Public Safety

Holiday Meals with Family Let Juveniles in Custody Strengthen Ties

Young men in Probation's custody share a holiday meal with their family to keep them connected with their support system.
Young men in Probation's custody share a holiday meal with their family to keep them connected with their support system.

To keep juveniles in custody from feeling isolated during the holidays and build up bonds they’ll need to stay on the right path, San Diego County Probation gave some of those youth the opportunity to share a Thanksgiving meal with their families.

The special meal was offered to 21 young men in the Youthful Offenders Unit at East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility on Friday. The unit houses young men between the ages of 16 and 20 who have either committed serious crimes or a high number of crimes.

Thirty-three family members attended, as well as Probation Department officers and Probation Chief Adolfo Gonzales. This is the second year Probation has hosted a Thanksgiving special meal at the East Mesa facility. The department also offers a special family meal at Christmas.

A 19-year-old we’ll refer to as “David” said he was grateful to see his parents and was also looking forward to the holiday food.

“I was really thankful because it’s hard enough being locked up for the holidays, but giving us an opportunity to have family there–not the day, but the day after–to celebrate helps,” said David. “I just want to spend as much time with them as possible.”

 “Keeping kids in contact with their loved ones while they are at the juvenile detention facility heals and strengthens family bonds that may have been interrupted by their time in custody,” said Probation Chief Gonzales.

Supervising Probation Officer Brian Day, who works with the East Mesa unit, said, “It is beneficial for in-custody youth to feel connected to their families, hopefully strengthening their motivation to perform well in school, participate in rehabilitative programs and to avoid violence, which allows them to return home as soon as possible.”

This is David’s second time in custody. His son was born on Thanksgiving last year while he was in custody, but he was able to meet his son for the first time at the Probation Department Christmas dinner when his girlfriend, mother and father visited with the baby.

David said he knows he’s missing out on his infant son’s life, and it is “definitely a big motivator to me to run the best program I can.” He will be released in January and plans to stay on track so he won’t miss out on fatherhood from then on.

David’s parents said they think the program is a really good idea because it gives the young men something to look forward to, and families enjoy the opportunity to spend time with their child even if they are in trouble.

“I think I can speak for a lot of the parents in this situation, you try really hard to keep these family ties going, to keep looking up to the future,” his father said. “These families really work hard to be there–even if they’ve been hurt by their child or feel hopeless. It’s pretty clear that for some of the families, it’s difficult to come to these things, but they’re there.”

Another youth, 17-year-old “Terrance,” was excited to get to spend time with his grandmother. His mother was unable to attend because she was out of town.

“Family is everything to me,” he said. “I love my family more than anything. Being able to see them is a better experience for me. It gives me like a sense of comfort.”

Terrance said he is looking forward to being released at the end of December so he can see his mom and the rest of his family, especially his 9-year-old brother.

Gonzales said special family meals also can strengthen the relationships forged between probation officers and the young men and their families.

“Sharing the holiday meal together builds trust between the officers, youth and their families which is necessary so we can work together on their rehabilitative goals,” Gonzales said. “Youth and families begin to view their probation officers as people who support them rather than adversaries. It is more likely these youth will approach officers as a positive resource when they are in crisis or at a decision point, seeking officers’ counsel before engaging in risky behavior.”

This year, the Probation Department also offered the Thanksgiving family meal to the Girls Rehabilitation Facility unit in Kearny Mesa.  A holiday meal prepared by staff, the youth, and kitchen personnel was served on Thanksgiving to 21 girls in custody and 22 family guests. The girls and staff spent much of the week preparing for the day, making decorations, flower arrangements and place cards together. The girls and families shared stories and expressed gratitude to staff for the opportunity to spend the holiday together.

Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact