Dozens of minors in jail or on probation in Harris County are facing new hurdles after Hurricane Harvey. A local nonprofit is expanding to help youth in the criminal justice system who’ve lost everything in the storm.
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GALENA PARK — Walking through the shell of her Harvey-damaged house, Janice Stubbs choked back tears while talking about how her 13-year-old grandson was handcuffed and escorted out of her home this year.
When he was 11, he had busted the nose of another student at school, his mother said, and the police got involved. The courts took a while to resolve the case, but he was picked up in May, held overnight and placed on juvenile probation.
“That was so hard. I almost burst out crying,” Stubbs said last week as she surveyed her torn-up floors and exposed wall beams in the eastern Harris County house she has called home for 57 years.
On top of dealing with sudden homelessness, the family still has to make sure Stubbs’ grandson attends school every day, goes to a weekly workshop and regularly checks in with his probation officer. Otherwise, he could face increased supervision or be held at the juvenile detention center.
The teen is one of dozens of minors in the county’s juvenile justice system who has been labeled severely affected by Hurricane Harvey, a storm that dumped up to 50 inches of rain in parts of southeast Texas and flooded much of the region. Staff and detainees were stuck for days. Many in detention lost contact with evacuated family members. Some on probation lost their homes.
It can be harder to get to school when you’ve lost your home and belongings, and it can be difficult to control your frustration when you don’t know what happened to your family. For reasons like this, a local youth mentor group has paired up with the Harris County juvenile justice system to offer support for kids both in detention and on probation. They’re working to connect kids to their displaced families, get guardians to court hearings and hand out food and clothing to families who are starting over.
“Our ultimate concern is these kids are set up now to fail,” said Charles Rotramel, CEO of the mentor group, Houston reVision. “If they were already struggling, they were already on the edge, and now … they lose everything … you’re adding risk factors onto other risk factors. They’re likely to get locked up again and end up in prison.”
The Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, which also oversees the juvenile detention center, referred to reVision 65 children who have been deeply impacted by the storm. The department’s assistant executive director, Henry Gonzales, said reVision’s help was key in the storm’s aftermath.
“Our concern was more of the kids’ safety during all of this, and not really realizing how it was impacting the kids with them not knowing or hearing from their family,” he said. “ReVision’s willingness to step in and do stuff like that was wonderful.”
Support came in different ways for each kid, Rotramel said. The faith-based nonprofit collected enough clothing, food and other necessities to fill multiple rooms at their southwest Houston headquarters, and case managers have been dropping off care packages and department store gift cards to the children’s families who have been displaced.
One reVision case manager reconnected a detained minor with his mother who had lost everything and temporarily relocated to a county more than 150 miles away. The group was able to get her a bus ticket so she could attend his court hearing last week, and he was released to stay with his adult brother. If she hadn’t been able to make the hearing, her son would have stayed in the detention center, Rotramel said.
“If we cannot reunify these families, then there’s no path for the judge or probation department to release them because there’s no one to release them to, and so that will lead to longer-term incarceration as well as just an unknown path,” Rotramel said, adding that minors are sometimes released to Child Protective Services when guardians can’t be reached.
But Rotramel hasn’t seen that happen with his Harvey clients. Judges and probation officers have been pretty lenient amid the chaos caused by Harvey, he said. They’re more likely to go easy on a minor who missed a couple days of school or a meeting with a probation officer if the child’s family is suddenly homeless.
Gonzales of the probation department agreed that probation officers have been understanding about the extenuating circumstances. And though hearing deadlines were probably missed in the days before floodwaters receded, judges and prosecutors have been pushing to get more minors released from detention faster after the storm, said Hans Nielsen, who heads the juvenile division of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
“I know that the judges all worked to try to get as many kids out of detention afterwards because of the situation,” Nielsen said. “Once we got back to having court, [prosecutors] said, ‘Look, we just need to … prioritize the cases and not hang on to certain cases that are less serious.'”
Stubbs, her daughter, and her three grandsons — the youngest of which is on probation — left her family home the day before the storm hit and are now living in a Days Inn, about a 10-minute drive away.
They all moved in a couple weeks ago when federal aid money came through. Even though it’s hard, Stubbs’ daughter, Diane McCoy, said it’s at least better that the family is together again. Before they checked into the hotel, McCoy’s youngest sons were staying with friends.
“It’s best for me and my boys because … I’m all they got, me and their grammy,” she said, lounging on the hotel bed while her sons were at school. She was surrounded by random belongings spread throughout the room — a TV in a chair, an iron on the sink.
Her reVision case manager, Ron Williams, had come by to drop off some supplies. He handed over a bag filled with clothes for her sons, canned food, toiletries and a jug of water. He doled out a couple of gift cards so she could buy more necessities. The hope is this short-term stability will help keep McCoy’s son on the right track. The next step is to get him a mentor, Rotramel said.
McCoy said reVision has helped her a lot, but life post-Harvey is still hard. Several times she mentioned how she wanted to be able to cook for her family.
“It’s miserable. We’re staying in a room, can’t cook, can’t do none of that, clothes have to go to the wash,” she said. “We’re used to doing this at home.”
In the van after leaving the family’s hotel room, Williams pondered her cooking problem behind the wheel.
“I’m thinking about getting her a hot plate,” he said. “I’m not a shopper myself, but I’m just going to go up to WalMart. Do they sell them there?”
Read related Tribune coverage:
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- Under a new mental health task force, three state agencies will help connect public schools and universities with counselors, funding and training as students and staff work to overcome the traumatic effects of Hurricane Harvey. [Full story]
- After Hurricane Harvey hit, the federal government waived co-pays and enrollment fees for CHIP recipients. That meant less money was coming into the program than expected. [Full story]