Zenobia Herring had not seen her grandson in two and a half years, and so one of the first things she noticed when she picked him up at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department's Houston office was his height.
By the time 17-year-old Rodney Doakes returned home on October 6 from Giddings State School, he had grown four inches, two shoe sizes and two pants sizes. He had just finished serving two and a half years in juvenile lockup for aggravated robbery, his grandmother said. When he was 14, Doakes claims, a group of his friends shoved him into an older man riding his bike on a trail, then stole the man’s bike and fanny pack. Doakes insists that he didn’t take anything, but “I started running too because he got hurt, and I didn’t want to go to jail.” The man fell to the ground and broke his collarbone. Doakes says the other boys gave his name to police.
During his time at Giddings, Doakes never had a visitor. Herring wanted to go see him, but Giddings was two hours from her home in southeast Houston, and the failing engine in her Chevy Tahoe couldn't be trusted. On the weekends, when all seven of Rodney’s siblings in her custody were home from school, there was no way she could leave town. Instead, Doakes would write letters, draw pictures, spend hours on the phone each weekend — whenever he ran out of minutes, he would hang up and call right back.
“I’d say, Are you okay?” Herring remembers. “And he’d say, ‘Yes, ma’am, I’m fine. As long as I get to hear your voice, I’m fine.”
Still, despite their close relationship, the home environment Doakes is returning to is something the parole department considers a risk factor. It’s not because he lacks love and support from his grandparents and siblings — there’s plenty of that. But because of the distance, family simply have not been a part of his treatment and development over the past year and a half — and his parents, a mother who does not work and an absent father who has been in and out of jail for various assaults all of Doakes’s life, have not been there at all.
Houston Juvenile Parole Administrator Aaron Williams says that Doakes’s parole officer and other counselors will now have to play catch-up with family members since they couldn’t engage in his counseling and anger-management programs while he was away. Just imagine if that family counseling had been going on all along, Williams said. “They could’ve developed this together. Just imagine how much further they could be.”
That’s exactly what juvenile justice officials and reformers are trying to make happen. Last session, the Legislature passed a bill that aims to keep more kid offenders within their communities, or at least within the region, so they can receive specialized treatment and behavior programs close to home instead of being shipped away to state lockups. “Interventions are oftentimes the most helpful when you’re intervening with the family, helping the family support the youth,” said Lauren Rose, juvenile justice policy associate at Texans Care for Children. “We want to make sure that those services are going to be available where the youth [lives].”
Within the past month, the Regionalization Task Force, a group of juvenile justice officials and advocates like Rose established by TJJD, has begun planning how it's going to make this work. By next September, the bill provides funds to divert 30 kids like Doakes from state facilities in order to keep them in community-based programs — by September 2017, 150 more kids. Now officials say they're looking for more families stuck in the same situation that Doakes was.
Tom Brooks, executive director of the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, who is also on the task force, said that, if by next legislative session it's on track to meet these goals, the task force hopes the Legislature will pour more funding into creating and expanding actual programs. While in theory officials would love to begin bringing as many kids into community-based residential treatment facilities (which feel more like rehab than prison) as possible, Brooks said they’ll need to pay for more staff, too. And in some regions, smaller counties may not even have the buildings to house these programs and may need funding for construction. For now, TJJD is surveying the state to figure out how many programs each jurisdiction has and how much they could be expanded.
“It’s not just warehousing — this is very serious,” Brooks said. “We need therapeutic programs that can be successful. We’ll be using data to show whether they’re successful or not in the long term.”
And the way the task force can do that is by looking at recidivism rates. Already, research has shown that kids sent to a state lockup facility are more than twice as likely to be reincarcerated than kids who remain under supervision in their communities. This is what drove lawmakers to start diverting kids from the state-run facilities by giving residential treatment facilities more funding back in 2007, when TJJD also quit locking kids up for misdemeanors. Within five years, average daily population at the state facilities had dropped by 66 percent, and even arrests declined by 33 percent, according to a report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Still, while the goal, in theory, is to keep the kids closer to home, the Houston Chronicle reported this week that, even though Texas is locking up fewer kids, the state is also sending more and more of those kids to out-of-state treatment programs. In two years, 226 offenders have been sent across state lines — 24 of them from Harris County, the daily reported.
Jim Hurley, spokesperson for TJJD, said that he expects the Regionalization Task Force to tackle this problem, and that, as more funding becomes available, it will identify which programs Texas lacks so that the kids who need them won’t have to travel to Nebraska or Iowa to get them. And Brooks noted that, while keeping the kids as close to home as possible is priority one, good treatment — no matter the distance — will trump sending kids to a prison-like state facility like Giddings — which, in recent months, has been plagued with riots and violence.
Doakes was in the gym when dozens of teenagers broke windows, threw punches and chairs and climbed onto the roof. “We saw people start running, so we started running, too,” Doakes said. “We thought, where are they going? And then when we got outside, people were fighting.”
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At Giddings, staff tried to help Doakes with anger issues, but the prison-like atmosphere was a constant distraction. During a phone call with Herring, Doakes told her that a staff member had locked him in his room and taunted him. He had once been so angry and provoked by something a staff member said to him that he punched a wall and needed surgery on his hand. Herring called to have him transferred to a new area. She told Giddings officials that her grandson had been bullied all through elementary and middle school. He was sometimes even followed home by kids who threw rocks at his house. His instinct was to protect himself. And in an environment like Giddings, she told them, he would be easily provoked.
But sitting in his living room now, Doakes is so shy that you have to lean in to hear him talk. He is looking forward to starting back up in high school — a different school this time, away from the kids he got into trouble with. He wants to play basketball, go to college and become an auto mechanic.
Giddings's parole officer, L'Sandra Tutson, came by his grandmother's house the day he was released from Giddings. Tutson says she's feeling good about Doakes’s chances at staying on the right track. She thought Herring's plans for him — enrolling in a high school with much smaller class sizes and making him do community service at his great-grandfather's church — would provide the kind of support Doakes needed.
She just wishes Herring could have been there all along.