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December 18, 2014

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Rising caseloads keep probation officers from involvement in children’s lives

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Leila Navidi

A stack of the day’s cases sits behind Clark County Juvenile Probation Officer Kevin Eppenger in his office in a strip mall Tuesday.

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  • Juvenile Justice Services Director Cheryl Townsend on juvenile probabtion officers' caseloads.
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  • Juvenile Probation Officer Kevin Eppenger on caseloads.
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  • Eppenger on the threat of burning out officers.
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  • Judge William Voy on juvenile probation officers' caseloads.
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  • Voy on probation officers as social workers.
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Juvenile probation officers are the Jekylls and Hydes of the legal community, hybrids of cop and social worker, enforcer and buddy.

But because of growing caseloads, officers in Clark County are increasingly setting aside much of their social work, causing concerns for judges, probation experts, county officials and the officers themselves.

Kevin Eppenger is one of them. A former collegiate boxing champ (56 wins, 2 losses, 46 knockouts), he started helping troubled youths at the gym. The kids took to him. “You have a talent,” someone told him.

He took a job with Clark County’s probation department, and he had time to visit kids at school and in the community. “Eight to 10 years ago you could actually be a role model to them, get a burger.”

Now, however, much of his time is spent in his small office, tucked into a strip mall between a Planned Parenthood center and a hardware store on East Flamingo. The walls are plastered with posters of Muhammad Ali, Thurgood Marshall, Frederick Douglass. On his wall is the motto: “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Eppenger slides open a wide drawer of files. That’s how many youths he used to supervise, he says.

Then he slides open a second drawer. The total of the two drawers represents how many he supervises now. “And the files are thicker,” he adds.

His 70 cases highlight a troubling situation in Clark County. As the number of young delinquents has grown, county staffing levels have not kept pace. The number of juveniles probation officers supervise has swelled from an average of 39 per officer in 2003 to 56 in 2007. Today many officers have more than 70.

That far exceeds the standard of the profession of 35. It also surpasses the number of cases juvenile probation officers handle in many other jurisdictions throughout the West.

But the numbers tell only part of the story. The real concern is that fewer troubled youths are getting the attention they need. The effect of those missed opportunities — on the adult criminal justice system, on taxpayers and on victims — is difficult to calculate.

One thing is certain, though. The daily work of the county’s juvenile probation officers has little in common with the image of the probation officer combing arcades and playgrounds in search of the kid who blew off his check-in.

Eppenger, for instance, didn’t chase down any defiant juveniles last week. He didn’t visit any youths at their homes, either. These days, he has little time for anything but court appearances and meetings at his office with youths new to probation.

“It’s difficult to build a relationship,” he says.

Jeff Jones, another officer, has almost 80 cases. He’s not sure of the exact number. “I stopped counting,” he said. “If you worry about the numbers, you become ineffective.”

He used to meet kids one-on-one. Now he has three or four meet at his office at once. That environment limits the conversation. “We don’t discuss personal stuff,” he said. He rarely sees youths outside the office, which undercuts a major part of what probation officers are supposed to do, he said.

“A good probation officer wants to sneak up on a kid every once in a while at their home, at their school, at the playground,” he said. “If he knows he’s being watched, he’s likely to do better.”

Family Court Judge William Voy, who handles juvenile cases, sees the effects of the mounting caseloads in his courtroom.

“I’ve had probation officers tell me, ‘I only have time to work with the kids that meet me halfway,’ ” he said. “Public safety is being jeopardized.”

Ideally, probation officers meet with their charges twice a week, once at the probation office and a second time at home or school, Voy said. The loss of that second visit is detrimental, he said. Officers need time to build trust with the youths and they need to see the youths’ homes, schools and community life to determine their needs, he said.

Jones said officers are supposed to visit the juveniles’ homes during their first 30 days on probation. “Usually I have to wait until the middle or end of their probation,” he said. Some juveniles never receive a home visit. “A few slip through the cracks,” he said.

In other cases, the help that a juvenile needs — for anger management, substance abuse, mental health issues — isn’t arriving quickly enough, Voy said.

“There are cases where we ordered things to happen and it never happened because the system is overloaded,” Voy said.

Caseloads are more manageable elsewhere in the West, though many large counties in California have average caseloads of 60 to 90.

In Washoe County, probation officers average about 50 cases. Officers in Arizona’s two most urban counties — Pima County, which includes Tucson, and Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix — carry 30 and 34 cases, respectively. And in Utah, Salt Lake County probation officers average about 25 cases.

Utah Juvenile Court Administrator Ray Wahl estimated that probation officers with caseloads as high as those in Clark County would be able to spend no more than two hours a month with each juvenile.

“It simply isn’t enough time to supervise a kid adequately,” he said.

Clark County’s probation officers say they usually don’t even get two hours a month.

“You’re seeing them for 10 minutes,” Jones said. “You have to develop a relationship with a kid to when you open your mouth, they listen.”

The heavy workloads stem from a 34 percent increase since 2003 in the number of youths placed on probation annually. Last week the county had 1,673 juveniles on probation.

Those cases increasingly involve complicating factors such as drug abuse and mental health issues, said Cheryl Townsend, director of the county’s Juvenile Justice Services Department.

During the past five years, the county has added only two standard juvenile probation officers, for a total of 30.

The growing burden on probation officers might be contributing to another disturbing trend — an increase in repeat offenses among juveniles on probation. Five years ago, only 16.6 percent of juveniles who finished probation committed another crime within a year. But as probation officer caseloads grew, so did the number of repeat offenders — to 20.1 percent in 2007.

“I think our community expects us to do better,” Townsend said.

She is worried about the trends but said the department isn’t in crisis — yet. “It’s important for people to know our system can’t absorb anymore,” she said.

Additional staffing for the department sits on the county’s budget fence right now. County managers have recommended that next year’s budget include three additional probation officers, two for a new mental health unit and a third to transport juveniles to court appearances and medical appointments. Voy is lobbying commissioners to support an additional 15 officers.

Commissioners, who will adopt the final budget in May, spoke during a recent workshop in favor of hiring more officers.

“We are either going to pay on the front end or we are going to pay on the back end,” Commissioner Lawrence Weekly said.

But commissioners also have warned that the county faces tight budget constraints because of falling tax revenue. Such talk worries Voy.

“There is always some crisis that pushes us to the side,” he said.

Meanwhile, Clark County’s probation officers are doing what they can.

Eppenger recently slipped a youngster $5 for pulling off A’s and B’s in school. He doesn’t plan to ask the county to reimburse him.

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