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New Youth Assessment Center coming to Ada County

In a few months, low-risk kids will go to The Bridge instead of going to jail; it is the new Youth and Family Resource Center for Ada County.

BOISE, Idaho — Research shows jail — and the court system in general — is bad for kids, especially for the kids that should not be considered criminals.

"Adolescents make bad decisions all the time," Alison Tate, with Ada County said. "Kids that are just showing normal adolescent behavior, we want them  — the kids and their family, to be able to access resources without coming into the criminal justice system which can have negative impacts for them in the future."

Outside of the juvenile justice or child welfare system, there are no other options for juvenile offenders in Ada County. That is why Idaho's largest county is creating a new option, in hopes of preventing kids from landing behind bars.

The day a teen gets put behind bars can be very traumatizing to them.

"We recognize that for many of these youth this might be the worst day of their life," Jessica Barawed, Manager of the Ada County Juvenile Detention facility said.  

Not that long ago, Ada County's Juvenile Detention facility was packed, but now, the number of inmates at the 71-bed facility off Liberty Street in Boise, hovers in the single digits. 

"The way we're doing business is changing a little bit which is a good thing," Jessica said, "the numbers have been down a lot. We know we need a detention facility for high criminal risk youth, but a lot of the youth that are not high criminal risk, we wanted to steer away from detention facilities and keep them connected to the community."

But if there is nowhere else to take those kids — law enforcement will often book them in jail.

"We know detention is bad for kids, stigmatizes kids, kids are actually more likely to commit an additional crime if they have been incarcerated prior to processing in court," Alison Tate, services director for the Ada County Juvenile facility said. "Being in court at all tends to have poor outcomes for kids; less likely to be employed in the future, takes them away from their education, from any contacts they have in the community." 

Tate said that is why, in a few months, low-risk kids will go to The Bridge instead of going to jail. That is the new Youth and Family Resource Center for Ada County.

At the center, the county will screen and assess kids, figure out their needs and connect them and their families with community-based services to keep kids out of the criminal justice system.

The Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections gave Ada County a $610,000 grant for the project.

"It will allow us to purchase a modular building to put very close here to juvenile court and detention facility but separate from the facility," Tate said.

The building will be located in the parking lot across from the juvenile facility in a spot Ada County already owns.

The National Assessment Center Association's best practices show these centers save law enforcement time, improve coordination between agencies working with kids and get kids and their families help faster before kids or their families hit a crisis point.

"This has to be a piece of our system," Ruth York Executive Director for Families and Youth of Idaho said. "You know, the Surgeon General has declared we have a youth mental health emergency in the United States. So we've got to be focusing our community efforts on, how do we help youth deal with what the stresses of life today are?"

Because Families and Youth of Idaho work with kids struggling with mental health, they threw their support behind this plan. York expects Ada County's new center will refer kids and families to her organization.

"Not all children, youth with mental health issues get in trouble with the law," Ruth said, "but some do because they're acting out behaviorally; because all is not right in their world. And what's important is to recognize that these youth need mental health support, not legal punishment."

For York — this issue hits home.

"This is something I experienced in my family, where I had a youth who was experiencing more trouble in his life behaviorally that was ending up with legal punishments versus getting the mental health care he needed," York said. "And so, I mean, I really feel like we could have changed the course of his life."

The county can reach out to families to set up an appointment at the center, or families can just walk in.

"The idea is, there's no wrong door," Tate said. "Anyone can come in and get help."

Law enforcement also plays a key role.

"When people call, law enforcement is going to respond," Meridian Police Chief Tracy Basterrechea said. "That's the way the system is set up. But we're finding better ways to do things."

Chief Basterrechea said the department will be able to take or refer kids to the center while responding to a call, or through school resource officers.

"Once they're in the system, they tend to stay in the system, and oftentimes we see somebody that we've dealt with as a child, and they're still in the system as an adult," Basterrechea said.

Ada County plans to fully open its youth and family resource center in the spring, and will accept limited law enforcement referrals starting in February.

"We think it's a game changer," Tate said. "We think this is going to be a transformation of the youth justice system in Ada county."

"The kids are our future, right?" York said. "We cannot have lives waylaid inappropriately. And children need to be able to maximize their full potential. And if we interrupt that by taking them down paths that are not helping them to do that then we're just, we're hurting our future."

The Idaho Legislature approved the money the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections awarded to Ada County. Ada is now one of eight Idaho counties that have received one of these grants.

Other states have similar youth resource centers and the model has been proven to work. Data shows 90% of kids referred to these facilities in Las Vegas never enter the formal criminal justice system.

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