County Youth Drug Court suspended without commissioners’ knowledge

Travis County Youth Drug Court, empty on a recent Wednesday afternoon. (KXAN Photo/Robert Maxwell)
Travis County Youth Drug Court, empty on a recent Wednesday afternoon. (KXAN Photo/Robert Maxwell)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – An associate Juvenile Court judge tinkered with the operations of a long-running, publicly-funded youth drug court ultimately prompting the Governor’s Office to suspend grant funding, KXAN News has learned. And months after the revamp began, Travis County’s highest elected official says she was left in the dark until KXAN News told her.

“This is a good program that perhaps needed some tweaking. For my purposes, I would have preferred they left the engine running while they were doing the tinkering under the hood and I did not know they had turned it off,” County Commissioners’ Court Judge Sarah Eckhardt told KXAN News.

Travis County’s Youth Drug Court is an informal, specialty court designed to help young people already in trouble with the law and who have been diagnosed with a significant drug problem. Some kids already adjudicated and placed on probation can be referred to out-patient clinics and receive counseling as they work to stay clean from illegal substances. The program and its holistic approach have received national acclaim since its creation in 2001.

The Travis County Juvenile Probation Department is run in partnership with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department and oversees the county’s Drug Court program as well as CPS and juvenile mental health courts all run by associate judges.

After KXAN told Judge Eckhardt about the suspension, she received a memo and explanation from department staff. In late 2015 they noticed fewer kids were enrolled in Drug Court – 47 compared to a high of 94 in 2010. And of those 47, fewer than half completed the program. Of those who did finish it, nearly two-thirds got back into trouble within a year of discharge. That recidivism rate was up from about half of participants five years earlier, the memo shows.

That pattern prompted newly-appointed Administrative Judge Ami Larson to begin tweaking the focus of the program to improve outcomes, eventually suspending court operations in January, a move that was supposed to temporary. Judge Larson got the green light from and Presiding Juvenile District Judge Rhonda Hurley, who tells KXAN News Larson did nothing inappropriate. However, the Court neglected to receive the required prior approval for the changes from the Governor’s Office Criminal Justice Division (CJD), which manages the grant money.

In March this year, CJD suspended the annual grant worth $175,000, prompting Travis County this month to de-obligate or relinquish the remainder, an amount totaling $100,793.

“The program decided to voluntarily suspend services, despite the requirements of the grant. As a result, they are not eligible to receive funding,” Governor’s Office spokesman John Wittman told KXAN News in an email. He further clarified Probation Department managers wanted to continue receiving funding while they revamped the program. Wittman says the court can reapply for the next round of funding in February 2017 for a grant period that would begin the following September.

“That is something I’m looking into from a procedural standpoint,” said Judge Eckhardt. “I…want an answer to [why Commissioners’ Court was not informed]. Because if we are asking for grant money to fund our very good programs, [we must ensure] that we can deliver what we’re promising to our grantor.”

The subject of how the de-funding happened will be on the agenda of the Juvenile Board (of Judges) when it next meets later this fall, according to Eckhardt who sits on the body. The Chair of the Board, Judge Rhonda Hurley says, “We notified the Governor’s Office grant manager of what we were doing and continuously kept them updated on the progress. We were never told that this was not permitted or that we were not being responsive to their requests for updates.”

In FY2016, $175,557 was awarded. In FY2015 the County received more than $250,000 for the Drug Court and In-Home Family Services grant that ended Aug 31, records show.

Now Judge Hurley says her staff will attempt to find other sources of funding to ensure the program gets going again as soon as possible. She also says it was her decision last fall to have Judge Larson look at how to get better results from the Youth Drug Court as part of an ongoing system-wide overhaul to put in place what are known as evidence-based programs.

Possible Juvenile Court overhaul coming

This October, Hurley says an outside consultant will begin a year-long review to see which Juvenile Court programs in Travis County should continue and which may have outlived their usefulness to the community.

“We have secured a consultant to review our programming specifically in the secure component and for youth who are on intensive supervision probation.  The consultant is the National Council of Crime and Delinquency (NCCD). Funding for this contract was provided by general funds of the Juvenile Probation Department and interest reserves,” Judge Hurley wrote in an email.

In January, Judge Larson stopped accepting new youth into the program so the restructuring could proceed. The restructuring included visits over five months from a team from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges at no cost to Travis County taxpayers.

However, the suspension of the Court left no overall coordinating body to direct drug-dependent teens into specialty help. Judge Eckhardt says she is requesting the number of kids that impacted from January to now – a period of nine months and counting. The Court was supposed to have resumed in June but no one qualified, Judge Hurley says, leading to questions of whether the new screening was too tough or just no longer needed.

“We’re going to have to go back and look at why the children who were screened were not admitted… because the whole purpose of this is to provide a better and stronger program. And in my mind, if we have kids that were screened and not admitted, do we need drug court?” Judge Hurley told KXAN News.

Chief Medina’s memo concludes youth who had already been accepted late last year continued to be served. “During that same time (January onward), youth who would have been screened for participation in the program were also evaluated and received appropriate treatment services.”

Those include the Day Enrichment Program as well in-home secure residential treatment, outpatient programs, non-secure residential substance abuse treatment, in-home counseling and community case management, Medina wrote.

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