Gangs Juvenile Justice Positive Youth Justice

Tarrant County, TX, Demonstrates the Art of Helping Law-Breaking Kids

A week ago, we published a story from the series by John Kelly for the Chronicle of Social Change, which is taking a close look at programs that use a strategy known as Positive Youth Justice to help kids who have come in contact with the juvenile justice system.

Last week’s story explored an Oakland, CA, program that uses a process called community conferencing, which asks lawbreaking kids to confront the effects of their crime.

This week, the series looks at a program in Tarrant County, Texas that has been successful in helping reboot the lives of kids who, two decades ago, would have been sent to a state-run juvenile lock-up.

This story was produced as a collaborative project with The Chronicle of Social Change.


by John Kelly

Most state and county juvenile justice systems have reduced the number and rate of juveniles admitted to secure or residential confinement. But many counties still lack community-based options that provide the kind of intensive and effective rehabilitative services not found in simple probation.

Tarrant County, Texas, has filled that need for more than 20 years through partnership with a national provider of community corrections that uses a youth development framework to help kids recalibrate their lives..

The Tarrant County Advocate Program (TCAP) pairs trained advocates with high-risk juveniles and their families in an attempt to identify and build on the strengths of both.

“They’re not just serving that kid,” said Randy Turner, director and chief probation officer of Tarrant County Juvenile Services (TCJS). “You’ll have the younger brother, a mom that might need to take classes. They’re helping that family, as a unit, connect to the right resources.”


Tarrant County is located in North Texas, with Fort Worth its largest city.  In the early 1990s, the county was home to a gang war between the Bloods, Crips, and Latin Kings. According to a feature on Fort Worth gangs by Fort Worth Weekly, the city’s police tallied 31 gang-related killings in 1990, 23 in 1991, 11 in 1992, and a staggering 60 in 1993.

Polytechnic Heights and Stop Six, two predominantly African-American and Latino communities in Fort Worth, were at the heart of that conflict.

At the time, counties in Texas had very little in the way of community options when it came to serving adjudicated youths. Officials didn’t have much incentive to create a local program, because it cost them nothing out of the county coffers to place a juvenile offender into the state-run juvenile prisons operated by the Texas Youth Commission (TYC).

During that era, two neighborhoods in Tarrant County—Polytechnic Heights and Stop Six—had become particularly active feeders for TYC. More than a million people lived in Tarrant County in 1992, and only about 15,000 of them live in Polytechnic Heights and Stop Six. Yet, in the early 90s, 40 percent of the youth the county sent to TYC facilities came from those two neighborhoods.

Carey Cockerell, Tarrant County’s chief probation officer at the time, said he and several county probation leaders were unhappy seeing so many kids being shoved into state lock-ups.  So they reached out to a lawmaker named Rick Williamson about the lack of state support for any option other than TYC facilities and county probation. Williamson, then a conservative member of the Texas legislature’s appropriations committee,, secured $16 million to help counties establish programs that allowed kids to remain local, Tarrant County among them.

Now that he had the budget, Cockerell needed to find an organization capable of working with high-risk youth in a community setting. A national juvenile justice reform consultant named Paul DeMuro recommended a Pennsylvania-based group called Youth Advocate Programs (YAP).

YAP was founded in the mid-1970s by Tom Jeffers, whose background includes being second in command on the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services staff that famously managed to close the state’s juvenile prisons in the early 1970s. It now has contracts for juvenile justice systems in 18 states.

Cockerell flew east to observe YAP’s Philadelphia program. “We liked what we saw,” he said. “This was a group of people committed to the mission of keeping kids in their homes, with strength-based intensive services.”

While in Philly, Cockerell attended a staff meeting where a YAP advocate described to the directors a horrific home situation for one of his kids: no running water, relatives with multiple convictions living in the home, a sister already in foster care. The advocate recommended pushing the county to remove the child from the home.

“The consensus of the staff was, instead, let’s get his whole family out of that house,” Cockerell said. “By the time I left the next day, they had found affordable housing for the boy, his mom and siblings.”

YAP was given a contract to launch the Tarrant County Advocate Program. In the beginning, TCAP, as it was called, worked exclusively in the Polytechnic Heights and Stop Six neighborhoods. Today, the program serves the entire county.


One of YAP’s strengths is its multi-layered system of supervision and accountability.

Gary Ivory, who left seminary school to direct a YAP program in New Jersey, was dispatched to lead TCAP. He is now the president of the YAP Southwest Region, which keeps tabs on seven different Texas YAP programs under its umbrella.

Kim Brandon is the director in charge of TCAP—the Tarrant County branch With the help of Assistant Director Maria Merino and Behavioral Health Director Gary Hart, she leads a staff of 25 part-time youth advocates, each of whom is put through a training program before being assigned two to four youths.

The Advocates are the frontline workers of all YAP programs: In Tarrant County, the vast majority of these advocates were raised in Stop Six or Polytechnic Heights, a strategy that YAP calls “zip code recruiting,” which is practical, Ivory said, because these are people who know things about their kids’ neighborhoods that an outsider would not.

“And they’re closer,” he said. “It cuts down on transportation costs and they can respond to crises sooner. When dad comes in drunk and beats up mom, they get there a lot quicker, and that stuff happens.”

The advocates work about 30 hours per week at an average of $14 per hour.


At its core, the goal of TCAP is to combine intensive mentoring, family meetings and job experience to help build a young person’s potential.

Judges can order a youth’s placement directly into YAP, and Tarrant County Juvenile Services can also choose to place a youth in YAP, if he or she is on probation and struggling. Ivory explained that TCJS only sends juveniles who, based on a risk assessment, are at “imminent risk of out-of-home placement.”

Eighty-six percent of TCAP participants are 13 or older; 62 percent are adjudicated for a misdemeanor and 25 percent for a felony.

Each youth also has a unique plan for their time in TCAP, which Brandon creates with input from the youth and his or her family. TCAP provided two individual plans as examples, on the condition that we changed the names of the clients:


Paula is a 15-year-old. She had been in a residential placement before, was not enrolled in school, and had used drugs in the past two weeks. She has an interest in cosmetology and fashion.

She, her brother and her mother were living in a hotel, with an approximate income of $400 per week and no assistance from or contact with Paula’s biological father.

TCAP’s plan paired Paula with a female advocate for a minimum of 7.5 hours per week. The advocate would help Paula and her family with the following:

Assist Paula in getting back into school, and assist Paula’s mom to find affordable housing.
Set her up in three groups: Substance abuse classes; TCAP’s pre-employment skills training; and a weekly girls’ group focused on anger, life decisions and self-image.

Attend area fashion shows with her, and find local opportunities for her to explore her interest in those fields.

• Place Paula with an employer, preferably related to cosmetology or beauty services.


Ricardo is a 17-year-old. His mother is very sick with two forms of cancer, and her goal is to survive long enough to see him graduate high school. Ricardo badly wants to work to help pay the bills, enjoys writing and owes 80 hours of community service to the probation department. He suffers from depression.

The plan was for a male advocate to spend 10 hours per week with Ricardo, working on the following plan:

• Find the whole family (which has no car) some much-needed assistance with transportation to work, school and doctors.

• Find opportunities for Ricardo to volunteer so he can complete his community service hours.

• Enroll Ricardo in driver’s education and employment skills training, and also get him into a creative writing program.

One of the advocates key jobs with each assigned youth is early contact with the Tarrant County school system to establish the youth’s status. This often prevents an early snag in a youth’s case that can lead to a technical violation of their probation.

“What we find is, so often, they have been expelled or [the youth is] not interested in going back to school,” Ivory said. “But attending school is part of their probation condition.”

If the advocate senses that the youth has no intention of going back to school, he said, “Sometimes we have to negotiate” with probation and get them working on a GED or a job program.

Most youth complete the TCAP program in four to six months.


The initial goal of bringing YAP to Tarrant County was to drive down the commitments to state facilities, without resorting to the construction of a county juvenile prison.

At the time, The Texas Youth Commission would take any kid a county probation department sent its way—regardless of how minor the charge. This meant that counties had a financial incentive to hand over its law breaking youth to the state. Since county probation departments had very little money budgeted to keep kids in community programs, it was either incarceration or probation—full bore lock-up or little practical help at all.

Then in 1992, former Gov. Ann Richards (D) issued a report on juvenile justice that urged the state legislature to “increase funds for alternative placements so that juvenile court budgets do not dictate commitments of juveniles to state custody.”

At that same time, seeing the opportunity, Tarrant’s probation chief Cockerell contacted state legislator Williamson, a bill was passed, funds were allocated, and soon TCAP was in business.

After one year of TCAP’s operation, the number of kids Tarrant County sent to Texas Youth Commission facilities had decreased by 44 percent. Moreover, the program appeared to be effective. Not all kids remained clear of further criminal charges, but many did.

And TCAP remains effective. In an evaluation of its 641 clients’ outcomes for the the past two years, 96.8 percent were not adjudicated on new felony or misdemeanor charges during the program. Eighty-four percent were not adjudicated a year later.


TCAP’s first years were not without substantial challenges.

Early in the development of the program, then-director Gary Ivory said he realized that the individual work with TCAP’s clients might be compromised by the power wielded by gangs in the Stop Six and Polytechnic Heights communities.

It was unrealistic, he said, to demand that gang-involved kids cut ties with their gangs. “We just knew that we couldn’t extricate kids from gangs [directly]. That was dangerous for the kids, and dangerous to workers,” he said. “If [the kids] saw we were doing that, we couldn’t develop trust.”

Yet, they needed the older gangsters not to interfere with the TCAP kids’ programs.

“With just individual change,” Ivory said, “without neighborhood change, kids are going to stay in that [problematic] environment.”

Ivory and his group began approaching the older gang member who had influence, many of whom were in their 20’s. They invited the gangsters to retreats at a YMCA camp outside of Houston, to discuss the violence that was plaguing the communities. Surprisingly, they showed up.

Ivory and company also began working with some of the leaders individually, helping them find jobs. They also went to court with some of the older gang shot callers. “Our belief was that if we helped the leaders, they would in turn let us help the young men and women. This gave us ‘permission’ to do the work that we needed to do.”

Eventually, Ivory went a step further.  He reached reached to some of the leaders he’d gotten to know in both the Blood and Crip factions with an offer of an unusual road trip, a “Tour of the South,” Ivory called it.

“The plan was for them to begin to see themselves and one another through different lenses. All of the young men and women were African American. We were teaching them about the civil rights movement and nonviolence. The defining moment of the trip,” Ivory said, “was when we toured the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church  in Birmingham, Alabama, that was bombed. We ended the trip at the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, GA.”

For several months after the Tour, Ivory and his TCAP staff continued to meet weeky with the sixteen gangsters who’d gone on the trip. Those who attended made a truce among themselves not to engage in gang violence any longer. “Many of these young men went on to join AmeriCorps and do well in their lives,” Ivory said.

Ivory points to the Tour as being the turning point when gang violence began to lose its grip on Southeast Fort Worth.


A major component of the national YAP model, and also the TCAP model, is jobs.

Older youth who are interested in getting a job are placed in TCAP’s Supportive Work program, which funnels money to employers who in turn give kids entry-level positions.

At present, TCAP has a lineup of 45 local employers who will put youth into jobs during their time in the program, and has placed 50 of its clients into jobs through this program between 2012 and 2014.

The roster of employers includes several barbershops and restaurants, an upholstery service, a dog grooming business, a law firm, and the parks department of Watauga, a Fort Worth suburb.

Youth are paid the Texas minimum wage, $7.25, and that money is supplied to the employer by TCAP. Some employers will augment the TCAP base pay, and TCAP makes small weekly rewards to youth who are consistently on time.

TCAP asks three things of employers that partner with the program, Ivory said: “Be a positive influence while they’re working there. If you can, add to their wage. And if they do a good job, keep them employed.”

For youth involved in gangs today, he said, providing another way to make money is key to drawing them away from the worst parts of gang life.

Ivory said that TCAP has have found that even hard core gang-involved kids, inevitably begin to pull away from involvement when they are doing better in school and have a paying job where they are valued. Suddenly gang-banging isn’t as attractive “as long as they have other things working in their lives.”

John Kelly is editor of The Chronicle of Social Change.

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