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Helping Families Initiative Impacting Cullman Families, Students, Schools
report by: Lauren Estes-Velez
An office was created in Cullman County in September of 2017 after the need to address dangerous student behavior, school attendance and the use of interventions came into play.
The 32nd Judicial Circuit (Cullman County) District Attorney Office created the Helping Families Initiative (HFI). Their interventions within the school follow a three-step process of recognizing warning signs, identifying root-causes, and empowering families by educational outcomes and reducing crime.
Cullman HFI Director Hank Little said this group helps intervene in early childhood issues. This intervention assists in preventing children from becoming a product of the Alabama Juvenile Justice System.
“We have way too many children in the juvenile justice system already; Alabama has mandatory school attendance laws and the District Attorneys have been put in charge to enforce these laws, and many DAs across Alabama have chosen to do this by use of the HFI,” Little said. “To be factual, Alabama statute 16-28-12 (the attendance law) is the only law on the Alabama law books that explicitly states that the District Attorney shall vigorously enforce this law.”
That is the only time the word “vigorously” is used on any law in Alabama.
According to Little, each week, the Cullman City and Cullman County Schools send a report to HFI office which lists students who were suspended the previous week for some significant disciplinary infraction.
“After taking the report, they notify the parents via letter that their child has been reported to HFI for misbehaviors in school and they are, for the lack of better words, “put on notice” that their child should not be suspended again,” Little said. “The HFI office reviews the reports and other referrals from the schools to determine if there is a need for some possible interventions to help curb some negative behaviors.”
The Helping Families Initiative (HFI) works with other service agencies and school systems to provide necessary, appropriate interventions that will help benefit the student and the entire families. “Again,” says Little, “our goal is to help families before they fall into the juvenile justice system and hopefully, our interventions that we put into place are successful to the point where the families we work with reach better outcomes and learn to make better life choices.”
The words of a life-without-parole inmate from Holman Prison, Michael Duren, have been shown to thousands of young people in the HFI Program:
Cullman County District Attorney C. Wilson Blaylock said the use of this program within the county has already made an impact on the community.
“A local elementary student was continually behaving at school and struggling academically. The student frequently incurred reports to the Principal for discipline. HFI was contacted and got involved,” Blaylock said. “Because of personal hygiene issues it was determined laundry equipment was needed in the home to address the core cause of the child’s behavior.”
Through the networking of HFI team members, these resources provided the student’s family assistance. It made a positive impact on the student; the behavior and academic problems have made a positive turn.
The student is performing better at home, and at school. With HFI getting involved in this situation and through the providing of a few resources family, the positive change has benefited the child, the school, and the home life as well. It is a win-win for everyone involved.
Blaylock said with this program being an early intervention effort within the school system; they’ve been able to plug into several areas and be proactive in assisting struggling students.
“School-related violence and school infractions pose a significant problem for schools, families, and communities,” Blaylock said. “HFI works with high-risk students, and their families are assessed using the North Carolina Family Assessment Scale (NCFAS) to help determine the root problems students are facing at home which may be contributing to their conduct at school.”
The program focuses on improving family functioning and child functioning as a means to reduce problem behavior in the school and the community. The early model for their program was developed and implemented in 2002 in Mobile County by then-District Attorney John Tyson. Mr. Tyson noticed a large number of suspensions and absences in school and developed their program to address their problems.”
Little said Blaylock tapped him as the Director of this department within the District Attorney office and they have had great success in their first year.
“We’re looking forward to another successful year. As HFI Director and caseworker, I visit the school campuses in Cullman City/County to routinely check on the students that we are working with to stay connected to them and their schools,” Little said. “As of right now, the Cullman HFI works with suspended students, those with truancy issues. Warning notices are the responsibility of the juvenile justice system, but HFI can work with truancy matters as well. We have received referrals for them.”
Little reiterated that the goal of HFI is not to punish students by any means but to assist and try to make matters better.
“The objective of HFI is to help families and not to punish,” Little said. “We found that many parents do not know that quality resources are out there to help them and our job at HFI is to link families with these resources to better help them turn things around.”
Some Impressive Statewide Results Of The HFI Program
• High school graduations increased from 90 percent to 97 percent
• 93 percent of Helping Families “graduates” were not suspended again during the following year
• Helping Families reduced unexcused absences by 24.5 percent.
• Out-of-school suspensions in this same system were reduced by 30 percent during the same time period.
• In Mobile County, 82 percent of Helping Families “graduates” had not been arrested the following year.
• Before Helping Families, 55 percent of all suspended Mobile County public school students had an active or disposed juvenile record.
Research was conducted with 218 youth who successfully completed Helping Families between the years 2008-2013. The youth are now between the ages of 14-22. It determined that as of August 2014, 75 percent of them had no involvement with the justice system after their cases were closed.
About Hank Little
Hank Little was born and raised in Morgan County, Alabama. He graduated from Decatur High School in 1985 and went on to receive a BS Ed degree from Athens State Universidy in 1990 with Honors. He received a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership from the University of North Alabama in 1999.
Hank enjoyed a 27-year career in secondary education with the Morgan County School System before retiring and joining the Cullman County District Attorney’s Office in 2017 as the Director of the office of Helping Families Initiative.
Hank is an active member of the Falkville Masonic Lodge #396 and a member of several various professional and charitable organizations which he enjoys spending his time and resources. In addition to being a huge Univeresity of Alabama sports fan, Hank enjoys a variety of interests which include reading, traveling, cooking and spending time with his family; especially his grandchildren. He and his wife, Holly, have 3 children and 2 grandchildren.
About C. Wilson Blaylock
The Cullman County District Attorney Wilson Blaylock began his first term of office in January of 2005. Wilson served in the District Attorney’s office as an Assistant D. A. from 2000 to 2005 and held the position of Deputy District Attorney before being elected as District Attorney. He is a graduate of the University of Alabama and the Birmingham School of Law. Wilson is a member of the Alabama State Bar and the Cullman Bar Association. He is an avid football fan for the University of Alabama. He enjoys horseback riding, cooking and spending time with his family. He and his wife, the former Missy Wilson, have 5 children. Wilson is a member of the First United Methodist Church.
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Lauren Estes-Velez is a graduate of Falkville High School and the University of North Alabama where she obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Communications and Broadcast Journalism.
You will enjoy her sharp insights and illuminating news reporting here at Cullman Today.
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Helping Families Initiative Impacting Cullman Families, Students, Schools
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