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DIGGING DEEPER: Getting youth back on the right track during a pandemic

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(WKOW) -- The pandemic has closed many doors for Wisconsin youth.

With classes staying virtual and after-school activities being canceled due to COVID-19, many teens feel like they're losing out on a lot.

"Schooling is very hard and having to worry about my family getting sick, it gets stressful," says LaMonica Tlusty, a high school junior from Sun Prairie. "I have low self-esteem and I get depressed easily."

While the pandemic is taking a toll on many youth's mental health, Tlusty is grateful for her friend and mentor, China Jackson.

"She's really pretty and helps me boost my confidence a lot," said Tlusty. "When I'm sad I'll text her or when I don't know what to do I text her."

Jackson and Tlusty met through Dear Diary, a youth mentorship program that supports girls in Dane County by focusing on their education, career goals and boosting their self-esteem.

"I don't always want to be a parent, we don't always have intellectual conversations," said Jackson, a mentor for Dear Diary. "We'll talk about relationships, trips or other fun things.

Jackson and Tlusty do the best they can to stay in touch, such as texting, video chatting, and sometimes meeting in-person to get food or coffee outside.

"In certain points in our life, we haven't had that type of parental figure ... or role model that we needed," Jackson said. "I think it's important to have that person in your corner."

With a lack of resources or guidance, Tlusty admits some of her friends are having trouble coping during the pandemic.

"Some of my friends did go down a bad path - doing like drugs and alcohol - but I don't want to go through that path," Tlusty said.

Yanna Williams, the founder of Dear Diary, says there are several reasons why teens make bad decisions and chose to commit crimes.

"It depends on what they're doing, some of it depends on the families that they have," said Williams. "[Some say] we didn't have food, so I stole the food, or I didn't have anything to do and I'm hanging with the wrong crowd and I got sucked in."

Dear Diary joined five other nonprofits to provide mentors to teens in the community as part of the county's "Opportunity Youth Cross Sector Coalition" in February.

"We've had conversations with [juvenile offenders in the past] and asked them, "What would help?" said Dane County Juvenile Court Administrator John Bauman.

Bauman says their answers included more resources, activities and employment opportunities.

"The more that we can put in place to help with the vast majority of youth that are struggling ... the better our [justice] system and community will be," said Bauman.

During the first five months of 2020, the juvenile detention center had an average daily population of 15. However, between June and September, that number dropped to five, according to Bauman.

"There's [also] been a significant decrease in the number of youth referred to the Juvenile Reception Center," said Bauman.

The reason.

"I believe that there's a level of supervision that's different because parents are working from home and can keep track of youth in a little different way," Bauman said.

Data from the Madison Police Department shows there were 455 juvenile arrests between January and November of 2020, compared to 740 in 2019.

Bauman says it's hard to quantify if the decline in youth entering the juvenile justice system means less are committing crimes during the pandemic.

"I see information [from police blogs] that there are still car thefts and break-ins occurring," he said. " It's difficult to know what the drivers are to the reduction."

Bauman also adds that, given COVID-19 concerns, the reception center is highly scrutinizing the information they receive with a referral to decide whether a juvenile should stay at the detention center.

"Only those youth that are the most dangerous are going to be held in detention," said Bauman.

"How do we teach them to make better decisions?" asks Williams. "Because locking them up does not teach them to make better decisions."

Williams hopes through her program and others a part of "Opportunity Youth", prevention can work better than punishment.

"We have to teach kids a better way, we have to allow them to learn how to write their narrative in a different way," Williams said.

"Opportunity Youth" is led by United Way of Dane County (UWDC) and pairs youth with mentors. A screening committee reviews referrals, which can come from the courts, schools, and social workers, among others.

Officials with UWDC tell 27 News that they're still in need of more mentors. They ask anyone interested in helping Dane County youth to visit their website.