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Midlander David Gutierrez certainly has a story to tell. He grew up in a gang-infested neighborhood in the greater Los Angeles area, his mother was an alcoholic, his dad wasn’t around. His brother was in and out of prison and his sister was a drug addict. He started drinking and doing drugs at age 12, was addicted to meth and marijuana by 14 and arrested by age 15.
Now 36, he is three years sober and a substance abuse counselor for troubled teens at Palmer Drug Abuse Program (PDAP). About half of the kids he works with are court-ordered to attend the weekly meetings with him — their probation officers call him often to make sure they’ve been showing up. It’s common for the kids he sees to be on probation or to have been at one time.
“A lot of times people think drugs are the problem,” Gutierrez said. “Drugs are rarely the problem, with kids anyway. A lot of times they’re using that drug to block out whatever the real problem is. Most of them are not addicted; they’re just experimenting or got caught. The danger is that they’re teaching their brain at an early age to self-medicate. This goes wrong, OK, get high. It becomes their coping mechanism.”
Gutierrez often stresses to his kids that they can avoid the long path he took.
“I’ve been down that road and it’s an ugly road,” Gutierrez said. “I’ll tell them, I’m not a cop, I’m not a (probation officer), I’m here for you. I’m here to help you help yourself.”
The juvenile probation system has shifted to a similar point of view. For those kids in trouble with the law, punishment was seen for a long time as the only way to “fix” them. But now, probation is going a different route: rehabilitative care.
“That was a pattern for a long time here in this town,” said Chad Small, older group counselor at PDAP. “You slip up once, you catch a couple more years on paper. You slip up twice, they revoke you and send you to the penitentiary. But I’ve been here at PDAP for almost five years now and I’ve noticed a huge difference from how they were doing things then, to now.”
The Midland Juvenile Probation Department has led the effort to create the Midland County System of Care, which received nonprofit designation in December. The organization strives to provide wraparound services — support across multiple disciplines such as mental health care, substance abuse treatment and trauma-informed counseling — for youth on probation. To provide these wraparound services, the MCSOC has collaborated with other local agencies such as Permian Basin Community Centers and Centers for Children and Families.
MCSOC arose out of the Texas System of Care, a statewide initiative that recognizes the importance of collaboration between systems that serve children and older youth, such as child welfare, juvenile justice, education and mental health.
“The research is showing that 90 percent of the kids coming into our system have experienced at least one, but on average six significant traumatic experiences,” said Forest Hanna, director of the Barbara Culver Juvenile Justice Center. “The probation department will be identifying kids shown to be high-risk to re-offend and children with significant trauma. Those are the kids we’ll target for wraparound programs.”
The juvenile probation department already has started building wraparound plans for two families with kids in the system, Hanna said. They have one coordinator for the MCSOC, funded by the Robison Excelsior Foundation.
But that’s not enough. Last fiscal year, about 400 kids came through Midland juvenile justice system, Hanna said.
“Of those (400), we had 72 that were put on court-ordered probation,” Hanna said. “And of that 72, I think anywhere between 40 or 50 would have been considered for wraparound services. Currently we don’t have the resources to meet that level of need.”
High-fidelity wraparound services require a ratio of 1 to 10 facilitators to clients and a typical wraparound lasts from nine months to a year, Hanna said. They currently are in the process of applying for additional grants, and with the support of the local leadership and agencies, Hanna believes that need can eventually be met.
Flexible funding is key, though.
“For non-traditional things like if a parent wanted to go back to school to get a certification that would help their family, if a kid needs school clothes in an emergency situation, whatever it may be, but it’s flexible funding that enables a wraparound plan,” Hanna said. “Typically money has a lot of strings attached to it. We want to develop mentoring programs, parenting programs, and trauma-informed care across all agencies.”
Building resiliency across communities
The offense sending the most Midland teens to juvenile probation right now is possession of marijuana at school. In fact, more than two-thirds of all the drug cases in the county happen at school, Hanna said.
“We have a lot of substance abuse,” Hanna said. “And about one-third of the kids that come into our system are suffering from some kind of mental illness. 100 percent of the time we look at the social histories of our kids, and the mental health assessments we do, 100 percent of the time trauma is there.”
Most of the trauma involves a whole family — be it incarceration of a family member, sexual abuse, violence in the home and community.
“(The trauma) could be something that could happen to any of us,” Hanna said. “You can have two kids that go through the same adverse childhood experiences and one comes out as a fairly functional adult and the other gets into drugs, alcohol, violence, and ends up in the adult system. The resiliency factor could be strong family support, support of faith-based community, or some kind of skill they can hang their hat on. The difference is that support mechanism, a way to go through healing and grieving, and a lot of these kids just don’t have that.”
Gutierrez was good at sports and for a while that kept him out of trouble.
“I got into sports, but one thing was missing: I had all the coaches’ high fives at the end of the game but once season was over, it was gone,” Gutierrez said.
By the time he was 13, he was in a gang.
“I really did feel that belonging after they jumped me in, then picked me up, dusted me off and said you’re gonna be with us forever, man,” Gutierrez said. “My dad wasn’t there and that male connection was there at a time I was looking for it. When I felt that, it was real. But it was the wrong kind of love.”
With that, came a lot of marijuana, meth use and drinking. Gutierrez was addicted before he turned 14. He was a smart kid, but stopped caring about school. When he got arrested at age 15, things really went down hill.
His experience in prison hardened him further and made him angrier. He was on probation for a year, and during that time he became closer and more loyal to his fellow gang members. There were fights, shootings, armed robberies and lots of drug use.
Things continued to escalate until a night in August 1996 when Gutierrez was shot in the back of head by a police officer. He lost the use of his legs and today uses a wheelchair.
When he got out of the hospital, he went back to marijuana and eventually meth. The spiral of addiction continued for almost a decade.
Perhaps if Gutierrez had had the support of a wraparound program when he was 15, things would have been different.
“I think a lot of it is just recognizing the feelings,” Gutierrez said. “I was just angry — angry all the time. I used (drugs) to cope like a lot of kids do. I’ll ask my kids what’s goin’ on and they’ll be like, ‘I don’t know.’ Then it’ll come out of them eventually. I got some that say, ‘Oh, my mom’s not there. My dad’s in prison.’ Then a friend comes along and says try this. So they get introduced to the substance and it’s like ‘Hey, I really don’t give a crap when I’m high.’”
Almost all of the people who are on adult probation in Small’s group at PDAP were on paper as adolescents as well.
“I know scores of people that have gone away for three, 10, 15 years and within a week of getting out of prison they’re back doing the same thing because they never really learned how to deal with the actual problems that were causing that, plus they had that genetic tendency,” Small said. “If we don’t address the mental issues, childhood issues, self-esteem issues, all this stuff, then you’re almost doomed to go back to it. Probation around here is getting that.”
The cycle of addiction, violence and incarceration is often generational and the Midland County System of Care is a strategy to break that cycle, Hanna said.
“It’s not to make an excuse for that kid’s behavior, but to try to understand where it comes from and how to support that kid in going through whatever trauma they’ve experienced,” Hanna said. “We want to support activities that create resiliency in the individual kid that allows them to survive and thrive. Then at a community level, we want to build through parenting programs, trauma-informed care-skill-based programs for kids and families that will help build resiliency throughout the community.”