AUSTIN (KXAN) — Hidden behind bustling businesses and chaotic streets in south Austin, a turquoise house and a small greenspace offer a place to slow down and listen.
Usually, the Amala Foundation uses the space to teach social-emotional learning skills and preventative mental health techniques to children and adults. However, on Tuesday afternoon, the Travis County district attorney joined representatives from local nonprofits and restorative justice experts from across the country — sitting in a circle and taking turns to speak.
It’s the same kind of practice the group will eventually use to help young people as a part of the Travis County Transformation Project.
The DA’s office said it analyzed 10 years of criminal justice data and found the most frequent offense driving youth into the criminal legal system was family violence within the home.
It’s why the pilot program, announced this week, aims to keep young people out of the criminal justice system and instead offer an alternative for around 25 to 30 families.
Program organizers explained the process will begin at the law enforcement level: when officers are called to the scene of a family violence incident involving a young person, they will evaluate whether the child could be a fit for the program.
“What happens once a law enforcement officer arrives on the scene is at that law enforcement officer’s discretion. This is simply another option, another tool for law enforcement to utilize,” District Attorney José Garza told KXAN in an interview about the project earlier this week.
There are practical limitations: a young person cannot participate in the program if the incident involves serious bodily injury or the use of a gun. The program will also only be offered to 15 and 16-year-olds due to limitations at the shelter where the young people will stay during a “cooling off period.”
Also, the youth and their guardians have to consent to taking part in the program.
“It’s an opportunity when, you know, families feel like they don’t have any other choice but to involve law enforcement because they don’t have what they need to be able to heal this, usually, cycle of violence that’s occurring — just knowing that the community is stepping up and really wanting to help,” said Channing Neary, assistant director of Youth Justice and Violence Prevention at the Travis County DA’s office.
After that, the young person will be introduced to specific restorative practices — such as the circle — through the Amala Foundation, and the Travis County Juvenile Probation will support the project with certain clinical services.
Lina Guerrero, a restorative justice facilitator for the foundation, said she hopes these practices help families feel truly heard.
“What are the complex reasons why relationships have been harmed, and how can we meet needs for everyone involved to heal the harm?” she explained.
In order to meet those needs, families will also be offered additional wraparound services through the Excellence and Advancement Foundation. Its founder and executive director, Dr. Courtney Robinson, explained her team might check in on the child’s school work or visit the family at home.
“It can be that the students don’t have a mattress at home, and they need a mattress. So, we work with our partners to make sure they have things at home — or the family has some food insecurity that’s been happening for some time and that’s making the house more stressful,” she said.
Although the program was announced to the public this week, teens actually began receiving services in June, and the Excellence and Advancement Foundation’s Program Director Danielle Williams said she has already seen progress. For example, she recently heard from one teen in the program during the school day who said, instead of fighting with another girl at school who was bothering her, she chose to hold off and call Williams.
“You have to unlearn some of the behaviors that you’ve learned,” Williams said. “Because she shared in that moment that she is unlearning some of the behavior that she normally would have gone with, I think that was a major win.”
The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Law, Society and Justice will track data and measure outcomes for families in the program, such as recidivism rates, the kids’ participation in school, and any unmet mental health or substance use needs.
“Ultimately, we want to measure not just the young person, but the family as a whole,” Garza said.
Garza said this data would be key to determining whether the pilot program should continue or expand in the future. The DA’s office said it committed $300,000 in funding for the project over three years, but Garza explained the majority of the funding has come from private sector grants.
“If it is successful, then I think we’ll need to have a larger conversation in our community about resources and our priorities,” he said. “I think what’s clear to us early is that these are not bad kids. These are kids who are in very difficult situations, and these are kids, you know, where if we don’t intervene now, the consequences for our community are really troubling.”