01/31/2013 01:10 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

A Kids' Jail That Isn't Just About Locking Them Up


Flagstaff, Arizona area McKinney-Vento homeless liaison, Stephanie Sivak, says that more than 500 kids in her district are homeless. And that means that they, "don't have a fixed regular night time residence." Right now though, in the Coconino County juvenile detention facility, 13 kids have a very fixed night time residence. And for some of them it's considerably better than being home.

There are two reasons that some kids are better off locked up than on the outside and one of those reasons is the detention center itself. The center uses a program geared at helping the kids develop "pro-social life skills, beliefs and motivations." Bryon Matsuda, Director of Juvenile Court Services -- with the help of his best friend -- invented the model used to help Flagstaff area kids. And it's geared to work with the kids when they're in jail as well as when they're on probation.

The "Step Up" program allows kids to graduate in stages and earn respect, responsibility and trust. The kids without appropriate social skills present a higher risk to themselves and their community and need to be watched closely. The kids who develop -- both inside and outside detention -- the necessary skill sets to be reliable productive members of their community don't need supervision and can graduate to independence and eventually a clean criminal record.

Inside the juvenile jail Matsuda's "Behavior Management and Skill Development Model" works well. Matsuda points out that for kids in trouble, "It can be different. This is an example of how life can be in a culture of openness and acceptance." That sentence would be almost impossible to believe in a building filled with cell blocks and locked doors if it weren't for the staff that works there. Even though a door closes behind a child, they often have more freedom to be kids than they do in their own homes. And once outside the facility the child faces challenges that his teachers and youth care workers can only hope he or she is prepared to handle.

Dennis Chavez, one such youth care worker explains some of what the kids feel, "The kids want to come back here. It's a stable safe place. The adults in this building function. We hear people ask about a kid, 'why is he doing this.' 'Why isn't he doing this,' would be more like it, if you knew what the child was coming from outside."

Matsuda is quick to point out that working with parents is crucial to success in the Step Up program. "We are only a bridge. We get the kids stabilized and we build a bridge to their home." The parents are given homework to do. They also receive training on how to parent when their child is released from detention. If the parents who need to learn "good modeling" -- as Matsuda calls it -- don't learn it, they can undermine everything the Step Up program has done to help their child.

This week the children in detention were offered an opportunity to tell their stories of poverty and homelessness and how it may have led to their incarceration. Gilbert and Benjamin were willing to be identified by their real names but their names have been changed anyway.

Gilbert, 16, got turned onto alcohol and drugs by his uncle. When Gilbert was 8 he started using Marijuana and by 12 he was doing cocaine. He'd pay for his fixes -- again furnished by his uncle -- by stealing and lying to his mom. A few years ago, Gilbert's uncle died at the end of a three day binge with Jack Daniels and Crystal Meth. Gilbert said that the authorities found his uncle's body and he'd frozen to dealth. Gilbert is glad to be in Coconino County detention and he likes being straight because he's haunted by his uncle's ugly and untimely death, "I think about that and I don't want it to be me."

Gilbert comes from a drug culture. Both his dad and older brother are in prison serving time for meth. But his mom has been clean and sober for seven years. Gilbert wants to do what his mom has done, "She went to rehab. She quit for us. She wanted us to have a new life. She's clean. She works."

Benjamin, 16, has run away from home a number of times. Benjamin knows what it's like to be homeless and he knows what it's like to have total strangers give him a place to stay. "I thought homeless was just living on the streets. I never knew I was homeless because I was living at a friend's house. I thought it was going to be all fun and partying but then you get worn out and the host gets tired of you and you get kicked out."

Benjamin did his first drug when he was 9. His experience with his peers hasn't always been the best, but Benjamin says his experience with the law has been predictable. So predictable that he wants to be a cop when he's a man, "I'd be a good cop. I've been through it all. I know when people are lying. I've told every lie. I know drugs. I've seen all of them."

Coconino County juvenile detention center's program may be the best hope Benjamin and his peers have to dream and to realize those dreams.