`At risk' youths get attention from specialist working with families

One of Polk County's newest specialists helps decrease school truancy and encourage positive activities for children.

POLK COUNTY -- One of Polk County's newest specialists helps decrease school truancy and encourage positive activities for children deemed "at risk." But don't call her a truant officer.

Stacy Olson has worked as the Polk County Juvenile Intervention Specialist since March 1. She focuses on 10- to 14-year-olds who have school attendance problems, working with the students and their families and schools.

Olson might receive referrals from schools, police, parents, sanction court or other agencies. Since Oregon has no truancy law, Olson said, children and parents must agree to participate with her.

A child must demonstrate risk in two of five areas to receive assistance. These include problems in school, with social and family interactions or with substance abuse.

Olson then works with the child to develop a success plan, an outline of individual goals and referrals to community groups.

Olson gives the example of a 15-year-old girl she worked with. "She just didn't want to go to school," Olson said. "She would leave with her friends and go to Salem all day."

Olson started a tracking sheet with the girl to monitor her daily school work and attendance. She also looked into summer school and high school credit recovery programs to get the student caught up for her next year.

The student also signed a contract with her mother agreeing to not have any time go unaccounted without permission.

The success of this case, as most, depends largely on the family, Olson said. Here, the mother cooperated. But that is not always the case.

Sometimes the parents need help. Olson recommends parenting classes and teaches families to get involved in their children's lives.

Olson uses incentives to encourage children. "I ask them `what will keep you in school for the rest of the year' and then I try to help them get that," Olson said. This could mean a swim pass or something harder to obtain, like a bicycle.

Often incentives involve the parents as well. For example, parents might buy that bike if a student logs perfect attendance. And Olson holds parents to their promises.

Sometimes children wish for things beyond their parents' and Olson's budget. In these cases, Olson looks to community action agencies to meet the children's needs.

Another aspect of the job is referring youths to other services. Olson might recommend the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program, anger management classes, mental health assessments, and individual or family counseling where appropriate.

Formerly a probation assistant with the county juvenile department, Olson enjoys the challenges of her new position. "It's a brand new job and it's exciting," Olson said. "We're doing trial and error."


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