The Helping Families Story

The words of a life-without-parole inmate at Holman Prison, and messages from other inmates were the inspirations for the Helping Families Initiative. Michael Duren, serving life without parole, looked at the video camera and said in a video that has been shown to thousands of young people:

“Nothing. There is nothing in this world that is worth coming here. I wish to God I would have had you then. If I’d had you then I wouldn’t be here now. It’s too late. Where was someone like you then... when I needed you. Be helpful to somebody. Just take time out. Go to the projects. Look. You’ll find me every day. I’m hurting by the millions out there.”
Michael Duren

Mitch Rutledge, serving life without the possibility of parole, appealed to young people to protect themselves from crime in the same video when he said:

“If I had anything to tell a young man I would tell him this: If an individual asks you to violate. Think. Sit down and think about the choice you are making. Don’t let money influence you. Don’t let nice cars or tennis shoes or girls influence you. Think about your future. Weigh it out. Simply do it like this. Open your hands up. Look at your future. I’ve got my freedom in this hand. I’ve got prison in this hand. I’ve got family in this hand. I’ve got prison in this hand. I’ve got job in this hand. I’ve got prison in this hand. I’ve got loved ones, theatre, wife and children. Freedom. Prison. Which hand would you choose?”
Mitch Rutledge

John M. Tyson, Jr., former district attorney for Mobile County, Alabama, and former member and chairman of the Alabama State Board of Education took these words to heart and founded the Helping Families Initiative in Mobile in 2003.

Working with the district attorney staff, local leaders and public and private agencies, Tyson created Helping Families to help Alabama communities create collaboration among existing social service, law enforcement and other agencies to save young people at risk of using illegal drugs or committing other crimes that can destroy their futures. By saving these young people from crime and imprisonment Helping Families helps reduce the human and monetary costs of crime by slowing the flow of young people into state prisons where they may learn to be career criminals. Jayne Carson, program coordinator, Martha Simmons, communications coordinator, and Dr. Rhonda Neal Waltman, Mobile County Schools, played key roles in creating and implementing the program.

Helping Families equips local communities with a proven intervention process, case management software and communication tools. It produces results by alleviating environmental, social, educational, illegal drug, health and other problems that lead some young people to crime. It provides opportunities that help prevent hopelessness and civil unrest. Problems addressed include family unemployment, lack of education, bad health, fatherless families, peer pressure, poor living conditions, bullying, misinformation and hopelessness.

More than just young people on the verge of trouble with the law benefit from Helping Families. It serves the members of their families as well. Moreover, Helping Families helps all students whose learning environment is interrupted by disruptive classmates. It makes people in all communities safer. Drivers high on illegal drugs are a safety risk wherever they drive. Addicts seeking quick cash often choose affluent neighborhoods for robberies and burglaries. Violence learned in one community can result in murder committed in another.

Helping Families is built on research and experience. Scholars have pointed out for years that lack of education, poverty, poor living environments, absent fathers, peer pressure, unemployment, under employment, behavioral problems and non-functional families can lead to illegal drug use, illegal drug dealing and, too often, a lifetime of crime. Helping Families combines this research with field experience and proven collaboration techniques. It bridges communication barriers between law enforcement, social services agencies, government departments and schools.

Helping Families is unique in that it overcomes communication barriers, resistance to change, old technologies and overreaching confidentiality rules with:

  • The goal of identifying young people at risk of losing their futures through criminal activities and helping them with existing resources to make good decisions so potential crimes do not happen.
  • Modern collaborative management that encourages cooperation, creativity and exra effort.
  • Communication that involves local leaders and benefits all the citizens they serve.
  • Before and after assessments that determine family needs and measure results.

Several Alabama counties — including Montgomery, Autauga, Elmore, Chilton, Shelby, Jefferson (Birmingham Division) and Tuscaloosa Counties — are currently applying the Helping Families process, or organizing to apply it. Results are impressive. In one year in Mobile County where the program originated, 188 existing social services agencies offered more than 300 services. These agencies collaborated on 3,126 referrals resulting in significant improvements in grades, attendance and behavior of the students involved.

Upcoming Events

4th Annual Child Advocacy Day
VOICES for Alabama’s Children
Montgomery, AL
March 16, 2017
“Helping Families Initiative”
Alabama District Attorneys Association
Fairhope, AL
April 6–9, 2017
“Next Generation of K-12 Indicator and response Systems to Increase Students’ Post-Secondary Readiness and Persistence”
A Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supported initiative, sponsored by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Maryland
May 1–3, 2017
“Getting Better at Getting Better”
Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education
San Francisco, CA
March 26–30, 2017
“Breaking Down Barriers — Humanity Matters”
National Association of Social Workers — Alabama
Bryant Conference Center
Tuscaloosa, AL
April 24–25, 2017