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Grant supports juvenile outreach program

In an effort to reduce juvenile detentions, a new summer program will be launched, thanks to a Justice Department grant.

The $10,000 grant is being used to set up activities for several juveniles throughout the summer with Lakeland School Resource Officer Carlos Olivares. At-risk kids will spend time with Olivares, cycling, fishing, or playing games over five weeks in the summer. “Five weeks is a huge commitment,” Olivares said. “And what we do will depend on the kids as long as they are interested in it.”

“The schools can reach out to the sheriff’s department. Town police departments can, too, and we’ll start getting names in the spring,” said Randy Merrifield, Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) coordinator. Merrifield has been working with the sheriff’s department and county probation office to reduce juvenile detentions.

The hope is that time spent away from bad influences will result in fewer juveniles needing to be detained. Already, Merrifield reports lower juvenile detention rates, with only four detained at the Allen County facility so far this year. In the past, as many as 30 juveniles from the county have been housed there. That costs the county money, including transportation back and forth as well as housing them there.

For the summer program, they plan to look at who is missing from school. Sheriff Jeff Campos noted that last names that come up are familiar to the department already. “Others won’t give them (juveniles) a chance,” Campos said. The idea is to help break a cycle and see the kids making better choices and staying in school.

By giving the kids alternative activities that they are interested in over the summer, they expect to open up better dialog with the kids. “It’s about finding an in with the kids. From there, we can show them that police aren’t bad,” Campos stated.

Olivares, who has been a school resource officer for several years now, has seen first-hand how individual contact can improve the relationship between officers and juveniles. “They (kids) approach me more now. There’s a trust now,” he said. This leads him to be able to diffuse situations before they can happen.

The new trailer, bicycles, and games (powered by a generator) will allow him to take this idea around the county. If a kid in the program wants to go cycling, they can head out to the Pumpkinvine Trail for the day. Video games? Fire up the generator and go at it. “If they show an interest, we can go there,” Merrifield said.

“The main goal is to get them outside,” Olivares said. “Most of the kids know me. The parents love it, too. It gives the kids something else to do.”

All three have seen the benefits of this kind of interaction, seeing juveniles open up and participate with others in law enforcement through games or other programs.

The county is also working to get certified trainers for a Police the Teen Brain program, that will further help close the gap between teens and police.

Merrifield noted that they are still looking for local sponsors for the summer program, with space on the trailer available for sponsors’ names. “These kids will be the ones working in the future,” he noted.

And the summer program looks to help them succeed. “Better kids become better adults,” Sheriff Campos said.