Empathetic approach yields results for Missouri's at-risk youths

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:49 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 4, 2014
Kaitlyn Bullard is a 25-year-old lawyer who has also passed through Missouri's juvenile justice system. She was preparing to take the Missouri bar exam this month and hopes to represent people who do not have easy access to the justice system.

*CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify that Columbia's Juvenile Justice Center is distinct from the state Division of Youth Services.

COLUMBIA — As she prepares to take the Missouri bar exam, 25-year-old Kaitlyn Bullard can't hide her past. Legally, her juvenile record is sealed, but the bar demands a full history.

"I was a pretty good kid up until 14," she said, talking about her childhood in Farmington. "Things just kind of started to quickly spiral out of control."

She was hanging out with an older crowd, living each day like it was her last, and making bad decisions, she said. She got kicked off Farmington High School's cross-country team. She hated high school, made little effort and was going nowhere, she said.

"I'm from a small town, and once you get labeled as a troublemaker, as someone who gets caught at parties, that attaches, in a way," she said. "I kind of built a reputation, or what I thought a reputation was, for myself."

Her family tried to help. They took her to a counselor, even tried to send her to a behavioral camp in Idaho. Nothing worked. She said she manipulated her way through all of those efforts.

Finally, Melanie Bullard, Kaitlyn's mother, felt she'd run out of options. In the fall of 2005, she ran into a friend at church who was a juvenile officer.

"He said, 'Hey, we can help you. It won't cost you anything,'" Melanie Bullard said. "I just remember saying, 'No, she's not that bad.'"

Not long after that exchange, Kaitlyn Bullard was at a house party with drugs and alcohol on a Saturday night when the police called her parents and told them they had to come and pick her up. After they brought her home, Bullard threatened to harm herself, forcing her parents to call the police. She doesn't want to share more details about what happened that night.

The following Monday, she was taken to a juvenile detention center, or what Melanie Bullard called "kiddie jail." It was a secure facility with cells. A glass partition separated Kaitlyn Bullard and her mother during visits. The facility was Bullard's home for the next four months until her next court date. She was 16 years old.

"I didn't know what to expect at all," Bullard said. "When my case was adjudicated, it was an indeterminate sentence to DYS (Division of Youth Services). When the court date happened I was still a little spitfire. I was mad. I felt like everyone was against me. That was part of my problem." 

After that hearing, she was moved to Sierra-Osage Treatment Center in Poplar Bluff, where she spent the next six months. There was no way to miss the differences: No fences. No cells. No jumpsuits; girls get to wear their own clothes. The message was no longer about punishment but treatment.

"I was scared," she said about the move. "I wasn't expecting everyone to be so nice. People were very kind and empathetic. Very welcoming, in a way."

Sierra-Osage is part of Missouri's Division of Youth Services, a leading organization in the nation in assisting juvenile offenders and keeping them from committing more crimes. The Division of Youth Services received an award in 2008 from Harvard University and has been the subject of national news stories in The New York Times, on National Public Radio and on ABC's "Primetime."

The Missouri Model, as the therapeutic approach to correcting juvenile delinquent behavior has been termed, is widely regarded as a success. Recidivism rates in the state are unusually low. According to the fiscal year 2013 Division of Youth Services report, only 12.6 percent of youth committed to the program had been recommitted to detention or prison three years after being discharged.

According to a 2010 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Missouri's three-year recidivism rate was only 8.5 percent. In comparison, the recidivism rates of Maryland, Arizona and Indiana were 26 percent, 23.4 percent and 20.8 percent, respectively, over the same period of time.

Many states have even adopted Missouri's system as a model, most recently with California shifting to Missouri's method in January 2013. 

Columbia's Juvenile Justice Center Superintendent Rick Gaines, who has more than 28 years of experience in juvenile corrections, said the emphasis on education and rehabilitation is the secret. Teaching youth coping skills to deal with different situations is crucial, in his view.

*The Juvenile Justice Center, separate from the Division of Youth Services but an integral part of Missouri's system for dealing with juvenile crime, serves as a sort of intermediate step in the process of arrest, trial and judge's decision on how to deal with the youth.

*A stint at the center does not last longer than 45 days for any given youth. Gaines and his staff have only weeks to assemble a social analysis on youth that come their way, ultimately ending in a recommendation for the judge on how to deal with them.

*The analysis takes into account all aspect's of the youth's life, including family situation, previous offenses and behavioral patterns. The recommendation is based on what is determined the best way to help the youth avoid at-risk situations in the future. Options include a therapeutic approach such as the Division of Youth Services' 41 locations offer and secure detention facilities similar to Bullard's "kiddie jail."

"We're not here to punish kids," Gaines said. "If we give them the skills they need to deal with high-risk situations, they can avoid making the same mistake again."

He has been superintendent of the center in Columbia since 2012, and he has several success stories. One of the youths even became an army officer after a stint under Gaines' supervision.

At the center, the youth attend class every day from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. and are taught by teachers from Columbia Public Schools. After school, there's a variety of activities, including art programs or speakers from organizations in the community, such as religious groups and the True North shelter in Columbia.

Youth come and go through the center, and some come back again. But Gaines doesn't measure the success of the program solely by its recommitment rate. Sometimes it takes longer. And some successes don't result in college graduation, or law degrees, as in Bullard's case.

"For some, it's just about graduating high school," Gaines said. "For some it's saying they have a job selling cars at Machens. Or for others, they might say, 'Hey, I had a stint in the pen and what you said really makes sense now.' So defining success in this system — it isn't easy."

Writing it out

For Bullard, the skill that helped was journaling. She wrote about everything, taking in tough situations and dealing with them on paper. She wrote letters to a cousin just to vent.

Bullard said the key to the program as a whole was even simpler than the individual skills it taught her. 

"They cater to the needs of each individual kid..." she said. "They still have a chance. It's not over."

To that end, each center houses a small number of youths and works with them as a group. The Sierra-Osage center Bullard attended housed 12 girls. The average daily population for Columbia's Juvenile Justice Center was 12.1 residents in 2013. The small groups allow the youth to open up to one another about their past and present problems, Bullard said. They develop strength and progress as a group.

Verlin Luna, the group leader for Bullard's group at Sierra-Osage, said Bullard took on a leadership position in her group, possibly because she was one of the older girls at the time. Her greatest skill, he said, was patience with the girls who were not progressing as quickly as she was.

"She was a positive person for her peers in that group, simply because she was so intelligent, yet she was so humble," he said. "She really role modeled for the younger girls about stopping and thinking before you act, how to use some basic, healthy skills to get your needs met in the right ways rather than the wrong ways."

Bullard said there was some frustration, but she stayed focused on her long-term goals. She wanted to get her GED and go to college. She'd always known she wanted to be a lawyer.

"All along I told her she'd make a great lawyer," her mother said. "She would argue with anyone about anything. She was a natural."

Meeting the goals

It wasn't always smooth sailing for Bullard. She was hesitant to trust the program. It took her about four months to really buy in to everything she was being told, her mother said.

"That's because I knew everything," Kaitlyn Bullard said. "I was a teenager ... I was so smart. How could they help me?"

The anger she felt toward her mother was another major hurdle Bullard had to overcome. It took a long time to get over what she viewed as a betrayal. 

"It was when I was at Sierra when I quit being mad at her," she said. "When we were doing family therapy, that's when I started to understand. I still have a hard time grasping how much crap I put her through."

Even with the intense reflection on her past, Bullard was able to achieve her long-term goals. She got her GED. She took the ACT. "I don't think I would have taken the ACT if I wasn't there," she said.

She got a scholarship at Mineral Area College, where she took classes for one semester. Then it was on to MU, where she graduated in 2010 with a degree in political science and a minor in Spanish. She was on pace to reach her final goal of becoming a lawyer.

A mentor who can relate

Bullard regularly goes back to Sierra-Osage and talks to the girls, and she has enlisted with Youth Services as a mentor. Her experience in the system, she said, helps the children going through it.

"This is an opportunity," she said. "You get a reality check right now, not in three years when you're an adult. It gives you a chance to stop and realize what you have in your life. Everything is so in the moment with teens. Just take a second and look at the big picture."

She hopes that being able to relate to the girls coming into Sierra-Osage allows her to reach them on a different level.  And still, if she can't, the program will eventually reach them, somehow.

"A lot of times people just need someone to believe in them," she said.

When Youth Services was given the award from Harvard, Bullard decided to speak publicly for the first time about her experience. Her mother talked her into it.

But she was nervous. "I picked my outfit based on how much I was going to sweat," she said.

She also ran her speech past one of her good friends first, a trial run before she brought her story to the crowd.

"That was when I really accepted myself, when I accepted myself as (Youth Services) through and through," she said.

Realizing herself

Bullard graduated from the University of Massachusetts law school in May 2013, and she passed the Massachusetts bar last summer. That was when she first had to disclose her juvenile history to a legal body. She's going through the process again this summer: She was planning to take Missouri's bar exam this month, the next step in achieving her ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer in her home state.

Every state's bar has different requirements. Massachusetts allowed her to explain her past as a narrative. Missouri's disclosure requirements are more arduous than Massachusetts': She will have to disclose all the charges that have ever been placed against her and explain them.

Somewhere down the road, she said, she wants to share her story with an even wider audience. Her mother approached her about the two of them writing a book together, something Bullard said she'd rather put off.

"I'd rather write my own book," she said.

Melanie Bullard has spoken at one of Sierra-Osage's graduations, telling the family's tale. She said that it was extremely rewarding, and she's had feedback from parents who attended.

She questioned herself at first when her daughter was committed into the juvenile corrections system.

"That was the hardest part for me as a parent —  am I doing the right thing?" she wondered.

But she said the positive results prove that she made the right decision. That belief was validated by other parents who attended the graduation ceremonies.

"Afterwards the parents would come up to me and say, 'Oh my god, I didn't know there were other people out there who went through what we've gone through,'" she said. "They see that they can actually rise above it, have success and turn around and life can be good again."

Kaitlyn Bullard credits Youth Services with allowing her to appreciate her family, graduate from high school and work on some big, long-term goals. The experience made her want to use her law degree on behalf of the public. She also has considered the possibility of getting involved in local politics.

Without the experience, she's pretty sure she knows where she'd be now.

"I'd be dead," she said. "I'd be dead or in prison."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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