Addressing the Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline in Travis County: Southwest Key Programs

By Sam La Pres

At CFRI, we are dedicated to discovering and implementing solutions to the social justice issues many of our community’s families and children endure. In order to address a problem it must first be understood. In the first blog of the series, we discussed what the Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline is and how many injustices intersect to create it. Moving forward, we would like to highlight organizations that inspire us to persevere in the face of oppression and seek solutions that build a better community. 

The Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline is best understood as the life trajectory that occurs when poverty and race collide to negatively impact a child’s likelihood of reaching his full academic and personal potential, making it more likely for a child of color living in poverty to end up in prison than his white higher SES peers. Economic opportunities, racism, disparities in housing, low academic quality and harsh discipline are just some of the obstacles that children of color living in poverty face daily.

Learning of this injustice coupled with our nation’s current events where we have seen institutionalized racism turn violent, it is crucial that while we hold space in our hearts and minds for those negatively impacted, but we also keep believing in a better tomorrow.  Watching injustice unfold is heartbreaking, and the complexity of the issue can make it seem nearly impossible to overcome, but this does not stop many of Austin’s organizations and community members from working towards greater equity. It actually motivates them. Programs all across the city are doing the inspiring work to fight for equity. Though they take different action steps, each organization is connected by the same belief that all children, regardless of the color of their skin or their family’s income should be treated equitably in the eyes of the law. Southwest Key – Travis County is one of these organizations.

southwest key blog qouteSouthwest Key is a national nonprofit committed to keeping kids out of institutions and at home with their families, in their communities. The organization states, “The inspiring kids and families we work with are seeking the American dream: equality, education, and a healthier quality of life. At Southwest Key, we simply open the doors to opportunity so they can achieve these dreams.” To do this, the organization focuses on providing comprehensive and relational support to youth and families that are or may be at risk for getting tangled up in the Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline through a variety of different programs.

Family Keys: Status Offender Diversion Program

In 2012, the Travis County Juvenile Probation Department partnered with Southwest Key to provide the Family Keys Model to at-risk youth and their families. This is an early prevention and intervention design that focuses on keeping youth that have committed a status offense out of formal involvement with the juvenile justice system. Status offenses include running away, curfew violations, and truancy. Once a youth has received a status offense violation, a case manager makes face-to-face contact with the family and youth at their home or in the community, and is available 24/7 for crisis intervention and conflict resolution. Again, because it is ineffective to support a youth and then drop them back into a broken system, the case manager also provides discharge and aftercare support. This helps families build and maintain a support network in their communities made up of teachers, neighbors, family members, and community centers. The most recent program evaluation showed impressive results; 95% of these youth did not commit a new offense and 95% stayed in their community/home.

Travis County Alternative School (JJAEP)

Travis County JJAEP is a local alternative school offering a wide range of services to students.

This school is designed for students who were not able to meet their full potential in a traditional school environment and were expelled. Although the focus is on fostering positive relationships with adult role models in an academic setting, comprehensive services are provided to students. These include full-day individualized education in a therapeutic setting with small class sizes, case management services to address the needs of the whole family, daily group counseling, recreation, credit recovery and GED services, and support transitioning back into the student’s home school.  92% of these students had no new offenses and 74 – 77% improved their math and reading scores.


Southwest Key provides a wraparound approach and offers comprehensive services to youth.

More Programming

The above two programs are doing incredible work and somehow Southwest Key provides many more program options. They provide a Community Connections: Wraparound Approach where youth who have been adjudicated and are considered at –risk for out-of-home placement or are scheduled to return home within one month are provided with 24 hour crisis intervention, evening monitoring, clinical assessment and support, youth and family-driven service planning, and connections to community resources. Evidence-based Functional Family Therapy (FFT) is also provided to medium to high at-risk youth who show signs of behavioral issues, substance abuse, or delinquent behavior. In this type of therapy, licensed clinicians meet families in their homes and help the entire family strengthen their ability to problem solve. More programs include reentry and workforce services, evening reporting centers, and specialized treatment services for substance abuse and mental health needs.

Making the American Dream a Reality

Perhaps the most important lesson learned is that to end the Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline we must not give up on youth involved in the system. Southwest Key is an example of an organization in our community who puts this learned lesson into practice. Unique and comprehensive services are required to successfully support the youth and their families, which Southwest Key provides, but Southwest Key employees also provide a much needed supportive environment for youth and families that have been casted aside. As an organization they teach us that we must continue to believe in these youth’s potential and the potential of an entire community to come together to make that “American dream of equality, education, and a healthier quality of life” a reality.

Get Involved

Contact Southwest Key to get involved at, 512-583-2509.