Before the Family Intervention and Restorative Services (FIRS) program launched this year, the King County Prosecuting Attorney Office’s options for helping families coping with domestic violence were too limited.
About a third of juvenile detention bookings in recent years have involved youth committing violence against a family member. In addition to having a detention stay, they had to be charged with a crime before the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (PAO) could connect families to resources they needed sooner than later.
“I hated the feeling that we were failing families,” said Stephanie Trollen, who has worked closely with victims of domestic violence for the PAO. “We would see these parents and teenagers come in stressed and upset and desperate for help, and I felt like we had nothing to offer them.”
Many parents would ultimately decline a connection to counseling, mental health and substance-abuse resources because they didn’t want their children to stay in detention or have a criminal record. No one wanted a child to have a criminal record that would interfere with future job prospects, a military career, or education.
“We had parents pleading with us to dismiss the case against their child,” said Stephanie, now a legal services supervisor in the PAO’s Juvenile Unit. “Nobody wanted to ‘buy’ the help and services we could get them at the cost of a conviction against their child. The price was too high.”
The anxiety of violence repeating itself at home continued for many of these families. In some cases, a parent hits a teenager and the teen strikes back. Sometimes it’s underage drinking or drug use that precipitates an assault. Unresolved mental health issues can also cause a child to destroy property or threaten his parents with violence.
In too many instances, the system seemed to take a bad situation and made it worse, said senior deputy prosecutor and chair of the juvenile unit, Jimmy Hung.
“Parents call the police for help because they are frightened and don’t know where else to turn,” Jimmy said. “Instead of helping, the traditional court system brought the family to war. Court hearings pitted the parents against their children and predictably aggravated an already bad situation.”
Then, in 2013, Jimmy attended a national conference where he heard about a different model for handling juvenile cases.
In Pima, Ariz., the county was experimenting with a Domestic Violence Alternative Center where youth could choose to stay instead of immediately returning to a highly charged home situation. Kids at the unsecured center didn’t get booked and locked up with criminal charges. In 1,000 cases, only two youth chose to leave. Within three years of starting the respite center, Pima County’s juvenile domestic violence bookings dropped from 1,000 to 82 in 2012.
Jimmy and Stephanie became advocates for trying a similar approach in King County, which finally launched in January as the Family Intervention and Restorative Services program (FIRS). Under the FIRS model, parents can now access an array of social services without formally pressing charges against a child or teen.
In addition to the need to get family services quickly, King County is also committed to reducing the number of youth in detention. A second phase of the program, which will launch this summer, will provide a respite center for the youth so that they never need to be booked or spend any time in detention. It will also provide a safe place youth can stay for a few days when families often need some time apart.
In the first quarter of the year, 125 families have been referred to social workers and counselors. They were able to access services through an unprecedented collaboration between the King County Prosecutor Attorney’s Office, King County Superior Court, the Department of Public Defense, and the Step-Up Program, a national leader on family violence intervention.
“FIRS represents a dramatic shift in the way we do business in King County,” Trollen said. “Kids don’t have to buy first-rate intervention services with a costly criminal conviction; we offer it up-front without a criminal record. Simply stated, we are putting families first.”
For more information about this program, contact Dan Donohoe, Public Information Officer for Prosecuting Attorney’s Office at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office on Facebook and Twitter.