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Allen County Juvenile Detention Center using virtual reality to curb recidivism rates

Rebecca Green

The Allen County Juvenile Detention Center has partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Northeast Indiana, the Jim Kelly Career Pathways Center and a virtual reality company called Transfr. Officials said this partnership is meant to reduce recidivism rates among justice-involved youth.

Greg Peters, the director of detention and operations at the Allen County Juvenile detention Center, said the partnership was the result of Allen Superior Court Judge Andrea Trevino’s vision.

“Judge Trevino, who’s the head judge here, stated she wanted to start looking at an incentive program that also not only is something fun for the kids to do, but education prepares them for the workforce,” Peters said.

Trevino oversees the Allen County Juvenile Detention Center. She said the idea is to get kids out of the juvenile system with the groundwork to pursue a career and a path away from crime and poverty.

In an email, Trevino said, “While we will probably always push kids to accumulate school credits and work toward graduating with a diploma, we cannot and do not overlook the fact that not all kids thrive in the traditional school regime. Some of our kids have interest, knowledge, and skills in technical fields or other areas not taught in a traditional classroom. So, one of our goals with the hands-on learning is to use a fun, VR-based method that feels like a video game but gives them exposure to various career paths including in-demand and well-paid jobs. This is an opportunity that has not previously been available to justice-involved youth, and we jumped at the opportunity to be one of the first to try it.”

In this partnership, Transfr supplies the juvenile center and the Boys and Girls Club’s Jim Kelly Center with virtual reality equipment. That equipment includes software that allow the kids to go through job training simulations they can choose from that include aviation maintenance, welding, electrical, plumbing, hospitality, public safety and auto repair among other programs.

Right now, the Allen County Juvenile Center has five virtual reality sets. So they serve as incentives for kids there. Peters said only the most well-behaved kids get to use the virtual reality sets.

“We only have five headsets,” Peters said. “So, what that means is the kids, weekly, are earning their way into this program. So, that means they have to be on good behavior, no write-ups, no fights, doing their chores, doing whatever their court order states they need to do. So, they’re proving weekly that when it’s time for their group to be called that they’re eligible to get into the class.”

The kids choose a career path that interests them and go through different levels of instruction and testing on those career paths, all using virtual reality technology to get hands-on experience. At the end of each lesson, the kids take a test and walk away with a gold, silver or bronze level of mastery of the subject, depending on how they do on the test.

Due to the nature of juvenile detention, we were not allowed to talk to the kids participating in the program. In order to give us that perspective, Greg Peters gave WBOI a shot.

I chose public safety as my career path to explore. The introductory level training was on the basics of handling a fire extinguisher. In that virtual reality training, I learned how to pull the pin from a fire extinguisher and how to use one to safely put out a fire. Through this experience, I learned that fire extinguishers have expiration dates and that I am not an expert in handling them as I walked away with a silver rating after taking the quiz at the end.

Juvenile center staff, like Cheryl Batnick, said they see kids make connections and realizations all the time.

“She (one of the kids in the program) thought all four tires turned at the same time,” Bartnick said. “There’s just things we take for granted, and this taught her no, it’s just the front two. That was a big a-ha moment for her.”

Officials said they have seen the kids utilize problem-solving skills, have a-ha moments like that one and encourage each other through this virtual reality learning.

That includes Transfr officials like Kate Kimmer. She described seeing a kid struggling with fractions.

“He’s starting to get frustrated, and he’s like ‘Gosh this is really tricky, and this is really hard, and I’m really frustrated,’ “ Kimmer said. “The girl next to him takes her goggles off for a second and goes ‘hey it’s power tools after this. You can do it.’”

Kimmer said this partnership can be the groundwork to expand it into other juvenile centers across Indiana.

“If we partner together, and we use technology and we use relationships and we creatively use resources in our community, how can we take youth that are most marginalized and center them in our conversation and empower them?” Kimmer said.

Boys and Girls Clubs of Northeast Indiana President and CEO Joe Jordan said Allen County’s leadership should be used as an example.

“I love Judge Trevino and her team,” Jordan said. “We have amazing leadership at our Allen County Juvenile Justice System. They are just about building kids, not incarcerating kids, not locking up kids. They’re trying their best. They’ve got a job to do. So, if a kid commits a crime. So be it, but they’re not looking at just throwing away the key.”

In an email, Trevino gave her thoughts on possibly expanding the program outside of Allen County.

“I can only speak to what we have witnessed first-hand at (the Allen County Juvenile Center), but quite frankly, I can’t think of any downside to it,” Trevino said. “One of the goals we have for each youth that comes through ACJC is that they leave their time with us in a better position than when they arrived. For each justice-involved youth we are able to steer toward a successful career path, we not only help break cycles of system involvement and poverty with that child, we are also making a difference for his or her family and the community as a whole.”

Trevino said the ultimate goal is to make a reduction in recidivism rates among justice-involved youth. Officials said they won’t be able to measure that impact for two years when new recidivism data comes out.

Tony Sandleben joined the WBOI News team in September of 2022.