The 41-year professional – 42 in January – received the Juvenile Justice Association of Texas Outstanding Achievement in Probation award Tuesday at the association’s annual conference in Corpus Christi.
“There’s only one such honor awarded in the whole state of Texas each year,” said Cash Jeppon, who works under Austin. “We are so proud for him.”
Austin’s peers nominated and selected him for the honor.
“It’s a neat thing,” he said. “I am extremely humbled by the award. I have a wonderful career. I love my work. The big thing is the fabulous people I have to work with – here in my office, people from the past, people statewide. People with the same motivation and passion for helping young people that are troubled and their families.”
The Denton native got his start in the field within a month of earning his bachelor’s degree from Abilene Christian College (now University).
“I graduated in December, and I began interviewing as soon as the holidays were over, got the job and started Jan. 15,” he said. “They hired me to work with kids who were incarcerated. They were building the first progressive juvenile detention center in the state at the time. So I started in the Tarrant County Jail. They had a section there for juveniles. I would talk with the kids, do evaluations. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing other than relating to them. I’d never worked with kids in that much trouble.”
After the detention center opened in March he became an intake officer.
“When the police bring them in, you talk to them, check them in, or you determine whether to release them if it’s after hours,” Austin said.
Within six months, Austin became a juvenile probation officer, supervising kids between court, home, schools and trying to get them in programs to “help them stay out of trouble.”
Through his remaining 14 years in Tarrant County, Austin moved up in the department. He promoted to program director at the juvenile detention center at age 26, and became its superintendent two year later. He also supervised the family court section and became a deputy director for the department that oversaw the pre-adjudication residential treatment facility before leaving Tarrant County in 1984.
“Really my biggest desire was to get out of the city,” Austin said. “I’d finished up my graduate work (he holds degrees from Sam Houston State and Texas Christian universities) and I liked it up here and came up here. I got the opportunity and never regretted it.
“I didn’t know what a good decision I was making when I decided to move here to Wise County.”
Austin started as an adult probation officer in the Wise County district, which also includes Jack County.
When chief juvenile probation officer Col. O.M. Pageant retired in 1988, Austin was recommended and promoted to the position he’s held for the last 24 years.
As a chief juvenile probation officer, Austin manages five full-time personnel plus contract staff, the department’s budget, standard compliance and residential placements.
“The wonderful thing here is I’ve worked for incredibly competent and conscientious judges,” Austin said. “Judge John Lindsey – I had the ultimate respect for him. And from then on – Judge (John) Fostel, Judge (Melton) Cude, Judge (Bill) McElhaney, Judge (Stephen) Wren and in Jack County Judge Mitchell Davenport …
“They have come up big every time the need for money is there to place kids in residential centers and support us with the money we need to have the people and programs we have here,” he continued. “That’s what keeps kids from going to state institutions – licensed professional counselors, a licensed chemical dependency counselor who runs the substance abuse program, case work assistant, life skills with equine-assisted psychotherapy.”
According to Austin, who has served on the JJAT board of directors for about 10 years, juvenile referrals are “way down” from what they’ve been in the past years. He credits that to the support of officials such as those he mentioned.
“It was 3,000 three to four years ago,” he said. “This past year it was less than 900 that we sent as a state to the state institution … We’ve got them in alternative programs instead of sending them to the state.
“The most rewarding thing is seeing kids making those significant changes – when they stop using drugs, when they stop assaulting people, when they stop doing illegal things and things that are destructive to themselves and the community,” he continued. “And conversely, when you start seeing them do positive things – they start going to school, start getting involved in constructive activities, they start getting along with their families and making better friends and you see them in the community doing well … That’s what probation is – giving people another chance and then trying to help them. Obviously, we don’t succeed with everybody, but we do succeed with some and that’s the most rewarding.
“We can’t fix everything, but we do work hard at it,” he said.