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Exchange Club keeps the peace in Lafayette County

The Exchange Club Family Center is looking to decrease the number of Youth Court Crimes in Lafayette County.

 

Lafayette County Youth Court saw an increase in the number of crimes committed from 2010-11. The youth court staff and non-profit organizations like the Exchange club are looking to decrease the number of underage crimes in 2012.

Located in the Chancery building in downtown Oxford, the youth court is where adolescents are put on the stand to face the consequences of their crimes. Coming from all backgrounds and households, these adolescents are often victims of the environment around them, Youth Court Counselor Jennifer Bullard said.

Bullard deals with juveniles after they are charged by the police or sheriff departments. They send the charges to Bullard, who sits down with the offenders and discusses their options. Small fights and shoplifting charges are often handled with anger management sessions supervised by Bullard or the The Exchange Club Family Center.

Bullard can make a recommendation for the youths to be sent to The Exchange Club Family Center where Executive Director Fred Johnson works with youth offenders and abused children primarily between the ages of 12-17. The Exchange Club has programs in Lafayette, Marshall and Panola counties. At one time, they may have as many as 30 youths on their roll in each county.

According to the Mississippi Department of Human Services, in 2011 there were 130 youth court referrals in Lafayette County. This is a 35 percent increase from the amount of referrals in 2010. Johnson said most of the youth involved at The Exchange Club come from a youth court recommendation.

One recommendation often made is the Adolescent Opportunity Program (AOP), a program The Exchange Club uses to rehabilitate juveniles.

“The kids in that program are usually here for a year,” Johnson said. “(The juvenile) has to come two days a week for two hours a day where we give them day treatment.”

Another program run through The Exchange Club is Correcting our Past and Establishing Skills (COPES). The day treatments for COPES and AOP consist of role-playing and guest speakers. 

The AOP and COPES are not limited to the youths who commit the crimes. Their parents are also involved.

“When a kid is put in AOP, the parents are also in AOP,” Johnson said. “They have to adhere to whatever the rules and regulations are, as well as the child.”

If a youth is referred for smoking marijuana, the pressure is on the parents to make sure the adolescents are not smoking at home. Johnson said 75 percent of juveniles in The Exchange Club are there for fighting, but it is still mandatory that they pass a drug test before graduating.

“Our goal is once they leave our program they’re drug free,” Johnson said. “Five years down the road, we want them to remember that ‘I can be drug free if I choose to because I did it when I was at the Exchange Club Family Center.’”

According to last year’s quarterly report, The Exchange Club had 393 individuals enrolled in the COPES and AOP programs in 2011. 95 percent of these individuals went on to graduate the programs drug-free.

These individuals were not all referrals from the youth court. The Exchange Club is open to anyone who needs help, as long as the funding is there to support them.

Bullard said state funding was cut from some of the smaller AOP and COPES programs including the one in Lafayette County.

“They’re supposed to go there four days a week,” Bullard said. “Right now because they don’t have the funding, it’s two days a week.”

The Exchange Club ran on $24,000 last year, according to United Way Assistant Director Jennifer Hux. It is one of the 16 organizations that United Way in Oxford funds.

Juveniles in Lafayette County Youth Court are not always referred to The Exchange Club. In situations where there are larger damages and restitution, the youths must go before Youth Court Judge David Bell to plead their case, where they can be sent to a detention center or training school. 

Though the children are the ones committing the crimes, Bullard said she believes there needs to be control over the juvenile’s parents.

“We have a lot of people these days that are having kids and have no interest in having a child,” Bullard said. “They don’t put time into their children; they don’t care what their children are doing as long as they’re not in their hair causing them problems.”

For more information or to donate, call Fred Johnson at The Exchange Club Family Center at (662) 234-4255.