King County applies lessons from Arizona to help families facing teen domestic violence

Stephanie Trollen and Jimmy Hung

Stephanie Trollen, legal services supervisor for King County’s Youth Detention Center; and Jimmy Hung, senior deputy prosecutor and chair of the King County juvenile unit.

Crossposted from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office Facebook

“I hated the feeling that we were failing families,” Stephanie Trollen said.

Stephanie, who spent 18 years as a victim advocate at the King County Prosecutor’s office, described an all-too-common scene. “We would see these parents and teenagers come in stressed and upset and desperate for help, and I felt like we had nothing to offer them.”

Kids and parents commonly ended up at the detention ce…nter because of domestic violence. These weren’t scenarios where a husband was abusing his wife. In juvenile cases—where one-third of new bookings are domestic violence situations—it’s kids inflicting violence on their parents, siblings, or other family members.

There are cases where a parent hits a teenager and the teen strikes back. Under-aged drinking or drug use can precipitate a violent episode. Or sometimes it’s a mental health issue that causes a child or teenager to destroy property, or threaten his parents with violence.

A parent might place a 911 call in desperation, but then they were faced with a Faustian bargain of sorts: In order to access family counseling services, mental or substance abuse experts, or any array of social services that could help them, parents had to bring criminal charges against their own child.

“We had parents pleading with us to dismiss the case against their child,” said Stephanie, who is now a legal services supervisor at the county’s Youth Detention Center. No one wanted a child to have a criminal record which would interfere with job prospects, a military career, or future educational endeavors. “Nobody wanted to ‘buy’ the help and services we could get them at the cost of a conviction against their child. The price was too high.”

In too many instances, the system seemed to take a bad situation and made it worse, said senior deputy prosecutor and chair of the juvenile unit, Jimmy Hung.

“Parents call the police for help because they are frightened and don’t know where else to turn,” Jimmy said. “Instead of helping, the traditional court system brought the family to war. Court hearings pitted the parents against their children and predictably aggravated an already bad situation.”

In 2013, Jimmy attended a national conference where he heard about a different model for handling juvenile cases. In Pima, Ariz., the county was experimenting with a Domestic Violence Alternative Center where youth could choose to stay instead of immediately returning to a highly charged home situation. Kids at the unsecured center didn’t get booked and locked up with criminal charges. In 1,000 cases, only two youth chose to leave. Within three years of starting the respite center, Pima County’s juvenile domestic violence bookings dropped from 1,000 to 82 in 2012.

Jimmy and Stephanie became advocates for trying a similar approach in King County. The Family Intervention and Restorative Services program launched in January 2016. Under the FIRS model, parents can now access an array of social services without formally pressing charges against a child or teen.

In the first two months alone, 85 families were referred to be connected with social workers and counselors. They were able to access services through an unprecedented collaboration between the King County Prosecutor’s office, Superior Court, Probation, the Department of Public Defense, and Step Up, a national leader on family violence intervention.

“This is a more therapeutic approach for families,” Stephanie said. In 2014, 18 kids were ordered into evidence-based treatment programs. In just the first six weeks of 2016, nine kids have already been placed into treatment programs.

This new program was recently highlighted in the Capitol Hill Times, in an article titled  “County seeing success with new youth deferment program.”