By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications

Youth who are placed on probation suddenly find themselves under the watchful eye of their county and checking in with probation officers every week.

Bandera County youth canoeing

In Bandera County, youth who’ve ended up in juvenile court also quickly find themselves in a canoe, on a hiking trail or taking a cooking class.

The county is not the only one to promote such programs, which are proven ways to help divert youth from getting into worse trouble. But it has developed a reputation for vigorously pursuing such solutions.

“We’re outdoors with kids every day after school for one to three hours…with whatever we’re doing that day - weights, hiking, it could be vocational training,” said Bandera Juvenile Probation Chief Matthew Haynie.

And with each activity, “we’re teaching social skills, responsibility, respect, leadership, communication, anger management,” he said.

Haynie spoke Friday to the TJJD Board of Directors at its regular bi-monthly meeting, outlining the program and explaining that the array of activities enables juvenile probation officers to “get to know the child,” so they can better understand “the issues behind the behavior.”

“Our JPOs build rapport with the youth and officers have a vested interest in them,” he said.

The community program echoes cultural shifts taking place today at TJJD to train Youth Development Coaches to more fully mentor the youth they oversee.

Bandera’s approach stands out from the norm and was even more of an outlier when it launched more than 20 years ago, the inspiration of then-Probation Chief Glenn Muennick.

It’s unique because it “frontloads the system” with a full-bore effort to reclaim kids who are still shallow in the system. And over the years, it has seen that intensive involvement with a mentoring adult (Bandera’s juvenile probation officers) pays off, explained Haynie, who’s been with the department for 10 years.

The participating Bandera youth have gained new social skills, improved their physical health, raised academic performance and have avoided recidivating, he said, noting that in the past decade fewer than 20 youth have gone on to residential treatment or to TJJD secure facilities.

In a key twist on the usual configuration, Banderas’ four fulltime juvenile probation officers (counting Haynie) lead most of the activities themselves or participate alongside the youth, helping the officers to better see the youth’s potential and deeper needs.

“You’re not really looking at the offense, you’re looking at the needs they have in the background, whether it’s trauma or abandonment issues or whether its drug abuse – whatever, we’re just trying to get to the root of the cause and finding out why they’re acting out,” he said.

Bandera County youth on probation out hikingHaynie showed slides of the youth rock climbing, hiking, canoeing, learning woodshop and cooking skills and repairing bicycles. “We’re going to see them between 200-300 hours if they’re on deferred probation…and much longer if they’ve been adjudicated.”

“That gives the JPO a lot of time to build rapport with the child and moves them toward prevention and intervention.” As the JPO learns more, he or she may assign the youth to additional counseling or seek specialized resources for the family, he said.

Other probation departments do similar community-based programs, he said, but “it’s just not to this level.”

Aside from the ever changing menu of outdoor and vocation activities, the county also contracts with providers to help the youth with employment, prep for graduation or even attend equine therapy.

Haynie admits that their approach may be easier in rural Bandera county (pop. 22,300), which handles 40 to 45 youth referrals each year.

But he also believes it can work anywhere. Large and medium size counties might have to pull out segments of kids or a target group to work with in the same way, but the programs would be similar and could be funded with the savings in averted residential placements downstream, he said.

“I do think it can scale, it just depends on how you set it up.”