Going where the problems are
The Boys and Girls Clubs take their positive program inside the walls of the county’s Juvenile Hall
When you pass through the metal detector near the big, heavy doors of Butte County Juvenile Hall in Oroville, the first impression is of a typical institutional setting: monochromatic blue walls, concrete floors, little in the way of decoration or homey warmth.
Farther inside the facility is one “pod,” or section, that is different. Its walls are bright with colors—pale yellow, orange, lime green and dark blue. Art projects hang from a wire above comfy chairs and a large television with a Dance, Dance Revolution video-game set up at its feet. A foosball table is pushed into the back corner, and an air hockey machine sits in front, near the entrance.
A sign reading “Boys and Girls Club of the North Valley” hints at the purpose of this room. The club, which has as one of its purposes keeping kids out of places like Juvenile Hall, now has a branch located inside its walls. It is only the second such facility in California.
Like all juvenile halls, Butte County’s exists in part to punish kids who have broken the law. But it also seeks to help them to avoid committing future offenses so they can get their lives on track toward success. That’s why county officials have teamed up with the Boys and Girls Clubs to bring rehabilitation, education and even some fun into what amounts to a jail.
“Part of our philosophy is providing for kids who need us the most, and these kids are in desperate need of more resources,” said Joe Hejl, area director for all seven local Boys and Girls Clubs.
A full-time staff of three caseworkers and a rotating staff from all the North Valley club locations spend time at the hall, bonding with the kids through various activities.
“But it’s not all fun and games,” Hejl said. “There are some really good meat-and-potatoes programs going on here.”
These programs include career counseling on everything from skills needed in the workplace to making a résumé. There is even a seminar called “Money Matters,” which teaches students how to budget their paychecks.
Hejl says the goal is connecting the youths to something in their community once they are released, whether it’s their local Boys and Girls Club, a sports team, a college or an after-school job.
This Target Re-Entry Program, as it’s called, is one of only 13 in the country and has resulted directly from the strong relationship Hejl had developed between the Juvenile Hall, the Probation Department and the Boys and Girls Clubs.
In 2005, Boys and Girls Club staff members began visiting the hall once a month. Visits soon became as frequent as once a week as part of the Minor Adjustment Program. The partnership worked so well that it’s gone to the next level—the Boys and Girls Club “pod” became operational in September 2007 and has been running smoothly since.
Ten to 15 kids use the facility each day. Some come as a reward for good behavior, while others have a more active, ongoing role in the program.
Nino Pinocchio, assistant superintendent at the Juvenile Hall, has seen a real difference in the kids involved.
“Sometimes at first the kids are hardened, cold and callous,” he said, “but within months of being in the program you see them blossom into your average, smiling teenager.”
Even as an authority figure, Pinocchio has been able to bond with his charges in new ways and has seen an increase in good behavior throughout the hall. Only those who earn enough merit points are allowed to frequent the colorful facility.
“It’s a great incentive for them to behave well,” said Jon Rango, director of the Juvenile Hall Boys and Girls Club facility. “It’s really great to hear that they look forward to coming here every day.”
Recreation is not the main goal of the program, however; the major component is the case management offered to 30 or 35 youths per year. Eligibility requires that they be confined to the hall for at least 90 days, exhibit good behavior and have a family commitment.
“Case management is based on looking at [the youths'] strengths, interests and needs and creating a long-term plan to achieve the goals they set,” Rango said.
For one year, juvenile offenders are assigned a case manager who builds a relationship on the inside and continues supporting them on the outside. They are to contact their youths once a week and assist them in meeting their set goals.
Besides helping the students find a more productive outlet than criminal activity, the case managers also act as confidants.
“There’s a bond that develops between our case managers and their youths,” Rango said. “They become mentors and friends.”
So far, no students in the program have returned to the hall, and many have landed jobs or are attending school. Last week one of Rango’s youths entered the workforce and achieved his main goal.
“It’s pretty rewarding to see a kid at a low point in his life and then turn it around by getting better grades, holding down a job and just staying out of trouble,” Rango said.
One problem is that Oroville does not have a Boys and Girls Club, so kids who transition out of the Juvenile Hall club don’t have a place to go. That will change this summer, when a teen center called “The Club” is set to open at the Southside Community Center.
“It’s a work in progress,” said Maureen Pierce, executive director of the clubs, who is busy lining up funding. The Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council has pledged $80,000, and representatives of the S. H. Cowell Foundation, a major underwriter of the local clubs, are considering support.
With its significant Hmong, black, American Indian and Latino communities, Oroville is perhaps the most diverse city in Butte County, and the need for a Boys and Girls Club is big, Pierce said. She’s hopeful that one will be up and running by July, when the JJCC funding kicks in.
Meanwhile, at Juvenile Hall, probation officer Cortlan Reed is seeing an impact. Reed works with some of the kids in the program, and he’s found improved and more honest communication with his wards. Although the project is still in its infancy, he believes it will produce only positive results.
“It’s going to be a while till we see numbers,” Reed said. “But you can already see the relationships they build here help kids get the resources and support they need.”