Probation Officer is ‘Like a Mom Away From Home’

Supervising Probation Officer Mindy McCartney talked with Correctional Deputy Probation Officer Greg Giudice recently at the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention. Giudice works in a nearby unit to McCartney.
April 11, 2013 | 10:15am

They open up to her about missing their neighborhood gangs.

They talk about their meth cravings and how they started in prostitution as young teens.  

Sometimes, the young women in Unit 70 of the County’s Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility just need help with everyday items, like getting access to stationery to write to family and friends.  

Most of all, they need a supportive ear. Many said they’ve found it in Supervising Probation Officer Mindy McCartney, or as they call her, “McCartney.”

The formal nickname belies the close relationship that many of the dozen young women in this wing of the juvenile hall say they have with McCartney, a 15 year veteran of the County’s Probation department. She supervises the all-female Youthful Offender Unit (YOU) at Kearny Mesa juvenile hall, the “end of the line” of sorts for young women in the juvenile justice system.  McCartney tracks and monitors the progress of the female detainees, who are generally between the ages of 16 and 20. To get here, they have either committed the most severe crimes, a high number of crimes or they’ve exhausted all other available resources. Youth in this unit typically serve longer than other detainees: at least nine months. 

Increasingly, McCartney’s job involves acting as a counselor for young women from deeply dysfunctional, abusive backgrounds. It’s what they need to get on the right track, and hopefully not return here.

“A lot of these girls have never had positive relationships, because they have always been the bad kid,” McCartney said. “A lot of their families are very chaotic.”

They’ve had little supervision and scant resources, she said.

McCartney’s methods fit with something called Integrated Behavioral Intervention Strategies (IBIS), which is an effort to counsel probationers in a way that helps them re-examine the thinking that led them to trouble, said Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins. The Probation Department trains its entire staff in this method.

“Rather than telling someone what to do or criticizing them, this helps them go through a process of examining and weighing their decisions,” Jenkins said. “We’re trying to engage more in talking about what they’ve done and what they’re thinking.”

In this job, McCartney must be part law enforcement officer, part social worker, part teacher/tutor and part counselor.

She cares. She treats us like her own.
-Shamaria,
Juvenile hall detainee

She tries to act as an advocate when needed, making herself accessible to the young women, keeping what she calls an open door policy and connecting them with the right resources. The young women stop by her office to talk one-by-one and even slip notes under her door when she is not there.

Her office is a bright spot in a world of white concrete walls and plain uniforms. Inside, her walls are decorated with colorful drawings and handwritten notes the young women have made for her.

“A lot of times they just want to talk or make a quick phone call home,” she said. “Just having the time slot with me--even if it’s really just talking about nothing--it validates them and shows them someone cares.”

Shamaria, a 17-year-old YOU detainee, said she feels like McCartney wants to hear her “side of the story” and that McCartney will do whatever she can to help.

“She’s like a mom away from home,” Shamaria said. “She cares. She treats us like her own.”

Youthful Offender Unit Offers ‘The Most Resources’

Kearny Mesa juvenile hall is one of the first stops for any young person arrested in the County. When it first opened in the 1950s, photos in the lobby show the surrounding land was mostly empty. Today, its location is about as central you can get in San Diego County, positioned in between state Route 163 and Interstate 805 freeways in Kearny Mesa. It’s also steps away from the County’s Juvenile Court, Probation’s Juvenile administrative offices and major hospitals.

Related Video: Juvenile Hall Tour

Of the County’s five facilities that house youth probationers, only East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility is larger.

McCartney is one of the highest ranking of the 176 sworn officers assigned to the Kearny Mesa facility. She rotates between shifts overseeing the facility as a watch commander and supervising the County’s only all female YOU unit, which is her primary duty. The YOU program began six years ago after the state’s juvenile realignment. The state shifted responsibility to the counties for young probationers found guilty of serious crimes. Previously, those youth would have been transferred to a state facility outside of San Diego County. If they aren’t successful in the YOU program, the next stop is the adult justice system and Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility in Santee.

To prevent that, the YOU program provides detainees with a wide variety of resources.

“We’re never going to be able to help everybody, but YOU offers the most resources,” said Jason Druxman, a Supervising Probation Officer who oversees the YOU youth as they transition back into communities.

By the time they are assigned to YOU, most have been in the juvenile justice system for a while and other efforts to rehabilitate have failed, Druxman said. Some find a sense of structure and stability here that they never had at home.

“Many were forced to grow up a lot faster than they should,” Druxman said. They found communities or social groups that will accept them. And “a lot of times unfortunately that means a gang or a bad peer group,” he said.

Mindy McCartney opens a door at juvenile hall.Many have been abused physically and verbally and many have family members who have also been locked up. Some struggle with drugs and alcohol. Some are dealing with mental health issues. Some come from the foster care system and lack a stable family unit.

Yet “all have incredible allegiance to their family no matter what they’ve been through,” McCartney said. “That’s where you have to walk a fine line.”

A lot of young women wish they had a more traditional family or someone they can count on, but they are dealing with the reality that they don’t, she said.

“So they have to kind of distance themselves if they’re going to stay clean and succeeding is going to be part of their life,” she said.

In addition to taking high school and college-level classes, young women in the all-female YOU unit go to up to four counseling sessions a week for help with substance abuse, emotional abuse and other issues. The sessions are provided by nonprofit Second Chance, which offers job readiness and life skills training, job placement services and affordable housing for youth and adults. The young women work with volunteer mentors. They take computer classes five days a week. They exercise regularly, get full medical and dental care and even do special activities such as dance classes, cooking lessons and visits from guest speakers designed to inspire and encourage them.

Finding Her Own Style

McCartney never planned on this line of work. At 23 years old, she was working as an office manager at a local hospital when a family friend suggested she look into jobs at the County’s Probation Department. She soon applied and was hired as a corrections deputy probation officer at Kearny Mesa juvenile hall.

After getting over the initial jitters, McCartney knew quickly that the job fit her well. She didn’t mind the odd hours or working in an institutional setting. She could handle the unpredictable nature of the work, and talking with young people came easily to her.

“I can usually figure out a way to get through to the kids--most kids, not all,” she said. The key is “just being genuine and being yourself. I’ve gotten better at it.”

She uses humor, throwing out silly sayings and one-liners relevant to whatever the situation.

Most of all, she said she treats them with respect. 

Jenkins said he seeks probation officers who enjoy interacting with people, are focused on wanting to help people change their behavior and have impeccable integrity. He also seeks employees who are OK with what he called delayed gratification.

“She has to be prepared for one of those girls being released, then coming back in a few years,” he said. “They don’t always see the results of their work.”

He described McCartney as “particularly talented.”

California’s adult realignment, mandated by AB 109, has affected employees such as McCartney, though somewhat indirectly. Under the law, the state began shifting responsibility for housing many inmates to counties. As a result, Jenkins said his department has grown, hiring more than 100 staff members in the last year and a half. The changes have led to more promotions and new hires at Kearny Mesa juvenile hall. McCartney has helped train many new probation officers.

Among her key pieces of advice: find your own style.

The young people “will catch on very quickly if you are trying to be something you are not or adapt someone else’s way of interacting with them,” she said.  

Wanting More

Often young detainees are quite upset when they first arrive in YOU.

McCartney gives them space. She talks honestly with them, emphasizing that they have to want to go along with the program and make real change to improve their lives.

Most don’t return here, but some do. Asked if that’s frustrating, McCartney says she just remembers that ultimately it is up to the youth to make changes.

Ciara is among those who have returned. She’s 18 years old, pregnant and in YOU for the second time. In all, she said she’s been arrested 18 times.

Raised by her aunt, Ciara said she and some friends started working as prostitutes for the money when she was 13. A few months ago, she realized that she was pregnant and addicted to drugs. Knowing she needed help, she said she turned herself in. In juvenile hall, “we don’t have no temptations,” she said.

I can usually figure out a way to get through to the kids--most kids, not all.
-Mindy McCartney,
Supervising Probation Officer

Ciara said that under McCartney, she knows she can’t get away with anything. But “she would never look down on me,” Ciara said. “She has that feel to her, she doesn’t judge.”

McCartney made it clear, just like she does the other young probationers, that now that Ciara was here, she needed to make the best out of the situation.

“She let it be known, ‘I will do what I can to help but don’t do stuff to make me want to take it away',” Ciara said.

Late one recent weekday morning, McCartney sat with another young probationer, Stephanie, 18, in her office. Stephanie had enrolled in a program to help her move away from her gang life, but she was struggling with it. She nearly got in a fight with another detainee from a rival local gang.

Stephanie lost her temper and, as a result, threw out a notebook she was working through as part of the program. She told McCartney how hard it was to let go of that loyalty. She said her gang had been there for her more than her own family.

“How many (gang members) have written to you since you’ve been here?” McCartney asked.
 
Stephanie was quiet.

McCartney reminded her of the poem she had written saying she wanted to change.

“You need to acknowledge one girl sent you over the edge,” McCartney said. “I can’t make you change, no one else can.”

McCartney warned her that if she stayed on this same path, she could end up back here or worse.

“I saw you wanting more than that,” McCartney said.

The Small Successes

As challenging as her job can be sometimes, McCartney’s favorite part of it is being in a position to make a difference in the lives of young people on a daily basis. Even if a young woman returns to the unit, at least while she is here she is safe, drug free and not being taken advantage of or exploited, McCartney said. And here, she is taking high school or college level classes.

“I try to focus on the small successes,” McCartney said.