Growing up is never easy. Today’s youth face especially challenging times, with increasing violence, financial instability and civil unrest. These unsettled times are seeing thousands of kids in trouble with the law, with over 65,000 juveniles in California being referred to probation departments in the last year alone. While the reasons for their arrests varied, more than half were brought in for misdemeanor offenses. This is where Waymakers steps in.

“In partnership with the Irvine Police Department, Waymakers’ Juvenile Diversion Program offers practical, individualized and cost-effective early intervention, restorative justice activity components such as individual and family counseling, case management, victim-offender mediation, Peer Court, community service and restitution, career and education support, legal awareness, practical parenting skills, drug and alcohol awareness, anger management, service learning projects, truancy reduction, social skills, decision making, and 24-hour help lines and specialized services linkage,” explains Hether Benjamin, director of Youth Development for Waymakers.

“The program is an alternative to the juvenile justice system and gives youth the opportunity they need to get back on track and make things right.”

By providing them with a remedy other than the court system, teens are being equipped with the tools they need to better themselves and their lives.

“These diversion programs are a fantastic opportunity for kids who’ve made mistakes. It allows us to not only reduce delinquency, but educate youth on better decision making skills and provide them with services they may need like counseling and therapy,” said Sergeant Tom Goodbrand, Youth Services supervisor for Irvine Police Department. “This same opportunity is not available in probation — kids are gaining something out of it.”

Students attend a Waymakers’ Juvenile Diversion Peer Court session held at Santa Ana High School with Judge Claudia Silbar presiding. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Graduates of Waymakers’ program are turning their lives around, benefiting the community of Irvine as a whole.
Waymakers also saves Irvine taxpayers thousands of dollars annually. The nonprofit estimates that if more juvenile diversion programs were implemented state-wide, California could save close to $200 million yearly.

Local parents are grateful for the program, as evidenced by Melba-Ruth Gonzales’ experience. Irvine resident and working mother of three, she has seen two of her teens go through the program, both for first-time offenses.

“People move to Irvine for a better opportunity,” said Gonzales. “Better schools and a better community, and now for the police department to offer this program — it is a huge gift.”

Adds Benjamin, “Participating youth and parents report an overall 92 percent satisfaction rate with Waymakers’ Juvenile Diversion Services. Based on dissertation research conducted in collaboration with U.C. Irvine and an independent study at Waymakers, 85 percent of youth who successfully completed services did not re-offend within a 12-month period, suggesting these youth can benefit from diversion rather than juvenile justice intervention.”

While these services are not currently offered at all police departments in Orange County, several have found them to be helpful. In the last year, close to 400 youth were referred to Waymakers’ Juvenile Diversion Program from five O.C. departments, including our own Irvine Police Department.

“Irvine Police Department sought to be part of a positive reform to address alternatives to law enforcement ‘over-handling’ low-risk offenders,” explains Benjamin. “Waymakers has an opportunity to impact youth and families at the diversion level to keep at-risk and low-risk youth from entering the formal juvenile justice system and causing further harm.”

“Often families cannot afford to seek out professional services or there is a stigma for seeking out help for delinquency issues,” she elaborates. “Unidentified school problems, emotional disturbance and trauma can impact not just the youth but the family, community and society. Left unmanaged these issues can lead to youth being over-punished in school and over-criminalized in the juvenile justice system. Through Juvenile Diversion, youth and their families have access to a number of components aimed at promoting accountability, competency development and safety.”

Overall, the goal is to make this alternative justice available for even more cities and teens, helping to lessen the caseload of already overworked probation officers and free up limited resources.

“There is currently a gap in services as only 18 out of 34 Orange County cities fund a Juvenile Diversion program,” discloses Benjamin. “Most either refer pre-arrested youth to a fee-for-service program or petition to court as the only alternative, instead of reinvesting in our youth to provide an opportunity to ‘make things right.’”

“The identified barrier is due to budget cuts rather than [the lack of] desire of law enforcement to fund programs,” adds Benjamin.

She is hoping to change that, saying that “Waymakers actively pursues funding through juvenile justice grants and foundations when police departments cannot support the diversion services with their existing budgets.”

“Waymakers goal is to never turn a family in need away for their inability to pay for services,” Benjamin promises.

How did it all start? “In 1972, a University of California Irvine professor, a few of his students and a Costa Mesa Police Department captain were among a small, dedicated group who recognized the need to provide diversion counseling for delinquent youth and their families,” shares Benjamin. “This Juvenile Diversion program was the catalyst to the inception of nonprofit Waymakers in the same year.”

As the organization grew, so did their reach.

“Since [1972] the sheer size and scope of Waymakers’ growth has eclipsed its humble beginnings of counseling youth and families and grown to include sheltering children, counseling families, supporting victims of various crimes, resolving conflicts and educating communities,” furthers Benjamin. “Waymakers also serves as the administrator of the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force.”

“Police Departments had no other alternatives for corrective action other than to send youth to Juvenile Hall for minor infractions, such as curfew violations. Research indicates that prevention and intervention with services such as Waymakers’ Juvenile Diversion promotes the prevention of future criminal or delinquent activity in the community. Low-risk youth served at the informal level have lower rates of recidivism than low-risk youth handled in the formal system.”

By reducing the chances of reoffending and putting a stop to problem behaviors, Waymakers is providing Irvine youth with a brighter future.

Hether Benjamin hopes to see Waymakers’ programming adopted in more jurisdictions.

“Cities need to re-invest in their youth.”