A new diversion option aimed at keeping juveniles out of King County’s criminal-justice system by offering counseling and other services instead of court hearings launched this week.
Rocio Chavez didn’t want to call police when her son, now 17, ran away and then shoved her when she tried to bring him home.
“I didn’t want it to be bad for him. He is a good student, a good worker, but in that moment I didn’t know what to do,” the Federal Way mother said.
Her son, Sergio Vera, was arrested on investigation of domestic violence and taken to the King County Juvenile Detention Center in December.
But Vera was lucky. He had a chance to participate, with his family, in a new diversion program called Family Intervention and Restorative Services (FIRS.)
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The program, which was launched Thursday in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Youth Services Center in Seattle, was created collaboratively by the King County Prosecutor’s Office, King County Superior Court, King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention and the city of Seattle.
Its aim is to keep young people out of the criminal-justice system and give them a chance to participate in anger-management and other services designed to nip problem behaviors in the bud.
“This is a huge step forward for King County,” said County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. “We want to keep young people out of the juvenile-justice system and also offer help to parents.”
Juveniles who are arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, which prosecutors say accounts for 30 percent of their bookings, can choose to participate in FIRS rather than going the traditional route of court hearings and a potential criminal record.
Instead of going into a locked cell, juvenile offenders will be directed to “cool down” in the new FIRS program center. There, seven cells have been converted into unlocked rooms with a common area that has murals on the wall, comfy chairs and social workers available 24/7.
From there, they will be entered into a nationally recognized intervention program for teens and their families called Step Up, which aims to teach young people healthy communication and coping skills, according to Step Up social worker Lily Anderson.
Even though juvenile-court records are sealed, criminal charges can create a barrier to some opportunities, such as entering the military, or start an unfortunate cycle, she said.
“We want them to go home with an understanding of how to calm themselves down and knowing what respectful family relationships look like,” Anderson said.
Vera says he benefited from what he learned.
“They taught me self-calming skills, anger management and how to talk to my mom,” he said. “It’s helped me at home and with my friends.”
According to King County prosecutor’s spokesman Dan Donohoe, the vast majority of domestic-violence incidents involving juveniles entail “youth acting out against their parents or siblings at a misdemeanor level.”
Prosecutors said the program is modeled after the Pima County, Ariz., Domestic Violence Alternative Center, where that jurisdiction has seen juvenile domestic-violence bookings plummet from more than 1,000 youth annually to just 82 in 2012.
Satterberg said FIRS is part of the county’s continuing, successful efforts to reduce the number of children behind bars.
During the last 10 years, he said, the county has gone from having around 200 young people in detention at any given time to an average of 60. In addition, prosecutors used to file criminal charges against approximately 8,000 juveniles a year, which is down to 1,600.
“Under the old model, we would charge the case and offer help only upon conviction,” he said. “Now we divert these cases away from court and to an array of services to give parents and children the skills to live peacefully together; it is a much better outcome for all.”