HAMILTON - Beginning in January 2019, the 25th Judicial Circuit, which serves Marion and Winston counties, will become the seventh circuit in the state to have access to the Helping Families Initiative (HFI).
The program is a proactive strategy by the district attorney’s office to intervene with local students displaying problematic behaviors which are known to be indicators of dropping out of school and even future criminal activity.
25th Judicial Circuit District Attorney Scott Slatton explained that Helping Families is a special service based out of a judicial circuit’s district attorney’s office.
Slatton said that the program is being launched in the county in collaboration with the Marion County School System. The Program will seek to identify young people at risk of losing their futures through criminal activities and helping them with existing resources to make good decisions so potential crimes do not happen.
Marion County Superintendent of Education Ann West said that costs for funding the program are to be roughly $20,000 annually and will be paid out of the Marion County School’s Title 4 Safety and Drug account, which is funded by federal dollars.
Slatton says he hopes that Winfield City School System and school systems in Winston County will partner with the DA’s office for the service in the future.
“I’m very appreciative of the Marion County Board of Education for the help and assistance they’ve offered in getting this program off the ground,” Slatton said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be doing it.
“There is an overall need to address the deeper family issues,” Slatton said. “Truancy in school, behavioral issues can ultimately lead to juvenile delinquency issues and ultimately lead to adult criminal issues.
“The hope is that if we can get to them early and figure out what the root problem is, we can move them away from the justice system and break the cycle that some families have been caught in.”
The Helping Families service will use data reported from the local county schools to the DA’s office, including students’ absentee and disciplinary records.
According to the Marion County School System’s policies, a student will receive an early warning letter after the third unexcused absence. On the fourth, the system will file a petition against the student in the juvenile judicial system.
Ten excused absences designates a student with an early warning. Once over the 10, the system files a petition.
Slatton said that the entire purpose of him seeking to launch the program is to fill the gaps where the school system’s authority ends and the juvenile court begins.
“We’re going to try and slide ourselves in between those two,” Slatton said.
HFI Training and Technical Support Coordinator Jayne Carson, of Mobile, said that the program is especially effective as it is under the umbrella of the district attorney’s office.
“A letter from the school can’t quite catch the attention of a parent like a letter from the DA’s office does,” Carson said.
Carson said that HFI began in 2003 in Mobile County with the help of former district attorney for Mobile County, John Tyson Jr., who had a unique perspective on education as he had previously served on the state’s board of education.
Because of this background, Tyson was aware of absenteeism and took interest in the reports sent to the DA’s office from the local schools.
“He’s sitting there looking at these big stacks of reports which would come in weekly and wanted to know what could be discovered by looking at the data,” Carson said.
Carson said that Tyson approached her, asking her to develop a good way to use the information to help the community. The Helping Families Initiative was the result.
Carson said that several factors can weigh on a child’s behavior and attendance at school, including poverty, drug or alcohol abuse and even simply just a lack of commitment to education.
The HFI’s approach is looking at this data not as strictly a problem with a student, but a problem with a family. The goal is to engage and help those families by connecting them with the resources that are already available.
“We spend a great deal of our time doing a deep assesment of the family so we can learn about the family, the student and the situation so we can find the real solutions to the behavior problem,” Carson said.
The HFI coordinator said one of the Helping Families programs in Mobile County did a study with students who had been suspended in a year.
Carson said the study showed that among those students who successfully completed the Helping Families program, 80 percent were not suspended the following year.
“That’s pretty darn good statistics,” Carson said.
According to Carson, the University of South Alabama did a research study on the Helping Families program as well and actually published it in the “Journal of Childhood Adolescence and Social Work.”
The study showed that there was statistical significance with students who completed the program in their grades, suspensions, their attendance and truancy.
A community effort
Slatton and Carson said that this is very much a community aspect and Owen will serve primarily as a “gap-filler” helping to connect families in need to resources available through the Department of Human Resources, the school systems, mental health, drug and alcohol programs and groups in the faith community.
“We’re more of a ‘broker’ for community services,” Carson said.
Carson said that the main goal is to improve attendance in performance in school.
“We’re not in the catching-people-doing-bad business,” Carson said, explaining that there will be a “Chinese” wall between HFI and Slatton, and Owen. We will not be turning over information to the district attorney for prosecution.
She noted that this was all subject, of course, to mandatory reporting laws for child abuse and neglect.
“We’re here to help, not to interrogate,” Carson said.
One of Carson’s favorite stories of Helping Families was while she was the team leader for Mobile County.
School officials asked Carson to reach out to a student who was a great kid but was notoriously leaving school halfway through the day.
Carson was able to park outside the school and observe the student walking out of school for a few days, each time with his shoes off and hung around his shoulders.
After a few times seeing this, Carson confronted the student and began talking with him about why he was leaving school early.
She found out that the student was unable to afford a new pair of shoes and was wearing some that were too small for his feet.
Carson said that the shoes were hurting the student’s feet so badly that he would have to leave school when he couldn’t stand to wear the shoes any longer.
As the HIF team leader, Carson knew of a local church’s men’s group which had offered to help if the program ever needed anything.
Carson reached out to the church and the men’s group was able to quickly provide the student with two new pairs of shoes.
“If that was done through DHR, it would have taken six signatures and three months,” Carson said. “We’re able to be a lot more flexible and not have the bureaucracy.
“I’ve had someone’s washing machine get fixed because a student was getting into fights at school for not washing his clothes; I’ve had someone fix an oven and others get cars fixed. We do what needs to be done.”
Owen will serve
as team lead
For the last month, Carson has been training Marion County HFI Team Leader Billy Owen to take the reins of the program.
Owen is a former Hamilton police chief and local prison warden. Slatton says Owen’s background also includes a job at a methadone clinic, all of which he says will give him a unique perspective while approaching his line of work in Helping Families.
“Owen is easy to work with. He will do great,” Carson said.
Owen says that he is very excited to start his work come the new year.
He believes the program will ultimately save taxpayers money by keeping students out of the juvenile justice system.
He also said that he is thrilled to see it help students get their high school diploma, stay out of prison and help to raise up a solid and dependable workforce to encourage economic growth.
Carson noted that studies have shown that early intervention is the best investment as issues can be addressed in their infancy and have not escalated to larger problems needing more resources to address them.
“The further you go into the system, the more expensive it is,” Carson said. “If we get to them early, we have a better chance of helping them.”
Carson said that the program has been shown to be very successful and can, in the long-term, save millions of dollars for a community by reducing the school drop-out rate and reducing crime and juvenile crime costs.
Individuals, groups or organizations interested in partnering with the Helping Families Initiative are encouraged to contact Owen by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See complete story in the Journal Record.