A day with a Texas juvenile probation officer

In 2010, there were 1,809 certified juvenile probation officers in Texas, each of whom processed an average of 18 cases

By Jessica Priest
Victoria Advocate

VICTORIA, Texas — You can only walk a few steps inside the Victoria Regional Juvenile Justice Center before your eyes fall onto one of the many black-framed motivational posters on display.

"Destiny," one poster near the entrance reads in turquoise, capital letters, "is not a matter of chance but a matter of choices."

Juvenile probation officer Jennifer Zeplin and her colleagues ascribe to that ideal.

This week is North America Pretrial, Probation and Parole Supervision week, which is observed annually to recognize people, like Zeplin, who work in these fields.

On Monday morning during a staff meeting, Zeplin and her coworkers pored over their calendars.

In a way, the planning was futile.

Zeplin's plans unraveled almost as quickly as she formed them. A distraught mother called around 10 a.m.

Her 17-year-old son, who was charged with assault, missed curfew. She thinks he may be drinking again.

"I should have called you before now," the woman said.

"You did the right thing," Zeplin replied in a soothing voice as her fingers skim through a large file cabinet nearby.

Seconds later, a manila folder landed with a thud on her desk.

Zeplin didn't foresee handcuffing the boy when he arrived later that day for a regularly-scheduled interview. And frankly, she didn't want to, but she upholds the rules of the court, which mandates he must be home by a designated time and drug- and alcohol-free.

Zeplin hoped that whatever was in that file - along with a court-ordered, 10-day stay in the detention facility behind her office - will help her turn his life around.

In 2010, there were 1,809 certified juvenile probation officers in Texas, each of whom processed an average of 18 cases, according to the state's Juvenile Justice Department.

Victoria County, meanwhile, has eight field juvenile probation officers and three administrative juvenile probation officers, including the Chief Pama Hencerling, Assistant Chief Paul Zuniga and Juvenile Probation Supervisor Suzanne Tristan.

They work with anywhere from 100-200 juveniles, Zeplin said.

The job is often believed to be a thankless one, Hencerling said.

"One, it takes a special person to work with a juvenile at all," she said, "but you can imagine adding kids that have problems in their lives, whether it be criminal problems, substance abuse problems or whatever along with the maturing process, and it gets really complicated."

Zeplin, who already is raising two children, works with seven kids, but at one point as many as 29 were under her watchful eye.

"The first thing I'll tell my kiddos is, 'I'm going to be like your mama, you know? I'm gonna be right there. You do something, believe me, I'm going to find out. And if I have to find out from somebody else that you did something wrong, then we're going to have problems,'" she said.

And like any proud mama, she boasts about their accomplishments, especially because a disheartening 50 percent of the kids drop out of school.

On hard days, Zeplin likes to fish out a green thank-you card from the belly of her wooden desk. The bubbly handwriting on the card belongs to a 16-year-old girl, the same girl who used to fling not only obscenities but also fists at Zeplin.

"Thank you for everything and not giving up on me, like almost everybody around me has," the girl, who was charged with possession of marijuana, wrote.

Also, in March, another strange but uplifting thing happened. One of Zeplin's 12-year-old juveniles hopped on a freight train and then walked from the Caterpillar plant to the detention facility at 97 Foster Field Drive.

He rang the detention center's gate bell again and again until a surprised juvenile supervision officer agreed to call "Mrs. Jennifer," even though it was already the middle of the night.

"Mrs. Jennifer listens," the boy said, simply.

"Usually, the kids want to get out, not in," Zeplin said Monday, chuckling. "Stuff like that makes your job worthwhile."

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