated to expect an answer to but I’ll try anyway — is it fair to hold a 5 or 8 or 9 year old child responsible for using drugs and alcohol? Should a child who hasn’t even gotten their second set of teeth be culpable for behaviors taught to them by their uncles, moms, dads, and peers? Does a kid who uses, gets wasted, and gets picked up by law enforcement belong in a jail or a foster home that will filter what a child is exposed to at an early age? Perhaps that’s more than one question, but it’s all from the same crazy scenario.

Whatever the answer to my question is, thank heavens for Coconino County, Bryon Matsuda, Dennis Chavez, the kids’ teacher, Laura Swartz, and the rest of the staff who work with these kids. But if I may make a suggestion, it’s long past time for Arizona and the rest of the United States to implement Matsuda’s “Step Up” program in children’s shelters — not just in its jails. If they did, I guarantee we’d need a whole lot fewer jails.

Pat LaMarche has extensive experience working with the nation’s poor, most recently as Vice President of Community Affairs at Safe Harbour, Inc. As a former journalist and award-winning broadcaster, LaMarche spent more than two decades studying and reporting on poverty issues both in the U.S. and abroad. During her 2004 Green Party Campaign for U.S. Vice President, she took to the streets to uncover the lives of the homeless in what she called the “Left Out Tour,” resulting in the book Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States (2006). Among other venues for her work, LaMarche is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

EPIC Journey

First installment: Babes of Wrath

Second installment: Who’s Responsible?

1 Comments to “Who’s Responsible?”


  1. Back in 1980, when I was “serving time” as a volunteer at H.O.M.E. coop in downeast Maine, living in the woods with four nuns and a priest and doing the “works of mercy” in service to the rural poor – I was surprised when a covered wagon pulled by a team of mules stopped into our auto repair shop asking if I could repair the wheel brake.

    After fabricating a new brake, I asked the wagon master for permission to ride along for a couple days, and I discovered what at that time was the most successful juvenile rehabilitation program in the country.

    Based out of a rural Pennsylvania 7-state court-referred youth program that teaches wilderness skills, some darn fool thought it would be clever to celebrate the nation’s 1976 bicentennial by taking a wagon train full of juvenile delinquents to DC and back. It worked so well, they just kept going.

    The train I joined was heading from PA to Bar Harbor ME and back over a four month period. It included half a dozen covered wagons, driven by boys and girls, a few youngsters riding lead on horseback, a chuck wagon, a vet/farriers wagon, and a doctor’s wagon, along with support vehicles carrying the teepees and gear. Every night the kids had to set up the teepees and prepare camp; and every morning camp was broken and stashed.

    The system of discipline was simple. There were no punishments, short of being expelled for serious infractions. But there were a long list of rewards for any kind of good behavior, and the rewards earned higher levels of responsibility, with the top earners either driving a wagon and caring for their mules, or riding and taking care of a pony. Those who lost all their points found themselves walking behind the wagon train all day.

    I was so impressed, that I wrote an article, called Training for the Straight and Narrow, about the Vision Quest Wagon Train for our little newsletter, and Reader’s Digest somehow discovered it and asked to allow them publication rights. And I learned of the importance of caring, dignity and responsibility in rehabilitation of wayward youth.

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