Program helps young people mend family relationships, stay out of detention

A young person can act violently in the home for all kinds of reasons. FIRS – Family Intervention and Restorative Services – is an innovative King County program that works to address the underlying issues that led the youth to in-home violence and keep them out of juvenile detention.

“Domestic violence can be pretty complex and it’s not just as simple as a kid acting badly and being violent in the home – sometimes it is – but more often there is a bunch of other factors at play,” said Jeremy Crowe, Supervisor of Restorative Programs for Superior Court. “There are lots of efforts to do things with kids that don’t involve detention and this [FIRS] is one of them.”

Launched in January 2016, FIRS is a different approach to domestic violence perpetrated or threatened by young people. Before FIRS the County looked at the daily youth detention population and saw that approximately one third of all bookings on new offenses into the juvenile detention center were for domestic violence-related incidents.

Now when a young person is arrested for a domestic violence-related incident and brought to the juvenile detention center in Seattle, a member of the FIRS team reviews the case, looking at the screening report, the police report, and any prior notes or case history. They also reach out to the parent or guardian and the youth to get their perspectives on what happened, before determining if they qualify for FIRS. If the youth is both eligible and agrees to participate, they are not charged with a crime but instead enter the FIRS program.

What makes FIRS different is that it works with the family to resolve some of the issues that led to the police being called in the first place. Prior to FIRS many young people would be released without any mitigation planning being put in place. They’d just go home. Now FIRS staff work with the youth and family to develop an out-of-court agreement that can connect the family to services such as counselling and mediation, and that identifies one or two actions that all parties think will be helpful in repairing relationships and avoiding future incidents.

“Those could be restorative tasks to do at home, ways to make amends with family members, they could be formal in-home family counselling services, they could be mental health services or evaluations in the community, we can put a lot of things in those agreements, but the youth and parent sign them and our field probation counselors are charged with monitoring these agreements,” Crowe said. “Hopefully they finish what’s in the agreement and we close the case and there’s no criminal history, there’s no formal court and there’s no detention.”

Youth accepted into FIRS are quickly transferred to the FIRS Center, a seven-bed facility at the Youth Services Center so they never have to be booked or spend any time in detention. It also provides a safe place where youth can stay for a few days when families need a break from one another.

Of the 290 youth arrested for a family violence incident in 2017, 229 or 79% avoided secure detention due to the FIRS Respite Center.

“The goal is always for them to go home and for the break to have been therapeutic and hopefully to bring them together to work on these agreements and safety plans so things can be a little better when they go home,” Crowe said.  “We don’t want kids in detention who don’t absolutely need to be in detention.”

Crowe joined King County from a non-profit in 2004, moved to Juvenile Probation in 2007 and was recently promoted to his current role.

“I’m pretty passionate about restorative justice, being able to jump on things quickly but without the heavy hand of the Court and Detention, and kids getting a criminal history and the adversarial process that can be going through formal court. There’s a lot of great work that can be done without that,” he said. “We work hard to make the experience register as much as we can with the kid that this is a serious thing, that you’re being given a really cool and appropriate opportunity to stay out of detention, to stay out of court, but you’re going to have to work with us on how things are at home, and hopefully buy into what we all can agree on will be helpful moving forward.”

When the new Children and Family Justice Center opens in 2019 Crowe is looking forward to having more room and a more therapeutic space for young people in FIRS.

“One of the challenges with the way it’s currently set up in the building is it’s really small, and there isn’t as much programming to get the kids outside to do things,” he said. “The new facility is going to have a lot of space that we’re going to able to be creative on how to best use it.”

And while FIRS staff and partners have done their best with the location, it’s still not the most welcoming or therapeutic space for young people.

“It’s an old wing of detention and it’s literally right across the hall from the detention area,” Crowe said. “It’s a much more positive looking place with colors and artwork and information on the walls, but you don’t have to look too closely to see that it used to be detention.”

As a new program FIRS has had some initial challenges along the way but Crowe is adamant that it is making a difference for the vast majority of youth and families who take part in it.

“We’re going to have some kids and families where this FIRS process doesn’t work, but we’re also going to have some kids and families where probation and formal court doesn’t work,” he said. “We get to put them onto this other track, work pretty intensively with them, but make it more about healing the relationship, providing support and definitely providing accountability. They’re still in a place they were brought to by police, and there’s certainly a consequence inherent to it, but we’re not putting them in with more serious offenders and they’re not experiencing detention, which we’re trying to keep them from.”