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Juvenile detention How the life of juvenile delinquents differs from ours

Think someone in prison has hit rock bottom? Maybe not.

The juvenile detention center in San Mateo County provides many opportunities that can help kids who may have fallen down the wrong path turn around.

There are many rehabilitative resources and services to offer kids in need, including academic counselors, who make sure school credits are being transferred, and therapists, who help the kids through their traumatic experiences.

Over the years she has worked at the juvenile hall, Alexandra Hoppis, a juvenile behavioral therapist, has encountered a rollercoaster of stories that have evoked many emotions.

“The more we learn about the kids, it’s harder to see, as a human. Some of them have had some horrendous challenges and I’ve seen CPS reports that have been really sad,” Hoppis said.

Hoppis believes that some of these kids are misunderstood and there may be a certain perception about them—their image, the way they dress, their beliefs—but there’s always another side to the story that isn’t obvious on the outside.

“Every kid has a history of trauma. Ninety percent of them don’t have a great life, and I think people need to understand that there’s more to a person than the bad things they have done. Yes, they have made some bad choices, but there’s so much more to them than that one incident. They’re people. They have struggles. It’s hard to get out of the system,” Hoppis said.

"There's a certain perception of these kids, but everyone has a story." -Alexandra Hoppis

These personal connections that workers make with the kids in the system are also impactful for the adults themselves.

The behavior team is tasked with a critical role in the juvenile halls, as juvenile hall resident suicide rates are 4 times more than the overall adolescent population and 70 percent experience mental illness, compared to 20 percent of the general adolescent population, according to Child Trends.

“It’s the little things that make the job worth it. For example, there was this young man who didn’t want therapy, declining initially. But then, he changed his mind and became a client for two years,” Hoppis said.

But there is also a personal significance for Hoppis as she can see the kids develop and grow emotionally. She is continually impressed with kids’ desire to open up, despite the challenges they face.

“I was really proud that he was allowing someone to enter his emotional state. That’s what impresses me about these kids—their level of intelligence and willingness to open up and be vulnerable, which is a lot harder to do in this environment,” Hoppis added.

Sometimes, these personal connections can have a downside to them as well. Richard Hori, director of probation services, has been involved in probation services and the social justice system from his college days.

“You can’t always take credit for the good things because you also go down with them mentally. When someone did really good, I'd be jumping around all happy, and then when they did something not so good, I'd almost take it personal like you let me down, but no, you learn overtime that people make the decisions,” Hori said.

When altercations arise, adults try to work with the juveniles one on one and aim to be therapeutic in efforts to focus on how to make the situation better rather than straight punishment.

“We’re passionate about the victim side. We have a different approach of talking to them directly, human to human, and in turn people learn skills to reflect on their actions. We try to be non-judgemental so they see the best sides of themselves. There are always 10,000 reasons behind an issue on paper,” said educational services and academic counselor Lauren Sneed.

Despite these efforts, some of the kids remain in the system, as they don’t have the power to escape their surroundings. Hori reflected that sometimes, he will see someone who was in juvenile detention and then in jail later on as an adult, repeatedly.

“For juveniles, it's hard because they don't have the independence to just move. Some of the issues that caused them to go into the system they can't just escape like adults and then they have to go back to their families, which is the same environment that got them landed in delinquency,” Hori said.

However, adult workers like academic counselors and therapists will always be resources for the kids no matter how many times they return.

“It’s like a boomerang. If you keep coming back, we’re here for you,” said Sneed.

"High schools become like grocery stores for these guys to go in and look for certain girls," sneed said, speaking to the hardships of some juvenile delinquents.

Hori expressed similar sentiments as Sneed.

“You give as much as you can, provide as many tools as you can, be professional and patient, but after that there's only so much you can do, and sometimes you may feel disappointed or sad. If you did all your best, it's all you can do. It is really disappointing when you see the same kid or adult making the same bad judgments, but you just have to move on,” Hori said.

Hori’s struggle with separating himself emotionally at first also was seen in law decisions early in his career. Reflecting on his time as a PO officer, Hori stated that sometimes, he may have thought juveniles or adult felons needed rehabilitative treatment, but the judge may decide the opposite. As a PO officer, Hori’s job was to present the facts, but ultimately, the judge decides next steps.

Hori said, “When I was younger I'd be sad when the court didn't decide what I personally thought should happen, but you have to learn it's all the best you can do. The laws change and there is also public pressure or trends, so we're very susceptible, but we have to comply whether we agree or not; it's unpredictable.”

"It's not home. But it's not a hotel either." -Lauren sneed

As for education, juvenile detention educators and academic counselors try to mirror prison school to a traditional school as much as possible because of the juvenile hall’s emphasis on equality.

However, with kids continually coming in and out of the system, there are often conflicts with levels of education, as students of various ages may be clumped together in the same classroom.

“An eighth grader and a senior may be in the same subject and class. It all really depends. Some students have been here since middle school and some just got here. They all come in phases,” Sneed said.

Despite challenges, educational services make sure that students can have a better transition into the system. Sneed works hard to manage students’ credits from their previous high school and closely works with students to assess their academic levels, from when they first enter the system with an orientation meeting to when they are released.

Sneed is an advocate of getting re-involved after returning back to traditional high schools, especially enthusiastic about joining clubs. She emphasizes that her kids should have an open mindset.

“I call it happenstance. You don’t plan on it, but you’re open to what happens. It’s what brought me here,” Sneed said.

In addition, Sneed values the efforts of students who are at these high schools to include former delinquents. She noted that schools like Carlmont offer a welcome kit for all the kids, along with details about classes and a backpack with school supplies.

Ultimately, for some kids, these experiences in juvenile hall may be the catalyst of the turning point they needed to head in the right direction later in life.

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