Special Youth Services bringing incarcerated youth hope for future bringing incarcerated youth hope for future

May 27, 2015

HOUSTON — The imposing concrete façade of Harris’ County Juvenile Justice Center downtown conceals the local dimension one of the ugliest failures of American society — the incarceration of thousands of children each year for criminal offenses. 

Most youth detained at the facility at 1200 Congress St. are poor, from broken families and violent communities. Some are addicts and many are victims of abuse and neglect, with learning disabilities and other emotional and psychological problems. 

The problem is overwhelming — some 2,888 youth were detained downtown in 2014, according to the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department. And, on any given day, upwards of 500 are housed in facilities throughout Harris and Fort Bend Counties. 

In spite of or, perhaps, because of, those staggering numbers, a small staff and some 60 volunteers with the Archdiocese’s Office of Special Youth Services (SYS) are determined to accompany and advocate for as many as possible as they navigate the legal system and their time in detention. They offer Bible studies, catechesis and pastoral care in a number of facilities, as well as workshops for families.

SYS Pastoral Minister Deacon Dan Gilbert, who has worked with youth for more than 30 years, said that getting to know the kids, their life stories and the turmoil and trauma they’ve experienced, makes showing them the light of Christ very personal.

“We try to show them that there is a way out,” Deacon Gilbert said. “We want to be able to bring them hope.”

Deacon Gilbert spends most of his week canvassing the cold, cramped fluorescent-lit unit floors of the downtown facility. He visits the hundreds of boys, ages 10 through 17, who populate the juvenile detention center (JDC). They shout his name and plead for his prayers as he walks through passing out prayer cards or making one-on-one visits with youth in small counseling rooms. 

Children can be detained for months at a time before being released home or to a residential facility where they serve terms of four to six months, if they are not sent to state detention facilities for very serious felonies or, worse, certified as adults and tried in the adult criminal system.

Franchelle Lee, director of SYS, said she is boggled by the discrepancies youth face in the legal system. Despite their alleged crimes, still they are just children. 

“When a 17 year-old child is arrested for a crime, he is considered an adult in the legal system even though he can’t buy a car, sign a contract, buy a house, rent an apartment, join the military or even vote,” she said. 

Despite the challenges and injustices, Deacon Gilbert said he rejects temptations to doubt the efficacy of the work, even when faced with so many despairing circumstances. He said he knows there is power in prayer and that God is present and active in lives of all his children. Over the years, he’s seen plenty of fruit, though often years later, in kids who overcome immense odds and make it as adults. 

Sometimes they remember those who visited them in jail.

“That is the motivation that lets us know that even though we can’t help them all, we don’t know which ones we can help, so we reach out to all of them,” he said. 

Even though most youth desire change and transformation, the scarcity of community support services once they get out puts them at risk of succumbing to powerful environmental forces that suck them back into their old ways — which are often the only ways they know to survive. Recidivism among youth is high. Almost double the number of youths admitted to JDC last year were repeat visitors, according to statistics from the county’s probation department. 

Lee said she wants people to know about their ministry and that there are so many children who need help.

“When you ignore God’s little ones, the poor, you deny that beautiful vision that is possible, the vision of the Kingdom that Jesus promised us,” Lee said. 

To learn more about SYS or to volunteer, visit their website at www.archgh.org/Special-Youth-Services. Volunteer for Special Youth Services Special Youth Services models the embrace of Christ through pastoral care, advocacy, and faith sharing in local juvenile justice centers, facilities and programs including the promotion and coordination of restorative services to at-risk youth and their families. To learn more, visit www.archgh.org/Special-Youth-Services.