Tulsa Schweitzer Fellows start model family program in juvenile detention center
A teen gang member in juvenile detention broke into tears when he saw his 6-year-old brother for the first time in months.
“Seeing a 6-year-old with missing front teeth just run and jump into his older brother’s arms, it’s priceless,” said OSU-Tulsa student Ashley Harvey said. “It’s very meaningful,”
Selected as prestigious Tulsa Albert Schweitzer Fellows last spring, Harvey and fellow student Brooke Tuttle instituted a year-long program called the Family Strengthening Project at the Tulsa County Family Center for Juvenile Justice.
Both are doctoral students in OSU-Tulsa’s Human Development and Family Science program.
They are among 14 graduate students named 2017-18 Schweitzer Fellows in Tulsa and 260 nationally. The international fellowship was named for the late physician, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Albert Schweitzer.
As part of the fellowship, Harvey and Tuttle were required to implement a year-long service project addressing the root causes of health disparities in underserved communities. Their project is an intervention effort focused on strengthening the bonds of young offenders and their families.
“These are kids who have committed crimes. They have made bad choices, but they are still just kids,” said Harvey. “I think this program helps them see that people haven’t given up on them and their families haven’t given up on them.”
Most of the kids who pass through the Tulsa County detention center are awaiting placement in state facilities. Ranging from age 12-18, the offenders are charged with property crimes, burglary, larceny and violent crimes.
Program leads the way in state for family approach
Throughout the nation, many juvenile detention facilities are missing a critical part of the support net that helps teens get back on track – family relationships.
“We’re making progress across the country in how we treat juveniles. We’re less punitive now and more treatment-focused,” Tuttle said. “As far as we know, this is the first time that a family resilience program like this has been implemented in any juvenile detention center in the state of Oklahoma.”
Every six weeks, the doctoral students welcome a new group of four or five juveniles and their families to the weekly support group program to learn life skills, such as communication and problem-solving strategies. Aimed at breaking the cycle of intergenerational crime, the project enables families to share time with one another to rebuild relationships.
Often, the juveniles haven’t seen their families in months as they await court dates, adjudication or placement. Each week’s group begins with families sitting down to a dinner together, something many haven’t done in years.
“What we know from family science is that family matters,” said Tuttle. “In fact, it’s among the largest protective factors for kids who are at risk for delinquency. If one person in the family unit makes positive changes in their life, the whole family system can change for the good.”
Reuniting families helps teens make better choices
Since the Family Strengthening Project’s inception, Harvey and Tuttle have seen teens gain confidence and improve behavior as they learn life skills and reconnect with family.
“There is a big need for this in juvenile facilities,” said Robert Mouser, an OSU-Tulsa doctoral student who is the detention center’s clinical director. “We’ve seen what the community may identify as hardcore kids – at least on paper – get emotional when they see their family. And the commitment from many of their parents has been amazing.”
He said the program is the first time most of the kids in detention have worked on issues with their families.
“For a lot of kids, this opportunity is a wake-up call,” he said.
One young man who rarely spoke or made eye contact when he began the program gained the confidence to become an ambassador and mentor after he completed it.
Harvey said the teen now shares his story with families on the first meeting of the six-week program. He also surprised Harvey and Tuttle by comforting another teen who was crying because his mother didn’t show up for the weekly session.
“It’s just amazing to see where he is now compared with where he started,” Harvey said. “He has a bright future.”
Harvey and Tuttle will work with Mouser to find funding to keep the program going. And they want to continue their involvement.
“These are kids who haven’t made the best decisions, but they still have a lot of time to get it right. They just need the tools, the space and the support to make that happen,” said Tuttle. “It has been so exciting to see the direction that not only Tulsa is going, but hopefully the direction the state will go.”
To learn more about the Tulsa Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, visit the website at http://www.schweitzerfellowship.org/chapters/tulsa/.