Ben Romo: Welcome to Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley. Thanks so much for continuing the conversation we started at the “A Safe City for You and Our Children” event we sponsored in Santa Maria.

I think my favorite quote of the night was yours: “I did more to prevent crime in the four years when I ran Head Start than I did in the 27 years I spent prosecuting people.”

Joyce Dudley: There’s no doubt in my mind. If you want to make a difference, if you want to reduce crime in Santa Barbara County, the most efficient and effective way to do that is to have high-quality preschool and early education programs.

As you mentioned, I spent my early career focused on the 0-5 years. I earned two masters degrees in education before I went to law school. Prior to becoming an attorney, I held positions where I ran Head Start for Santa Barbara County, state funded pre-school programs, as well as a private nonprofit day-care center.

To me, investing in support for children 0-5 and their families is a critical part of my work, because such a network will increase our community’s collective health and safety. It’s at the core of our oath — to do the right thing for the right reason.

BR: What connections do you see between school readiness and attendance and the justice system?

JD: I am 100 percent convinced there is a negative correlation between school readiness and attendance and later entanglement in our criminal justice system. Children need to feel they belong in school and, in order to feel that way, they must feel confident and engaged in their school and their own educational path.

Santa Barbara County’s top prosecutor, Joyce Dudley, with a childhood companion.
Santa Barbara County’s top prosecutor, Joyce Dudley, with a childhood companion. (Dudley family photo)

BR: What engaged you in school? This is a great kindergarten photo.

JD: I loved playing with other children. I also loved sports and the theater arts — acting, singing and dancing. These types of activities give children places to connect to each other and to additional positive adult influences.

BR: Mentoring and coaching — both for children and their parents — is such a powerful agent for positive change and building resilience skill sets.

JD: Absolutely. I want to grow our resources so the District Attorney’s Office can support more mentee/mentor programs, as well as increase the staff of our Truancy Program so we can engage in more prevention/intervention programs. My biggest challenge is funding. In order to engage in more crime prevention/intervention programs we need additional staff and facilities.

On a personal note, both of my sons, my husband and myself have been or are mentors in the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse’s Fighting Back Mentor Program. All of us have greatly appreciated the opportunity to serve our community in a very direct and joyful manner.

Shortly after I was elected, we re-started our very successful Truancy program, and since 2012 we have served 55,000 children in our county. I also began the LEADS program three years ago. This program brings our (volunteer) deputy district attorneys into the classroom to teach elementary school-aged children about our criminal justice system.

I really believe in the power of mentorship. Each year our office volunteers to become a part of United Way of Santa Barbara County’s Fun in the Sun program, which connects adults with children for mentoring and literacy development.

Personally, I serve as a mentor in CADA’s Fighting Back Program and as a member of the state executive board of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.

BR: Having a long-term partnership with your office and making a strong individual commitment to serve is so important to our community agencies. Have you been able to observe positive changes?

JD: One of my Fun in the Sun mentees was the first in her family to attend college and now she’s in law school. Next year, she will be a volunteer intern in my office. I am in awe of her brilliance, resilience, bravery and tenacity. As part of her graduation gift I gave her Wonder Woman Cuffs of Steel.

BR: On the flip side, youth who aren’t able to develop strong connections at school or with positive adults are at a high risk for negative behaviors like violence and substance abuse, and also at a higher risk for exploitation and abuse.

How does childhood trauma and exposure to violence affect the population you serve?

JD: There appears to be a near direct correlation between adults who experienced childhood trauma and exposure to violence and their later likelihood to be a victim or perpetrator of violent crimes.

BR: Do you have any stories or statistics about youth moving from the dependency to delinquency side of the juvenile court system?

JD: Our juvenile deputy district attorneys offer a conservative estimate that about 50 percent of our juveniles who are delinquent have either been referred to Child Welfare Services for some type of abuse and/or actually became dependent children of the court (because of abuse or strong potential for abuse) prior to having a juvenile delinquency case filed against the child.

As an example, Jane Doe 1 had been sexually abused and neglected at the age of 3 while living in Los Angeles County. Her mom fostered and then adopted Jane and her sister. Later, her adopted father sexually abused both of them, while physically abusing their mom.

Jane was then trafficked and finally arrested for being under the influence of methamphetamine, resulting in a juvenile delinquency petition filing against her. Ultimately, she graduated from HART Court (Helping Achieve Resiliency Treatment).

Jane Doe 2 was also in dependency court. Her father was granted custody in the initial case, but then abused her and her brother. She was reunified with her mother.

At the tender age of 13, the first juvenile delinquency petition was filed against her for battery. She accumulated multiple 602 petitions (resulting from serious misdemeanors or felonies) from May 2016 to March 2017. She is participating in HART.

Jane Doe 2 is/was being trafficked by gang members. She has reportedly been involved in recruiting others to join. As of my last update with her, Jane Doe 2 was participating in RISE services (Resiliency Interventions for Sexual Exploitation) and HART.

BR: Tell us more about HART and RISE, the programs helping these young women.

JD: HART means Helping Achieve Resiliency Treatment for Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC). It is a specialty court and program offering alternatives to detention and a range of comprehensive services aimed at educating and supporting the child’s efforts to move away from exploitation, delinquent or high-risk activity and further incarceration.

The goal is to restore, rehabilitate and reintegrate the child back into pro-social activities (school, employment, sports, etc.), to physical health, positive interpersonal relationships and to emotional stability so the child can live a productive and healthy life. HART is spearheaded by the DA.

The Resiliency Interventions for Sexual Exploitation (RISE) Project provides clinical, medical and peer support for sexually exploited children and their families throughout the county. The multidisciplinary team applies an innovative, trauma-informed, strength-based approach consistent with the best practices in the field. It’s a collaboration of Department of Behavioral Wellness, the district attorney, the Public Defender’s Office, juvenile Probation, DSS Juvenile Courts, Corizon Health, Juvenile Hall, schools, law enforcement and community-based organizations.

BR: Working together is key. What returns can the community expect to see from their investment in early intervention and prevention?

JD: An increase in public health and safety, as well taxable income along with a decrease in crime and costs associated with our social services agencies.

BR: What do you need most from the community?

JD: We need them to report crimes and use good “bystander” sense by not leaving others in dangerous situations. When in doubt, call 911. If you want to be proactive, commit to getting involved with the agencies on the front lines of working with vulnerable children, like our partners at CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center, North County Rape Crisis and Child Protection Center, Family Service Agency, Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, Good Samaritan and Domestic Violence Solutions.

There are so many ways to get involved. Together, we have the potential to make our neighborhoods safe and healthy places to grow up.

— Ben Romo is executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.