Advertisement

Volunteer Probation Officers Point the Way : Service: Budget cuts have strained staffing at the county agency, which is relying more on unpaid part-timers.

Share via
TIMES STAFF WRITER

As recently as two years ago, Kim Modrich’s life was filled with bridge, tennis and chauffeuring her youngest son to ice hockey games. But today, when Modrich pulls her black Mercedes out of the driveway of her Yorba Linda home, she’s likely to be heading for a meeting with a young convicted felon from an impoverished or broken home.

Modrich, 51, volunteers for the Orange County Probation Department, which, reeling under the county’s recent budget cuts, is enlarging its volunteer force to assist its shrunken and overburdened team of professional probation officers.

“The only relief we have is the volunteers,” said Alan Gover, Modrich’s supervising probation officer.

Advertisement

Currently the county has 51 volunteer probation officers, a labor force it hopes to double in coming months. With the help of a recruiting booth at the Orange County Fair, the department is aiming to attract at least 40 enrollees to a fall class for new volunteers.

“Throughout the department we have gaps we can’t fill,” said Chief Probation Officer Michael Schumacher. As a result of the county’s cutbacks, probation officials said, the department lost $9.3 million, or about 15% of its previous $63-million annual budget, forcing it to eliminate 134 positions, including 70 probation officers.

Meanwhile, the department’s caseload of 5,000 juveniles and 17,500 adults is more than double what it was 20 years ago and continues to grow.

“The problem is too massive to be taken care of by volunteers, but they can help,” Schumacher said. He said although the volunteer probation officer program was founded in 1993 to better acquaint the community with the department and provide extra workers, the county’s current budget crisis has spotlighted its importance.

“As the caseload grew we were holding our own until the bankruptcy hit and now we have had to close programs and we are falling behind,” he said.

Volunteers, working under the supervision of full-time professionals, are being relied upon to counsel adults in the county’s jails before they are released and to handle caseloads of juveniles on court-ordered probation, making certain that they keep curfews, stay clean of drugs and crime, attend school and meet any other court-ordered requirements.

Advertisement

Also, with the loss of other juvenile offender diversion programs to the budget ax, the volunteers are staffing a new Peer Court program designed to keep first-time juvenile offenders out of the county’s costly and overcrowded juvenile court system.

Still other volunteer probation officers work in a program that targets juveniles at high risk for becoming chronic offenders. They also monitor treatment groups for wife batterers.

Because of the responsibility of their positions, the volunteers must clear an extensive screening process, including an FBI fingerprint check and psychological testing, and receive 40 hours of classroom training in juvenile law, a probation officer’s responsibilities and how to ensure their safety in confrontations with probationers. Later, they also get on-the-job training.

Randy Niznik, the deputy in charge of the volunteer probation officer program, said about a third of those who apply are accepted and another third drop out for personal reasons during the months of screening and training.

Volunteers range in age from 23 to 72, Niznik said. About half are retired. Their occupations have included housewives, teachers, business owners, aerospace engineers, retail clerks and a former agent of the Internal Revenue Service. All agree to volunteer at least 20 hours a month for a year. Unlike regular probation officers, they are not authorized to make arrests and generally are kept “out of harm’s way,” Schumacher said.

Most of the volunteers have never been exposed before to the criminal justice system, he said. But he said 10 of the volunteers are career probation officers who took early retirement to help the county solve its bankruptcy woes.

Advertisement

“A lot of people who took early retirement came back to work for free as volunteer probation officers because they are dedicated and see a need and want to help the department,” Schumacher said.

Others, like Modrich, say they are fascinated and horrified by a world they never before experienced--where parents often seem to have no time for their children, refrigerators are empty and families sleep on the floor on mattresses crawling with cockroaches.

Modrich said she looks forward to meeting the young people, giving them the attention they may lack from other adults.

Another volunteer, Lois Bent, 63, of La Mirada, said she was attracted to the program because she has always had a knack for listening to young people, whether they were her own children and their friends or her nieces and nephews.

Last week she met Joshua, a 14-year-old who had been expelled from school for stealing a cellular phone. He had been referred to the Peer Court, where a jury of other youths sentenced him. Bent made sure the boy understood the terms of the sentence, which require him to do community service, apologize to the school bus driver from whom he stole the phone and write an essay about what it is like to be a victim of theft. As the boy left, Bent gave him her business card.

“Call me about anything you want to talk about,” she instructed him. Then she told the boy’s mother, “I’m a volunteer probation officer. I do this for love.”

Advertisement

“We need more people like you,” the boy’s mother said.

Another volunteer, Tom Phillips, 54, took early retirement from a teaching career in South Central Los Angeles and now works a regular 40-hour week for the Probation Department. He has developed special instructional materials to shore up the educational deficiencies of Juvenile Hall inmates.

Some of his successes have been bittersweet, Phillips said. For example, there was the 16-year-old boy whom he taught to read because the boy was determined to read the charges against him. The boy was eventually sentenced to the California Youth Authority for a serious crime that Phillips would not reveal.

The volunteers, most of whom work with juveniles, said they are able to keep in closer touch with the young probationers and their families and teachers because they shoulder lighter caseloads than professional probation officers. Some have taken the youths to lunch and given them lifts on errands.

They also have learned about disappointment. Vera Thompson, a housewife and former volunteer at her church and a hospital, said she has met “kids who con you and yes you and tell a whole bunch of lies.” But she said she will not give up on any of them.

Among the few volunteers who have chosen to work with adult probationers is Robert Heywood, 66, of Anaheim. A retired revenue officer for the IRS, Heywood said he is accustomed to interviewing, a skill he now uses when he meets with County Jail inmates to prepare them for release.

Bill Martin, a supervising probation officer, said the volunteers have enabled the department to conduct interviews with inmates before they are released, which he said has greatly improved the relationship between the probationers and the department. Previously, the Probation Department interviewed them only after their release if the former inmates kept their appointments.

Advertisement

Partly as a result of the volunteers’ work at the jails, he said, the probationers who fail to report for supervision after they are released--and who consequently are served with arrest warrants--have declined from 40% to 25%.

“We could use two or three more VPOs [volunteer probation officers in the probation interview program], especially those who could speak Spanish,” Martin said.

Niznik said although some probation workers were at first skeptical about the volunteers, “we now have requests for 30 more VPOs from all over the department and we are getting more every week.”

In turn, the volunteers say they welcome the chance to contribute to their communities and do something positive about fighting crime.

“I absolutely fell in love with it,” said Modrich, who remarked that her family and friends still don’t understand why she wants to work with young offenders.

And the young people Modrich works with seem to appreciate her attention. Robert, a troubled 17-year-old convicted for shooting another youth with a BB gun, smiled when she stopped by last week and congratulated him for cleaning house for his mother, who was at work.

Advertisement

“Even when I am off probation I am always going to come to see you,” he said.

Times staff writer Sarah Klein contributed to this report.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Volunteer Corps

The Orange County Probation Department, hard hit by the county bankruptcy but still responsible for operating four juvenile institutions, as well as house arrest and work furlough programs, is using volunteers to help supervise probationers. A five-year look at the department’s resources:

Budgeted Officers 1995-96: 246

Budget (In millions) 1995-96: 54

What It Takes

Currently, 51 volunteers help supervise probationers in a program established in 1993. A profile of the program and its officers: * Volunteers: Ages range from 23 to 72; 50% are retired, including 10 probation officers who took early retirement at the beginning of county bankruptcy; 29 men and 22 women * Case type: Primarily juveniles and those convicted of lower-risk, nonviolent crimes * Commitment: Minimum 20 hours per month for one year * Requirements: Be at least 20, not on probation and with no felony convictions in the past 10 years * Screening: Must pass a background investigation and psychological evaluation * Training: 40 hours in classroom, 20 hours on the job, one hour per month continuing education * Duties: Interview offenders and their families; make home, work and jail visits to check on offenders; work with juveniles in drug treatment; review case files; complete brief reports; work with probation officers in office and field

How to Volunteer Those interested in volunteering can call the Probation Department at (714) 569-2161. A new class will begin in September. Source: Orange County Probation Department

Advertisement