The new director of the Prenger Family Center is very familiar with the needs of local youth.
Tobie Meyer started her position at the beginning of the month, but started working at the center in 1998 in the abuse and neglect unit. She has been chief deputy at the center since 2018.
In December, Michael Couty, who has been director since 2007, announced he would be retiring. During the first part of this year, Couty worked with Presiding Judge Jon Beetem to find his replacement.
Couty's last day on the job will be July 9.
"It's been amazing to work together with Michael on this transition," Meyer said. "I will lose a lot when he walks out the door. He's always been extremely supportive of ideas I've come to him with."
Couty said having programs and services to be able to care for juveniles in the county, without having to take them to another location, is one of the biggest accomplishments they've had in his time at Prenger.
"If we can assure the kid's safety, we try to let them stay in their home," Couty said. "We have been very proactive and innovative in how we can service our families. We want to maintain families being together as much as possible."
The Prenger Center is a licensed residential care center that provides temporary and longer-term shelter for young people, many of whom have suffered physical injury, sexual abuse or emotional harm.
In addition, the center serves as the juvenile detention facility for Cole County. The young people served in the detention unit are primarily juveniles who commit acts that if committed by adults, would be crimes. As part of the restorative justice process, many of the residents are assigned community service.
Couty said the Cole County Juvenile System is currently supervising, in various forms, approximately 230 youth every day.
"One of the biggest challenges that Tobie and the team will be facing is the raising of the age of the youth we deal with — which will go up to 18 and affects all juvenile facilities in the state later this year," Couty said. "We have been dealing with youth up to 17."
Missouri will have to abide by federal legislation passed in 2018 requiring that youth held in adult jails — including those charged as adults — be removed to juvenile detention centers by Dec. 21.
"We're looking at the safety and security of our facility (located off Stadium Boulevard) and whether it's equipped to handle youth at those elevated new levels," Meyer said. "We've reached out to other facilities in the area to see if they could assist us."
During budget discussions in the past couple of years, Couty told the Cole County Commission the county could be faced with spending an extra $26,000-$30,000 a year at other facilities to meet new requirements for detention space.
"We are a facility that's good for short-term stays, not long-term stays," Couty said. "We are a six-bed facility and very confined, so anything that would be long-term would not be a very healthy situation for kids or staff."
In recent years, the number of local violent crimes involving youth, some as young as 15, have increased, and Couty and Meyer said it's been tough to watch.
"The goal of the juvenile justice system is community safety first, and then behavior modification of the youth," Meyer said. "We try to adjust the environment that is manifesting their behaviors."
Couty added: "At the same time, we've got to work with the youth's family. We want to work with the total family because we could get a kid together and if they go back into the same environment, you're going to get the same outcome."
Couty said it's the "million dollar question" as to what makes these youth act out as violently as they do, but they have found it all starts with the home life of the youth.
"It's very difficult when a family has lost a job and at the same time is losing housing so you might not know where you'll be living from day-to-day," Couty said.
Meyer said they are working to collaborate with other service agencies to develop a resource team for children and their families to help them get the things they need to lead a productive life.
"To help some of our kids, it's a matter of refocusing them in a more positive direction while with others they need to see that there is hope for change in their lives," Couty said. "They live in an environment where they see no way out. We want to show them there is a better life than what they've been living."
One thing Couty has noticed during his time at Prenger is more families moving into Jefferson City who don't have any connection to this area.
"They weren't born and raised here, and their experiences with the criminal and/or juvenile justice systems is much different here than from where they came from," Couty said. "We think it's important that kids get an education, and they may come from an area where truancy may be the norm. That's not the norm here. We expect our kids to be educated and that the kids are protected at the same time."
Couty said he has a deep appreciation for the issues law enforcement has to go through as he has two sons who work in that field.
"I think the Jefferson City Police Department takes every effort to make sure that when they interact with the community that they interact with respect and dignity," Couty said. "Where some of these kids came from, that might not always have been the case."
In the end, Couty and Meyer said they believe the future of local youth is positive, and they will make a difference "if they are given an opportunity."
"We have an amazing staff here, and we will continue to serve this county and its children," Meyer said.
"I know this is the first time I've left a position knowing the person I'm leaving behind is well equipped to take the office and staff to a higher level than I've been able to," Couty said. "Our main purpose always will be to protect these kids and their families."