TEGUCIGALPA — Rebeca, a grandmother in her early 60s, lives in Nueva España—a neighborhood with a sweeping view of the capital. Despite the panoramic view of the metropolis, this section of the city is better known for its poverty, violence and arrest records.

Rebeca weeps as she describes the two months that her 17-year old grandson Fernando spent in Jalteva, a detention center south of the city.

“Fernando had been using drugs for some time, and had turned abusive toward me and his mother until one night we were forced to call the police,” she says.

The incident ended in juvenile court where her grandson was charged with assault and sentenced to jail. “We did not imagine this would be the outcome,” she recounts through tears.

“These young people are facing an enormous social stigma. Their opportunities for rehabilitation are hampered…We are changing this.” Esdras Medina, Counselor at Casa Alianza

Rebeca didn’t want her grandson to be sent away and punished—she wanted him to get the help he needed to change.

This help would come to Fernando two months later, when he was released from the detention center on good behavior and allowed to return home through a measure known as “conditional release” that is overseen by the juvenile court system, which remands youth like Fernando to support services.

Among the support services to connect with Fernando was a unique violence prevention program called Proponte Más. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International, Proponte Más works closely with the Institute for the Care of Child Offenders, the Ministry of Development, the National University, the Honduran Association of Psychologists and the Honduran Judicial System to strengthen alternative justice measures, like Fernando’s court-ordered program.

In addition, to reach youth before they go down the path of committing violence, Proponte Más applies an evidence-based risk assessment called the Youth Service Eligibility Tool to identify youth most at risk of joining gangs. Over the course of a year, trained family counselors work with these families to change the family dynamics and lower the youth’s risk factors for gang joining.

Training counselors to help youth succeed after detention

As part of his court-ordered programming, Fernando was linked to Casa Alianza Honduras, an agency with an active counseling program for youth in the juvenile justice system. As a partner organization and grantee of Proponte Más, Casa Alianza receives financial and technical support from the project, including trainings for staff in secondary violence prevention assessments and family counseling intervention.

To date, 28 young people given alternative measures through the courts are receiving prevention services from Casa Alianza as part of the referral process established by Proponte Más. This process integrates joint work between the public sector and civil society organizations.

Claudia Sierra, Juvenile Justice Specialist for Proponte Más (left), discusses alternative measures for youth in the juvenile justice system with Doris Pagoada of the Secretariat of Development and Social Inclusion.

At Casa Alianza, each counselor works with “involuntary” youth—or youth like Fernando referred through the court system—ages 12 to 18 who have been convicted of crimes ranging from drug trafficking to physical assault.

With the tools and approaches they learn through the Proponte Más trainings, the counselors can better serve the young people they work with and help bolster their chances of successful reintegration. It is tough work, but work in which Casa Alianza counselors take great pride.

“These young people are facing an enormous social stigma,” says Esdras Medina, one of the counselors who received trainings through Proponte Más. “Their opportunities for rehabilitation are hampered because the people surrounding them believe them to be dangerous because they have been sentenced with special measures. We are changing this.”

Making rehabilitation and reintegration a priority

Together, Proponte Más and Casa Alianza are working to improve the ability of state-run institutions to work with youth who have been in the juvenile justice system and their families. Rather than perpetuate a punitive response that criminalizes youth offenders, Proponte Más aims to reorient that state’s approach toward rehabilitation and reintegration.

“I think Honduras looks at the possibilities through Proponte Más interventions—through both our interventions with grants on a community level but also in helping to think about new programs that receive kids who have alternative sentencing and help them to reintegrate,” says Robyn Braverman, Chief of Party for the project. “Do I believe that reintegration is possible? Absolutely. I think everybody deserves a second chance, but especially kids.”

Youth assemble for a meal at Casa Alianza de Honduras, which offers an array of services for youth in need, in addition to its work on youth reintegration. Photo by Gustavo Ochoa.

The project is working to facilitate this reintegration in several ways. For example, 46 percent of the 28 youth referred to Casa Alianza through Proponte Más were not enrolled in school when they began working with the center. Casa Alianza and Proponte Más have worked to change that: to date, 82 percent of these young people are now enrolled in the formal education system.

In addition to working with these 28 youth, the project is currently assessing youth in seven Honduran juvenile detention facilities using the Youth Service Eligibility Tool to empirically measure their levels of risk for violence and then determine appropriate courses of intervention or treatment to reduce that risk. Simply because a youth is in the system does not mean h/she is at the highest level of risk, explains Braverman. The data will help to inform national policy on juvenile justice.

The state’s support for this type of alternative sentencing based on counseling and support services for youth and families is a welcome development for the country, according to Claudia Sierra, Juvenile Justice Specialist for Proponte Más.

“These alternative programs are important in Honduras because they act as operative arms of the state, making the rehabilitation and reinsertion processes more effective. We know, based on studies, that locking youth up is detrimental to their rehabilitation,” she says.

Fernando’s next steps

For Fernando, the partnership between Proponte Más and Casa Alianza has helped him chart a better trajectory for his and his family’s future.

“Like Proponte Más, Casa Alianza strives to work not only with the youth, but with their families to develop a life plan with clear goals and objectives and a guide to follow them,” explains Rafael Medina, Fernando’s counselor at Casa Alianza.

When Fernando expressed his interest in computers and mechanics, Casa Alianza helped him enroll in a computer course, for example. He and his family also regularly attend activities at the center, learning skills ranging from English to parenting. He also recently participated in Proponte Más-sponsored seminar called “New Masculinities,” which helps young people identify and reduce certain unhealthy and aggressive behaviors associated with “machismo.”

“We have to periodically report Fernando’s advances to the judge,” says Rafael, “I know that his progress will not go unnoticed.”

Fernando is saving money to buy a guitar and will soon celebrate his successful completion of a technology course he started in December.

His grandmother Rebeca says that spite of the difficulties that they have faced, she is grateful for the positive changes in her grandson and hopes these types of rehabilitation opportunities will be accessible to more young people who, like Fernando, make a mistake or go down the wrong path.

“We criticize the errors and the defects of the young people, but there is no one to lend a hand, lift them up and tell them what they can do,” she says.

Turning to her grandson she tells him, “I feel happy because I have seen that you have changed a lot and thank God and the place where you were, you had the opportunity to meet good-hearted people who treated you well.”

With editing by Dan Alder