Changing Lives Through Literature in Bristol County, Part 2

This is part 2 of my interview with Estella Rebeiro, senior juvenile probation officer at the Reclaiming Futures site in Bristol County, MA, about a local implementation of the Changing Lives Through Literature program. (See part 1 of her interview.)
Why do you think the program works?
The use of literature aids in the development of self-esteem, mindfulness and emotional well-being.  The topics of discussion promote core values, compassion, hope, respect, integrity and responsibility for self and community.

In addition, the use of literature aids in crime prevention in that it increases one’s capacity for self assessment. It’s empowering for these juveniles, and they begin to develop a capacity for awareness, deep listening and observation of one another.  This is key for a generation of young people who communicate mostly by technology. 
The use of literature can be used to curb impulse control, establish empathy and teach anger management. For many of the young people that we work with, psychological illnesses and lack of social skills cause a feeling of being ostracized which leads to lashing out, and hence, court involvement.
We use literature to focus on the development of social skills and weigh the impact that negative emotions like rage and self-loathing have on our young charges. 
Finally, I would say that one of the most salient and tangible aspects of problem-solving is developing imagination, and we do this through writing.  I believe that imagination is the key to success, and we’re able to help foster imagination through Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL).  
How is the program structured?
CLTL has been implemented in different ways in different places. Even in Bristol County, it sometimes varies – we sometimes meet more often for a shorter period in the summer, for example.
But we usually meet as a group once a week for 2-1/2 hours for two ten weeks. We usually do at least 4 groups a year, and sometimes we run a couple concurrently. We’ve found it works better to keep groups small (no more than 10 kids) and to have separate groups for boys and girls. Some of the books we read raise issues like incest and domestic violence, and those subjects are easier to discuss in same-sex groups.
The adults who attend are the judge, a probation officer, an attorney, and a facilitator. Ideally, the facilitator is a professor from the university, though that isn’t required. The facilitators receive a small stipend. [Go here for the facilitator's perspective on working with youth in Bristol County's juvenile drug court. --Ed.]
The setting is really important – some place connected with higher education is best, like the university. We’re able to do ours at the university, and it’s a big deal for the youth. These are kids who have often never seen one before, and they’re not sure where they fit when they get there. But after a couple weeks of coming to the group, they walk differently, they dress differently, and they have a different demeanor. They begin to believe it’s possible that, “Maybe, just maybe, I could go to college.”
There’s a  graduation ceremony at the end. The youth get a nice diploma from the university, and their parents, the judge, and Dr. Waxler attend. The parents often are crying, because they’re in that same courthouse where they saw their son or daughter sanctioned (and shackled in some cases). Now they’re in this courtroom and hearing all these positive things about their child. It’s very emotional.
How do you choose the books you read?
I’m an avid reader – I’ll just hear about something and try it, or I’ll get online and see what they’re recommending for young readers. We’ve had a lot of success with younger kids with Monster; Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?; The House on Mango Street; The Outsiders; That Was Then, This Is Now; Go Ask Alice; The Women of Brewster Place; Speak; Walking the Dog; and The Bluest Eye. And there’s a lot of suggestions and teaching outlines on the CLTL website. It’s impressive what the kids will tackle. You can see they’re thinking – they sense right away that we care about they have to say.
Was it difficult to get the program off the ground?
One usually meets resistance when there is change.  There are a couple of theories held within the probation department.  The traditionalists believe in a more punitive approach, and others feel that a more rehabilitative approach is best.  My thought is that when working with children, the more involved and creative we can be with alternative sanctions and programs like drug court, the better able we are to create change. 
We were fortunate to see Changing Lives Through Literature work in adult court, and I’m proud of the fact that Bristol County Juvenile Court, under the direction of Judge Bettina Borders, was the first in Massachusetts to institute this great program for young people.  

Updated: February 08 2018