By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
There’s nothing youth at TJJD look forward to more than a visit from family. And even before COVID-19 became a household word, virtual visitation via smartphones or digital tablets was an important way to help youth keep in touch with loved ones when parents, guardians or mentors could not visit in person.
As the agency readied plans to protect facilities from COVID19 spread, leaders knew one piece of the larger plan would be to ramp up capabilities for virtual visits. The same week Governor Greg Abbott issued the March 13 order to stop discretionary in-person visits to correctional facilities, TJJD officials purchased 25 new iPads for its family and volunteer coordinator offices. Those devices have been delivered, and another 18 devices have been ordered.
“Giving the kids more opportunities to reach out to their mentors and families is providing the youth peace of mind during this unprecedented time,” said Robin Motley, Community Relations Coordinator at Gainesville State School in North Texas. “Each youth is concerned about what is going on at home and whether or not their families are safe, and we can at least help them check in more often with loved ones.”
The iPads are being distributed proportionately to the agency’s halfway houses and five large secure campuses across the state, enabling staff to offer more online FaceTime and Google Duo sessions to all TJJD youth.
Caseworkers and family liaison and volunteer staff who regularly arrange both in-person and virtual visitation are setting new schedules to help assure that all TJJD youth are able to see and speak with relatives and even mentors via online tools.
At Evins Regional Juvenile Center in the Rio Grande Valley, Family Liaison Elva Benitez maintains an iPad that she uses to fulfill a steady stream of requests for virtual visits during normal circumstances. Her effort is currently being multiplied across the campus, with caseworkers supplied with an iPad for each dorm.
Benitez and Evins’ 13 case managers have committed to scheduling a FaceTime visit for each youth at least once every two weeks. Each session must be pre-arranged by phone with family members to assure their availability. In between virtual visits, youth also are able, as always, to speak with family members on dorm phones. In fact, while in-person visitation has been postponed, each youth has been given more opportunities to make those calls.
The setup is similar at Ron Jackson Correctional Complex in Brownwood where caseworkers, family and community relations staff are holding virtual visitation sessions for students to speak with relatives during time slots set for each weekday. Staff are additionally scheduling virtual chats three evenings each week for students to speak with their mentors.
“We are all in this battle against COVID19 together, staff, family and volunteers,” said Evins campus Community Relations Coordinator Fidel Garcia, who reported that all direct care staff are pitching in with activities as well to fill gaps created by the necessary temporary suspension of visitors, volunteer-led events and outings.
Teachers and education staff are part of the effort too, Garcia said. They’ve been playing board games, overseeing group exercises and supervising other in-house activities during an extended Spring Break at TJJD schools.
Meanwhile, TJJD mentors serving a variety of TJJD campuses are brainstorming creative ways to stay in touch with youth they’d otherwise see during on-site gatherings.
At Evins, the mentors have decided to go full bore old school and have begun writing letters to youth, Garcia said.
They’ll be dropping those in the mail, because, well, there’s actually not an app for that.