Sometimes a schoolyard scuffle is just a simple fight. Sometimes it's a clear cry for help from a kid battling bigger demons at home. And sometimes it portends more serious violence from a disturbed, future-felon-in-the-making.

In Napa, Calif., police weren't content to watch as minor offenders fell between the cracks of an overburdened courts system. Failing to address early delinquent behavior meant kids weren't being held accountable for unacceptable actions. It also meant they weren't getting referred to mental health agencies or other services at an age when intervention might have been most effective.

Thus was born the Napa Community Youth Diversion Program (NCYDP), a multi-agency effort spearheaded by the Napa Police Department and county Juvenile Probation Department. It provides therapeutic social services together with the authority of the juvenile court system, which retains the right to take a case to court if adolescents fail to follow their individualized case plans.

The program is open to delinquent youth between the ages of 7 and 17, and first-time offenders who commit lesser offenses such as petty theft, vandalism, graffiti, possession of marijuana, misdemeanor assault, truancy, running away from home, or other "acting out" behaviors.

"These are kids that are at risk because of their behavior and lifestyle...and our diversion program is growing out of necessity," says Sgt. Terry Gonsalves, who oversees NPD's Youth Services Crime Prevention Bureau. "The courts are clogged up with some very serious cases, and some of these lesser offenses are not charged because there is no room."

The program further works to close the gap in social services created by an under-funded juvenile justice system that focuses its attention and treatment dollars on the worst offenders-effectively denying help to at-risk juveniles who could benefit from early intervention that might prevent them from becoming chronic offenders and victimizers.

Before admission to the Youth Diversion Program, offenders must meet with a social worker, who will assess living conditions in the home, and screen all family members for mental illness and substance-abuse issues. If the youth is deemed a good candidate for intervention, the social worker draws up an individualized case plan. The plan is presented in the form of a contract, which both the offender and his parent or guardian must sign.

The contract details programs and activities tailored to each offender's needs, and may include anger-management classes or other therapy sessions, juvenile substance-abuse programs, weekly drug tests, truancy court, or community service activities that enable the youth to make restitution to those he has victimized. Juvenile offenders generally have between three and six months to complete the contract, although truants are enrolled in the program for the duration of the school year.

A case manager from the diversion program is assigned to both broker and monitor these services, and to keep an eye on the youth's compliance.

"It's amazing how much information will come out when you sit down with these kids and do the initial evaluation," Gonsalves says. "Sometimes we'll find there are mental health issues. We'll find that Child Protective Services needs to be notified because there is some abuse at home. Sometimes the parents or siblings are involved in gang activities. We're able to act immediately."

Because the diversion program contracts with social service agencies throughout the county, officers can refer offenders and family members to the appropriate organization efficiently and effectively. And because police and court officials also share a close relationship, it creates a powerful incentive for young offenders to complete the contract for change. When failed cases are sent from diversion to probation, and on to the District Attorney, they are filed, not dismissed.

Begun in the early 1990s and overseen by a single police officer, the Youth Diversion Program is today jointly operated by Napa PD officers and coordinators from the non-profit Aldea Children and Family Services. In its first year, the program served 64 youth therapy referrals, in-house group sessions, and short-term contracts. In fiscal year 2005, assisted by an $11,157 grant from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations, the program's staff increased to three, and served 230 juveniles.

Juveniles are referred to the program from a variety of avenues, including school officials, courts representatives, school resource officers, and patrol officers.

"Our officers now have an effective tool to use when dealing with parents and their kids," says Napa PD Commander Andy Lewis. "The last thing we want to tell parents is, 'Sorry, there's nothing we can do.' Most of the time, when it comes to juvenile issues, there is something that can be done."

Because behavior modifications are clear-cut and spelled out in the contract, program participants know what is expected of them, and what consequences will result if they fail to follow the rules. It is a structure some have never encountered before. Some of the program participants have even developed an interest in law enforcement, and gone into public safety as a profession.

This year, two youths who had dropped out of school returned to their studies, and have been accepted into a program at California State University, San Jose that allows them to attend college, with the expectation of receiving a college degree.

"I really believe most kids want to be held accountable," Lewis says. "They want directions from loved ones, from family, from schools, and a lot of these kids have not had that support. We don't win them all, but we do have a pretty good track record of success."

Bryn Bailer, a former newspaper reporter, is a contributing editor for Police. By night, she is a member of the Tucson (Ariz.) Police Department Communications Division.