By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications

Hidalgo11sm copyEDINBURG, Texas - If you’re a parent you know that discussing parenting techniques and quandaries with others can be a minefield. For every issue confronting a parent, there are dozens of possible paths, a raft of people with opinions, and hundreds of pieces of advice, much of it conflicting and some of it confusing.

You might not feel comfortable opening up about your family’s issues, especially if you had a child in juvenile placement.

But the folks at Hidalgo County Juvenile Probation Department have seemingly found a formula to put parents at ease and enable a free-flowing and productive dialogue about parenting. They’ve discovered that parents do want to talk about their family issues, and even yearn to talk about them, when they are provided with a welcoming, caring environment, a peer group, and trained – but neutral – staff to lead the discussion.

The Hidalgo Family Empowerment Program, now in its second year, has even more moving parts than that, but those are the basics. Families come together once a week to discuss how they parent and communicate with their kids and how they might improve their approach. The siblings come too, and everyone moves toward an adjusted family dynamic that aims to increase the odds their child will succeed when they return home – and everyone else will be better off as well.

The state grant-funded program, which receives $366,980 yearly over six years, has served 50 families since its start in January 2022. Most of the parents are court-ordered to attend the family skills sessions, meeting alongside other families one evening each week for 14 weeks. Some families volunteer to participate and a few have signed up for repeat classes. All the adult participants, parents or guardians, have a child who’s been adjudicated and is in residential placement for six to nine months. They are encouraged to come to sessions as a full family so the siblings still at home will benefit too, effectively adding a diversion facet.

Hidalgo6 smCertain components are key, such as the parent peers and the trained facilitators, said Hidalgo Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Maryann Denner. It’s also critical that neither parents nor facilitators are there to deride anyone.

“We’re not telling them, you’re doing this wrong and ‘you! you! you!,” she said. “We’re here to work together to give you some guidance, to help your child. We’re not here to tell you you’re a bad parent, or to judge anybody and they realize that after they’ve been here.”

The first meetings can be tricky, though. “At first they do feel accused,” said Lina Briones, a Probation Officer Supervisor, who along with several others trained as a facilitator. But by the second meeting nearly everyone relaxes and realizes the program aims to help, not chastise, she said.

Denner and her team knew when they sat down years ago to brainstorm a plan to bolster reentry services that they wanted something structured and highly educational but relatable. Denner told her colleagues, “We need to better work with our families and educate them. We aren’t dealing with what happens when the youth comes home.”

They found what they needed in the evidence-based Strengthening Families Curriculum, a life skills and parenting program that’s been well-reviewed by groups from Oxford University, the White House and OJJDP. SFC experts, including founder Dr. Karol L. Kumpher, trained the Hidalgo team leaders, who now operate the sessions at the Hidalgo JPD offices in Edinburg. The team consists of a full-time coordinator, two full-time case managers and a supervisor, all of whom have backgrounds as JPOs or JSOs. Additionally, several Hidalgo JPD staff, including many JPOs, stepped forward to train and serve as facilitators for the Family Empowerment Program.

The Hidalgo facilitators arrive at each evening session arms laden with stacks of worksheets and lesson plans. These materials will assure the dialogue is meaningful and the discussions are directed. At the same time, facilitators meet the arriving families not in the manner of a school principal, but more like lay ministers in a church narthex, shaking hands, asking after family members and bending down to greet the littles.

The warm opening is not strictly strategic, the team grows fond of the participants. But keeping a positive vibe is important. The curriculum raises thorny issues, like how parents sometimes don’t listen and talk over their teenagers or let their teenagers run over them. It also covers how young people evade scrutiny and accountability. The facilitators will talk about barriers to communication in families, such as not making eye contact or only engaging when you need something from the child (or parent).

Getting to Know the Families

Hidalgo7 smOn the April evening we visited, the meeting room purred with the sound of families conversing. The eight families in this cohort had been meeting for four weeks and they quickly tucked into the complimentary chicken and biscuit dinners from Raising Cane’s. The program wisely kicks off each 2 ½-hour evening session with a quick meal or box lunch. Many of the parents are fresh from work and most have hungry children and teens in tow.

On this night, there’s an extra treat. A Pokeman-themed birthday cake tantalizes beneath a Happy Birthday banner on a table arrayed with goody bags.  Later, between discussion sessions, the facilitators sing happy birthday to a bright-eyed girl, who’s come with her mother and siblings. Her dark hair held back with a perfect red ribbon, she’s clearly happy to be recognized for turning 9. During the sessions for adults and older siblings, she, her sister and a third small child skip off with one of the facilitators to a room where they color and play games.

Hidalgo4 smlIn the first sessions, the families break into adults in one room and siblings in another. The youths’ first topic is a Q&A on listening. A facilitator asks how they feel when someone doesn’t listen to them. The answers come easily: “Disrespected.” “Sad.” “Frustrated.” “Annoyed.” And suddenly, as if a volume switch has been flipped, the room noise ratchets up a notch.

The facilitator continues, and the talk moves into another facet of effective communication, how to use “I” language to frame how you are feeling without blaming anyone for that (“You make me mad when you take my CDs.”) or having them deny your emotions.

“When you use the word ‘I’ you are expressing your feelings and you have a right to have those feelings,” says the facilitator.

Earlier Angelica Garcia, the Probation Supervisor who oversees the grant program, had explained that the families really open up once they see that the probation staff is there in a supportive role and not to “check boxes” or record the behavior of their youth. “It’s a deeper relationship,” she says. “It’s not a Parole Officer hat. We get to know the families on an intimate level.”

Sebastian Ardila Gomez, a JSO who is among 25 staff who have trained to work as a facilitator, says he loves working with the families in this program. “You can tell at the end, they haven’t just learned, they’re using the tools we give them.”

The parents and the kids report back that the other is listening to them, he said. “The families are actually talking. There was no communication in the beginning” but afterward, the families are talking and tuning into each other in myriad ways.

“Sometimes they’re just playing video games together or finding other ways to spend quality time, even if it’s just making PB&J sandwiches together,” Ardila Gomez said.

Across the hall, the 10 parents or grandparents at this evening’s session are deep into an exploration of the challenges of talking with teenagers. “My daughter would change the subject when I was trying to get to the bottom of an issue,” says a woman who’s here with her husband and two children.

Hidalgo2 smArdila Gomez, the facilitator, nods, ticking off the “roadblocks to communication” that teens or adults may use with each other – “Blaming. Changing the Subject. Sounding Hopeless. Defensiveness.”

The worksheet offers a few more: “Mind-reading,” “put downs,” “sarcasm” – and that king of roadblocks, known to parents everywhere if they’re honest about it – “Long-winded statements that come across as nagging or beating a dead horse.”

Ardila is alternating in Spanish and English, sharing what the parents are saying and summarizing some of the discussion. “We don’t want to block conversation,” he notes. “And for that to happen, you have to change how you talk to your kids.”

A mom chimes up. “Well, we get input (from the kids), but it’s still a dictatorship, not a democracy. Otherwise, there would be chaos!”

Ardila Gomez smiles but doesn’t argue. The back and forth continues. Dads and moms are clearly engaged and while some family members are quieter, nearly everyone has something to say, especially when they break into small groups.

“I go in there and sometimes it gets emotional because this is the first time some of them have actually had someone listen to them,” says Denner. They’re grateful and it helps them open up, learn and practice new skills.

“Families need to be held accountable, too,” she said. “Some of them have let their kids run over them.”

Talking and Listening

Soon the parents and teens and children reunite in the main meeting room. They are told to mix it up, so that everyone will talk to someone they don’t know and practice some of the listening and conversation openers they’ve been studying. They’re also instructed to stay away from family issues and talk about fun matters. Again, the room is abuzz. People are smiling and leaning in to listen to their temporary conversation partners.

Hidalgo 10 smAt the end of this exercise, the adults and siblings report that it was easy to talk to someone outside their family by asking about their hobbies or favorite music and how they spend free time. The implicit messages here are fairly up top – show interest in what people care about and you’ll find them to be a fountain of information, or at least amenable to conversation. And psst, this might work with your own family members!

Briones says she saw that the youth and adults were engaged and talking “equally.” Ardila notes that adults may have to work harder. “Sometimes with a kid we have to fish for the answers. ‘How was your day?’ ‘How was it at school?’ It takes a bit more time, but it’s doable.”

Julia Neeley, coordinator of the Families Empowerment Program, says the families who’ve been through the program have told her it opened up lines of communication.

The sessions frequently stress the need for making “family time,” she says, and how important it can be to just “sit down at the end of the day and talk about your day and having at least one meal together and spending that time.”

Families are not doing that on their own, she said. They’re not “just sitting down at the table and talking about something that needs to be addressed.” But after going through the program, they see this gap and become more deliberate about talking through family issues and showing they care through regular communication with their kids, Neeley said. And this small shift in family habits makes a big difference.

It helps too that the program continues beyond the classes. The two full-time caseworkers, Ariana Abitua and Veronica Lezama, follow up with the families for nine months. They check in to help with special needs, touching base with the children’s schools and nudging the families to practice the skills they’ve learned, Neeley said.

As a result of participating in the program, families have been put in touch with critical resources, such as food pantries and donated clothing, Denner said. The grant written for the Family Empowerment Program noted that children in the Rio Grande Valley are on average more likely to experience higher levels of poverty and food insecurity than Texas youth overall. Resources relative to need can be hard for individuals to find. The family program connects participants with whatever they may need, helping them to stabilize them, she said. The program has even arranged Uber rides for some families without transportation to get to sessions.

For the Cruz family, though, with two parents and a solid income, it was the classes that made the difference.Hidalgo9 sm

As the evening session in April winds down, Vickie Cruz stays back to reflect. She and husband, Raul, a road construction worker, have already been through one session and had returned to reconnect and refresh.

Vickie Cruz says that many participants are skeptical of sharing their concerns with strangers at the outset of the program. But she was eager and ready to take notes. “I came with an open mind,” she said.

“It has helped us build better communication and avoid communication issues with the ones that have not yet been exposed to that (juvenile justice) environment, as the one who’s in placement,” Cruz said, nodding toward her 10-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter.

When she came to the sessions, Vickie, a bookkeeper, discovered that she’d fallen into an unproductive pattern with her child in trouble and now in placement with Hidalgo JPD.

When she heard about the blaming and dodging techniques that teens can employ, she had an ‘aha’ moment.

“I was in a position before this program, I would fall for all of it,” she recalled. “The blaming? I felt guilty. The changing the subject? I would focus on the thing she was going on (about).”

After realizing that her troubled child had been playing her, she changed her approach. She began to focus on her other two children, whom she realized had endured some neglect as the family spun around the difficulties of their child entwined in the system. All the children responded well to this new paradigm.

Hidalgo5 sm“There’s a lot of things that I’ve applied on a daily basis with the children,” Cruz explained. “For example, incentives. Good behavior deserves position rewards. Negative behavior does not deserve acknowledgement or any sort of, how do I say it? My daughter who’s in placement, she was getting attention for negative behavior...”

“And I caught myself leaving these two on the back burner,” she nods to her son and daughter at the table, “and focusing on her. I was enabling her behavior.”

After the class, and these realizations, the family is on a healthier trajectory, she says. Raul smiles and nods in agreement. The kids smile too.

The Family Empowerment Program will be evaluated through staff and parent reports and looking at outcomes for the child in placement. So far, Neeley reports, only six of the youth in placement whose families participated have reoffended.

Other measurements also will be considered. The program anticipates seeing improved social skills, family involvement and efficacy among parents and children as well as reduced depression and aggression among the children.

In June, the families in this current cohort will join the other families who’ve graduated from the program, attending a graduation ceremony, and receiving a certificate verifying their completion.

Denner has observed that this completion celebration is surprisingly important to the participants, perhaps because they know it took some work to get there.

“They are so excited at the end of 14 weeks when they get their certificates,” Denner said. “That little piece of paper means so much to them.”


Photos: Top right: Ardila Gomez facilities with the parents; top left, the siblings and facilitators go over worksheets; r-Supervisor Angelica Garcia with the birthday girl and other siblings; l-the young girls color; r-Vickie and Raul Cruz speak with another parent; l-Facilitator Gloria Miranda and a sibling participant; r-FacilitatorJoshua DeLuna talks with younger family members. 

Bottom group picture of Family Empowerment staff: Top row, l-r: Estevan Saucedo - facilitator; Gloria Miranda - facilitator; Johnny Tijerina; Angelica Garcia - supervisor; Hidalgo Juvenile Probation Dept. Chief Maryann Denner; Veronica Lezama - case manager; Ariana Abitua - case manager;Claudia Aguilar - facilitator;  Bottom Row, l-r: Joshua De Luna - facilitator; Aquilina Briones - facilitator; Sebastian Ardila Gomez - facilitator; Julia Neeley - program coordinator.