Within the Walla Walla County Juvenile Justice Center, one man is quietly making whatever dent he can in local gang problems.
Frank Martinez, a former police officer, works as a counselor and community supervision officer at the Rose Street facility that houses young offenders.
Martinez supports parents who arrive at his office door, seeking answers for their children's worrisome behavior.
On a good day, they come before the child is in serious trouble, Martinez said. "They want to talk to me about issues like their child is not staying home at night, they are staying out late, doing drugs."
Many of the families coming in are Latino, as is Martinez, said George Weise, assistant director of the center. There can be unease, fear of the system and law enforcement in general. "When families come in, there's distrust. But with Frank here, there's trust."
Mike Bates, director of the center, agreed. "They know Frank understands."
He comes in contact with families when kids get into truancy problems, Martinez said. Parents often already suspect what's going wrong, he noted. "They talk about kids leaving the house without permission, their child hanging out with a lot of other kids."
He can offer some tools. "We talk about an at-risk youth petition, we talk about filing that and that becomes a court order. It's another way of addressing needs before there are criminal charges."
The petition is a decision between parents, Division of Children's Services, a school district and juvenile justice officials to assess a family's needs when dealing with an acting-out and truant teen. It allows for a child to be brought under the court's watch, giving a judge authority to oversee and dictate certain conditions, such as school attendance and a curfew.
If a child doesn't obey those, the petition allows the court to hand down legal repercussions, including detention and fines for parents.
When mothers and fathers are able to turn their fear and misgivings into action, a child will always benefit, Martinez said. If the teen does end up in detention, parents are familiar with the staff and know there will be help.
Better yet, some youths will be redirected in time to avoid permanent consequences, he added. "Sometimes kids turn around. Sometimes it's a wake-up call for the particular individual. If he's willing to move on with his life after being in front of the judge."
Parents can be the bigger part of the battle. "I say, 'Look, you can do it on your own if you want to, but we are here to help you. We're not here to get your son or daughter in worse trouble, we're here to make sure they comply with your rules at home,'" Martinez explained. "'There is help for you guys out there. It's just a matter of you making the phone call. I'll hook you up with services.'"
Convincing parents to trust the system is a delicate dance, the counselor said. "Sometimes they have the wrong idea about Court Services. Parents worry we'll tell them what to do, but we tell them we are here to make sure your kid is complying. Sometimes they come back and sometimes they don't."
However, when they decline his help, he does -- often -- end up seeing those parents, he added. "Down the road in truancy court."
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.