Valley probation officers working to keep youth out of legal system, on right path

Apr 4, 2024, 4:35 AM | Updated: 6:18 am

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a four-part special KTAR News series called “Youth on Edge,” which will examine mental health and behavioral issues among our teens and young adults. Read part one here and part two here.

PHOENIX — Keeping young people out of the vicious cycle of the legal system is the life work for Valley probation officers Thelma Fowler and Mark Wertsching.

It’s not an easy task to balance compassion and understanding with the reality that if juveniles don’t improve their behavior, they could become victims of the system.

Fowler supervises a Juvenile Community Offender Restitution and Public Service program (JCOR) with Maricopa County and says her focus is less on the crimes committed and more on how individuals are doing mentally and behaviorally.

“For us, it’s not so much what did they do, it’s what’s their behavior is like while they’re working with us,” Fowler said.

Wertsching is a juvenile probation supervisor at Maricopa County who oversees a diversion program. He believes in a similar approach — focus on the behavior of the children and correcting it as soon as possible.

Wertsching stresses parental support in reforming children whose bouts with poor mental and behavioral health have led to crimes.

“Parents are always going to be the most valuable person in a child’s life,” Wertsching said. “They know what’s going on, they know how their child is acting, they know what friends they’re seeing.”

A direct, supportive program for youth reform

JCOR partners with online platform, where young people can connect, develop skills and share their stories. Juveniles can choose a journey that is meaningful to them, such as avoiding substance abuse, owning their past actions or pursuing health relationships.

Fowler says she’s seen major changes from those who’ve completed the JCOR program. She was recently on a phone call with someone in the program and their mother offered to chip in money to help pay their child’s restitution. Fowler says the child told their mom they planned to work until they could pay the full restitution themselves because they are responsible for committing the crime.

“It’s a beautiful thing when the whole puzzle kind of comes together for a kid,” Fowler said. “And we have that opportunity to see the kids learn and grow and make better choices.”

Wertsching believes an assigned consequence should fit the crime, such as having children write a research paper on the negative effects of alcohol or writing an apology letter.

He has received calls from parents of juveniles who have completed a diversion program and they tell him their child has completely turned around their behavior.

Wertsching said most people in diversion programs don’t come back for a year.

He says they’re not bad kids, they’ve just made a mistake, corrected it and will succeed in life.

“They made an error, they corrected it and they’ll succeed in life,” Wertsching said.

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Valley probation officers working to keep youth out of legal system, on right path