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This court program helps at-risk youth with autism avoid juvenile detention


Research has found that young people with autism are more likely to be arrested and come into contact with the juvenile justice system. That's why a judge in Las Vegas started a program to help the at-risk youth who come into her courtroom. NPR's Jaclyn Diaz has been covering this story.

JACLYN DIAZ, BYLINE: Melody O'Connor lives in North Las Vegas with her 16-year-old daughter, Angeleena. Melody has loved her daughter deeply since she adopted her as an infant. But she says it's been tough to raise Angelina, especially as a teenager.

MELODY O'CONNOR: She is like Jekyll and Hyde.

DIAZ: Angeleena has autism and a host of other diagnoses.

O'CONNOR: She has autism, frontal lobe epilepsy, mild cerebral palsy, ADHD, anxiety.

DIAZ: Autism is a developmental disability that can cause challenges with social cues, communication, and behavior. As a result, Angeleena has trouble with impulse control, leading to emotional and violent outbursts. It's been that way for a long time, Melody says. One especially bad time was when Angelina grabbed a steak knife and held it to her mother's face.

O'CONNOR: We went through this multiple times. The police have been called to my house 43 times.

DIAZ: And Melody has tried for years to get her daughter help, even calling treatment centers out of state, only to be told that they couldn't accommodate her daughter.

O'CONNOR: Nobody would take Angeleena. I felt like I was hitting a brick wall.

DIAZ: But after police came to her house in winter of 2022 and Angeleena was arrested again, things changed.

O'CONNOR: I am so grateful that I called the police and she got arrested. Isn't that a horrible thing to say? That changed everything for me.

DIAZ: What changed was the intervention of the Las Vegas Eighth Judicial District's diversion program. It's called the Detention Alternative for Autistic Youth, also called DAAY Court. This program was created in 2018 by a judge named Sunny Bailey. It's designed for at-risk youth who have autism. It combines the efforts of social workers, psychologists, attorneys and parents to help the kids.

SUNNY BAILEY: We all have to work together because autism is 24 hours a day. School can't fix it. Home can't fix it. Everyone has to fix it.

DIAZ: Many of the cases that come into Judge Bailey's courtroom are those of minors like Angeleena. Many of them are facing charges for battery, usually against their own family members. But instead of going into juvenile detention, they can go to DAAY Court. Many of the young people who enter the program get some form of therapy where they learn safe methods to deal with their emotions without losing control. They also can join afterschool programs with other at-risk kids to help with socializing. O'Connor said she was initially leery on the first day of court, but that quickly changed.

O'CONNOR: Everybody was like, here. Let me help you. Here. I'm going to take your hand, and I'm going to guide you through this process. And guess what? We're going to make it go fast for you.

DIAZ: The mission of this program is personal for Judge Bailey.

BAILEY: It comes from personal experience because my eldest child is on the spectrum.

DIAZ: Bailey's daughter dealt with some of the same behavioral problems that others like Angeleena deal with.

BAILEY: I know what the parents are feeling. I know how frustrated they are. I know how scared they are, you know, about how difficult it is.

DIAZ: In the summer, Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo officially recognized the program, allowing it to get more funding. Lombardo's signature on Senate Bill 411 also allowed other jurisdictions across Nevada to create their own DAAY Court program. So far, it seems to be working. Eighty-six children have graduated the program, with just six returning to court. Angeleena is one of those success stories.

O'CONNOR: It was a life-changer, literally a life-changer. I can say that she probably would not be living with me today or alive today if I hadn't had DAAY Court.

DIAZ: Jaclyn Diaz, NPR News.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.