By Jean Cole
Robert Valls has seen a lot of juveniles over the 23 years he has been chief juvenile probation officer for Limestone County.
When he was appointed in January 1991 by then-District Judge George Craig, Valls and his three probation officers were there to try to help troubled juveniles get on the right path.
As one would expect, they helped many, but not all, through mentoring and various programs. But, as the county's population grew, the juvenile probation staff got smaller.
"We had four probation officers at one time, and I still handled caseloads," said Valls, who officially retired Jan. 31 after 23 years at the helm. He will continue working on a contract basis for a short time, however.
"Since then the population has doubled, and now we are just getting by. We now have only two officers for a county of 80,000. We are just intake officers now — the mentoring is not there."
The budget cuts were the work of state lawmakers past and present. Though the Legislature is mandated by statute to adequately fund courts throughout the state, it has severely cut funding over the past few years. At the same time, the population grows, including the juvenile population. How this will bode for Limestone County and this state will become apparent in the years to come as more and more juveniles who might have been saved from a life of crime instead continue on as troubled adults.
So, it is with mixed emotions that he retires and hands the reins to Tara Pressnell, who was appointed by District Judge Jeanne Anderson to replace him. The other probation officer is Deborah Cain.
"We will get by," he said, adding that Pressnell is well-qualified and will do a good job. "I don't have to take these kids home with me."
Valls, who is considering a career change, prefers to focus on what has been accomplished over the years.
"There is nothing more gratifying for me than seeing someone succeeding," he said.
He recounts receiving a letter from a young man, now overseas in the Army, who had once been in the juvenile probation system and was now finding his potential.
"He said thank you for helping me understand what I can do," Valls said.
Valls said various factors go into the success or failure of the juveniles he sees, chiefly the young person's decision to change course. Parenting is also key. One program Valls is proud of is offering parenting classes in which a master's-level counselor teaches people how to be better parents, including how to discipline and to teach their children the consequences of their actions.
Valls came to Limestone County in the late 1980s by way of Texas.
"I was visiting here from Houston and met Sheriff Mike Blakely," Valls recalls, noting that his former wife, Hilda, was from the Clements community.
He had a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Houston at the time, and Blakely told him to send him a resume.
"He told me if I come up he would put me to work," he said.
When Valls arrived, the sheriff assigned him to a six-county drug taskforce, which Valls worked with for a year before becoming a deputy sheriff for a year or so after graduating from the police academy at Jacksonville State University. From there, Valls was assigned to implement the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) in the Limestone County schools. The program is designed to teach students the dangers of drugs.
"I got a good raise and a car, so I had remorse about leaving the sheriff's office," he said, noting that he liked working with the students, many of whom still recognize and remember him. "It was a good experience, and I enjoyed it."
When the county's chief probation officer, Buster West, died, Valls and others applied for the job and Valls landed it. In the years that followed, he also earned a master's degree in justice and public safety from Auburn University in Montgomery.
Over the years, he has seen a change in the juvenile population his office serves, including youths moving from alcohol and marijuana to prescription and other dangerous drugs.
"We are seeing a lot more drug use — oxycontin, methamphetamine and prescription pills," he said. "And, we are seeing more serious crimes being committed — armed robbery, burglary, assaults on parents."
In the end, juvenile probation officers see more failures than successes.
"That is just the nature of it," Valls said.
The juvenile probation office is unique in that its officers have a great deal of discretion in handling cases.
"We take into account their prior record and family environment — the whole dynamic of the family and the child," Valls said. As juveniles have changed over the years, so have the approaches and services provided by the office. Though, the more recent budget cuts have not made this easier.
After the state cut the budget, "we had to search locally for services" Valls said, noting that a county grant writer, Sonya Anthony, obtained a valuable diversion grant that has helped provide some key services. Among them:
• Intense outpatient program;
• Community service program, which allows juveniles to work off their "debt" by serving their community in various ways;
• Ankle-monitoring program, which allows juveniles to remain at home rather than spend time in the Tennessee Valley Youth Detention Facility in Tuscumbia. The county pays $276 per day to reserve two beds at the facility, even if those beds are not used. Under the ankle-monitoring program, the juvenile's family pays the cost;
• Camp Mitnick juvenile boot camp in Jasper, a six-week program designed to teach discipline amid outdoor and wilderness activities.
Looking back, Valls said he has been lucky to work for “three great people” during his career — Blakely, Craig and Anderson.
"They have been bosses but they have also been friends," he said. "They were not micro-managers. They let me do it. We would discuss issues, but they let me do it."
He tried to profit from their example and do the same with his staff.
When he finally leaves the office for good, Valls will spend some time catching his breath, golfing and doing some projects at home. But, he is also considering a career change, though he isn't ready to divulge that yet.
In addition, he said he is looking forward to three important upcoming events, including the 20th anniversary of his marriage to Kristi Valls, an Athens attorney and former Limestone County district attorney; the high school graduation of their son, Kevin, who plans to go to the University of Alabama; and the wedding of Robert and the late Hilda Valls' daughter, Ashley, to Jacob Schrimsher.