Harris Co. trying new approach to rehab troubled teens


The young men have been in trouble with the law, and a judge hopes to stop the cycle. One 15-year-old pulled a knife on his own dad.

"We were arguing and I just grabbed it to tell him to back off and he just called the cops on me," the teen said.

But now there's been a change.

"I took classes with a counselor, she taught me how to relax," the teen said. "But right now, I don't get aggressive real fast, so I'm a pretty calm person now," the teen said.

This kind of counseling is the cornerstone of the curriculumn at the Harris County Leadership Academy; up early, in classes most of the day, and then group and one-on-one counseling.

"The approach is much more individualized than it used to be in years back so now we focus on what are the skills that you need, what are the issues, the risk factors that are going on in your life that are making you act in delinquent ways," said Diana Quintana with the Harris County Leadership Academy.

At one time, boot camps were the main form of rehabilitation for troubled kids. Instructors would break the child down and build them back up, much like they do in the military.

"Our research has shown that the boot-camp style program is not as effective as in terms of curving delinquent behavior," Quintana said.

Quintana says that's because the idea behind a boot camp is to teach them to work as a team. But in a place like this, teenagers are not here for teamwork, they have individual needs.

And while instructors are still strict, barking at students has been replaced by talking and listening.

"The Juvenile Justice System is about rehabilitation, it's about rehabilitating kids, so we focus on what skills that we need to give you to make you more successful and be a productive member of society, as to being out there committing delinquent crimes," Quintana said.

So is it working? According to preliminary numbers, yes.

Tom Brooks oversees the Harris County Juvenile Department and says since moving away from the boot camp style in 2010, there's been a decrease in repeat offenders.

"With the boot camp, the statistics show we had about a 25 percent recidivism rate; since we've moved to the therapeutic programs it's about a 20 percent and we are happy with that, that's very successful," Brooks said.

On this day, the teens were listening to an adult who served time for murder.

"I wonder what kind of change I could have made in myself if I would have had this opportunity," the speaker said.

He's hoping his story serves as a warning, a warning for teenagers like one 16-year old who is serving four months for violating parole. Soon he'll return home to the same neighborhood, same friends and same potential pitfalls.

"Are you nervous about being free again?" we asked the teen.

"Yes ma'am, I'm nervous," the teen said.

"What are you scared about?"

"To lose control and then get arrested and go back to the same life as before I got locked up."

This time, though, the teens will armed with something different.

"They learned skills through the programs and these are things that they can use when they are back in the community that will continue, which goes a lot further than just the discipline they had with the previous program," Brooks said.

Project HEEL is one of the county's therapy programs, and it involves stray dogs. The kids and dogs are locked up behind walls, and to get out and make it in the real world, they will have to work together.

"The expectations for Corridor Rescue was to help make our dogs more adoptable," said Dawn Ruben with Project HEEL.

A teenager and a dog are teamed up for eight weeks.

"The dogs respond very well to the kids and it builds their self confidence; they learn a lot about the anatomy of the dog, they learn how to work with the dogs out in the community," Brooks said.

For both, it's a chance to start fresh.

"It's a beginning for the dog and it's a beginning for them too," Ruben said.

"I honestly can say it's a privilege to work with these animals, to be able to get a benefit from it, to take it back out into the free and do something positive with it," a 17-year-old in the program said.

"It's really helping me. It's helping me become a better person," a 15-year-old said.

And then there's the gardening program, which teaches patience, nurturing, and most importantly, the ability to land a job.

"What the thought for them to do is get to actually get a job or try to receive a job in the horticulture industry," said Phillicia Moore, who runs the gardening program at the academy.

They're skills and knowledge that were not always translating with the hard and harsh style of boot camp.

"With the boot camp, the statistics showed about a 25 percent recidivism rate; since we moved to the therapeutic program, it's about a 20 percent, and we are very happy with that," Brooks said.

The cost of the therapy programs is minimal. Project HEEL is totally run by volunteers with no cost to the state. The gardening program has a budget of $30,000 a year, but again, those funds come from outside source.

No matter what the cost, the rewards are proving priceless.

"It teaches you how to care for something else instead of being selfish all the time," the 15-year-old said.

"This is a great opportunity that I have right now. And I plan to take it out and turn my negative activity I was doing into something positive," the 17-year-old said.

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