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Parents Helping Parents: A New Approach To Getting Troubled Kids Back On Track

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Tom Flanigan
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The Juvenile Detention Center in Tallahassee

Most experts have long said the key to reducing juvenile - and ultimately adult - crime is better parenting. Now North Florida's Second Judicial Circuit has launched a program to help parents whose children are getting into trouble.
The co-chair for the initiative is Dr. Kathleen Rodgers. Her day job title is assistant superintendent for the Leon County School District.

"As assistant superintendent, I have the responsibility of working with DJJ programs. That's one of my charges. Last summer, the race equity and inclusion committee for Circuit Two was involved in a statewide race equity challenge."

Not one to back down from a challenge, Rodgers said she was eager to do whatever it might take, not only to win that competition, but also change the direction of kids who have come under the oversight of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. How would that happen?

"Come up with a program that would help DJJ-involved youth. What we decided to do was to make a data-driven decision and share some phenomenon that resulted from the data we looked at."
What the data conclusively showed, she says, was that skilled parents who knew what resources to tap were far more successful in turning their wayward kids around.
"We determined that parents needed help so that their students would not get deeper involved in the DJJ system. We wrote a proposal entitled 'Parent Navigators,' which is basically parents mentoring parents."

One of these parent mentors is Johnitta Wells.

"Parenting is not something that has a manual. And parenting with kids that may be headed in the wrong direction, that definitely does not have a manual. And a lot of times I think people are looking for someone they can just lean on so they don't feel they're there by themselves."

Wells said she and her parent navigator colleagues underwent around 9 weeks of rigorous training before they began counseling other parents.

"Intense training, just to make sure we know where to point someone in the right direction. And I think that's always a start. Especially when you have a child that's gotten into some trouble. You don't know anything about the legal system, what it means to have a felony, what it means to have adjudication withheld. And those are the things we learned that we can pass off that knowledge to other parents."

Parent Navigator Faith Bates came to the program from a different angle than Johnitta Wells.

"The district did a follow-up with children who were involved in the juvenile justice system and my son was one of them."

Bates, both through her personal situation and background in special education had plenty of experience with the system in her home state of Rhode Island. But she admitted that didn't prepare her for a very different set of realities in Florida. Now, her Parent Navigator training will complement and focus that expertise. Although she'd prefer parental participation was mandatory instead of voluntary.

"I'm from the school of hard knocks where if you're not being the parent, you're part of the problem. And I think if the parents are willing to take those steps necessary, that's the challenge we're going to run across. Getting them to feed into and buy into it is going to be the challenge."

Still, the program is off to a flying start. And Co-Chair Dr. Kathleen Rodgers said it's already a winner.

"We in Leon County won the statewide proposal for the most innovative program. And that innovative program is our Parent Navigator program."

Meaning, if it works as its organizers, advocates and participants hope, the soil is already prepared for the concept to spread across Florida.