No Longer on Hold
A framed poster from the 1986 coming-of-age film “Stand by Me” hangs in the office of the Honorable Patrick Tondreau, presiding judge of the Juvenile Court of Santa Clara County since 2008. Settling in at his desk after a long morning in court recently, Tondreau was happy to talk about the progress made under his watch.
“Our primary goal is rehabilitation, not punishment,” he said. “Seventy percent of our kids have mental health issues. Seventy percent have substance abuse issues. They have dysfunctional home issues. They have education issues. We have to address everything going on in a kid’s life in order to help make that kid a success.”
The turning point came in 2009, when Tondreau was invited to bring a team to Georgetown University for a conference on dual-status youth.
“What struck me was when they asked, ‘How many of you have a lead agency?’ and every team at the conference — except us — raised their hands. It was embarrassing.”
What Santa Clara had instead of a “lead agency” model — where one agency takes the lead, but both stay involved — was something called “on-hold.” Until a case was settled, the judge had only two choices: put a child’s dependency on hold — curtailing all services — or dismiss their probation.
Everyone knew the on-hold model was flawed. “It was harmful to the kid and the families and the community,” Tondreau said. “So we came back from Georgetown and we started that conversation.”
Initially, there was resistance. “Our probation officers and our social workers didn’t know each other, didn’t understand each other, didn’t trust each other,” he said.
Eventually, probation came on board. “We went through a culture change,” Tondreau said. “Probation saw that they’re not just law enforcement officers. They saw that their role is a lot like a social worker.”
The leadership of juvenile probation and the leadership of child welfare agreed that a system of lead agency was the best practice. Together, they collaborated on a presentation and applied to be part of the RFK and MacArthur Foundation-funded program. They were accepted and a training team came to Santa Clara in 2012.
“Two big things happened,” Tondreau recalled. “We all signed a memorandum of understanding that said, ‘This is not just the flavor of the ice cream for this month. We mean to do business together like this perpetually.’
“And, we started to build a ‘co-occurring team’ — beginning with two probation officers, two social workers and a couple of supervisors on both sides,” he said. “They went through massive training.”
Now, when the judge orders a 241.1 — for cases that straddle both systems — the co-occurring team steps in. If they decide a case should go to the dually involved youth unit, both probation and dependency stay involved. Plans to expand are already underway, Tondreau said. “We know we can handle more kids.”
If there are no hard numbers yet to measure success, Garnette isn’t fazed. “Three years from now we WILL have hard numbers,” she said, emerging from a grant-writing session to request funding for two new social workers. “Noticeably, it’s working.”
On the Right Path
Once a case is labeled “dually involved,” another team convenes — a family meeting, organized by a facilitator who is also a youth advocate.
“They bring in everybody under the sun,” Tondreau said, including parents or foster parents, social workers and probation officers. The group stays on board until a case is decided. The anecdotal evidence is encouraging, he said. “Kids are saying, I really like my team, I’m glad they’re involved in my life.”
A growing body of scientific research shows that the adolescent brain is more malleable and more complex than previously known. The findings have informed progressive legislation: In 2014, taking a cue from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the California Supreme Court acknowledged that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentences.”
The distinction has come into play in Santa Clara.
“I had a kid in court Tuesday who was on the dually involved youth team,” said Tondreau. “Seventeen years old. A foster kid. He’d committed a sex offense.”
The district attorney agreed to dismiss probation, an outcome that may have been unlikely not long ago. The decision was made to keep him in dependency.
“It was the kind of case that was serious, but he had so matured, and was so engaged in treatment — as a sex offender, he went to a specialist — that both his social worker and his probation officer had absolute confidence that he was going to be a success,” the judge said. “I think it had something to do with the team. You could tell that they really knew him.”
If they successfully complete counseling, such juveniles rarely reoffend, according to the judge. “We’ve been very successful with sex offenders. You can be, when you get hold of them when they’re still forming their attitudes and behaviors.”
Even in the best of circumstances, adolescents are vulnerable to poor judgment while their brains are developing. “You’re not weighing consequences because you don’t have the ability to do it quite yet,” said Tondreau, who confessed that he knows this through personal experience.
“Part of the reason for my love of juvenile court is that I was in juvenile delinquency court myself,” he said. “I was a good kid, but I got involved with a couple of guys and we snuck out every night and were going for joy rides. Nobody locked their cars back in 1961. We’d get in the car. We’d drive around. And we’d park it right where we’d found it. We weren’t trying to hurt anybody. Then one night, we hit a telephone pole. Everybody got hurt. Not badly. We were lucky.”
At the time he was an Eagle Scout and on the basketball team of his Jesuit high school in Portland, Oregon.
He never forgot the sadness he felt, or how deeply upset his parents were. “The shame that they had, that cured everything. The judge couldn’t have done anything to me,” he said.
“Even as a really good kid, with really good parents, I made some terrible mistakes. Adolescents screw up. It’s what happens.”
Now, as a judge of adolescents, he brings that awareness to the bench.
“I tell my kids, ‘You’re a good kid. I know you’re a good kid. You just screwed up. You’re not thinking straight. You’ve just got to get through this, to grow up, and to have this as a learning experience.” Just like he did.
Heidi Benson is a San Francisco-based writer and former reporter and editor for the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. Winner of the 2006 PEN USA award for literary journalism (for "The Life and Death of Iris Chang"), she is a recent graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco.