Westborough – Teenagers and young adults who stray into trouble may well get a second chance thanks to the town’s Youth Diversion Program.
“It was a program that we developed to give first-time youthful offenders the opportunity to avoid court records and still have some accountability for their actions,” said John Badenhausen, director of the town’s Youth and Family Services (YFS) Department. “We deal with kids who have misdemeanor offenses.”
Normally, a teenager caught with alcohol or after destroying property would go directly to the courts. Even infractions of school regulations, such as using a chemical substance, being under the influence or bringing a knife to school can wind up in court. But in working with the schools and the Police Department, the YSF program offers counseling to give kids a chance to be accountable for their actions without necessarily earning an arrest record, Badenhausen explained.
School officials, the courts and the Police Department refer teenagers and young adults to the four-week program, which involves parents as well as the young people, Badenhausen said.
Police Chief Alan Gordon praised the program.
“I think it’s a great tool for the Police Department because it not only saves the individuals from getting a criminal record but it allows us to … get to the root of the problem rather than just dealing with the punitive aspect of it.”
The Police Department does not refer every young person to the program, Gordon said.
“We look at each case individually,” he said. “We try to hit individuals who don’t have a criminal record and have been accused of a non-violent crime.”
The program begins with the family and the counselor. In the first session, the young person discusses what happened, and then the parents get to say what happened from the time that they became involved, Badenhausen said.
“The child gets to tell what happened – to be accountable,” he said, with the parents and a staff mental health professional present. “Parents also get the opportunity to debrief about the experience.”
The staff counselor helps the discussion at least in the first session; often the kids will leave out details and speak in only a few sentences, Badenhausen explained.
“It’s the job of the counselor to bring out the details,” he said. “There’s often more to an event than just the event itself.”
The session offers the family a chance to examine what forces and decision-making may have led to the event.
“Often an impartial professional can help to bring out those details more easily than the parents can,” Badenhausen said, “because the context is confidential and we don’t share the information with anyone else.”
The second meeting involves only the parents, in which the counselor collects a comprehensive history, including medical, social and academic background.
“We kind of look at all areas of the child, assess emotional development, social development, assess for what other elements might be involved, to get a full picture,” Badenhausen said. “Sometimes we can track it to a particular event that occurred in the family. We also look for stressors in the family: death, life-threatening illness, a change in family finances or a move – anything that can be a stress on child … There can be a lot of things that influence a child’s behavior. Part of our job during this assessment is to see if we can identify what sorts of other underlying concerns might not be being addressed.”
During the third session, the young person meets with the counselor on his or her own.
“We get from their point of view an understanding of all the influences they’re experiencing,” Badenhausen said. “Then in the fourth session, we bring everybody back together again and let them all talk about what they’ve learned from the session.”
From there, the counselor may make recommendations, he said.
“The point is three-fold,” Badenhausen said. “One is to provide accountability, one is to prevent the child getting a police record for what might be considered a youthful indiscretion and the third one is to discover what other influences there might be on the behavior that got the kid in trouble and, if there are, how can they be addressed? What can we do to help this kid?”
Gordon is impressed with the program’s results.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “John does a spectacular job with it.”
As many as 10 to 15 young people go through the program a year, Badenhausen said. For some, it is the beginning of a series of offenses, but not for the majority.
“I would say probably 80 to 90 percent of the kids that come through here, this is the only time,” he said. “It provides a corrective experience for them and they move on.”