Judge Jay Nixon

Juvenile Judge Jay Nixon says that the key to keeping at-risk youths out of the court system is early identification and treatment of issues such as abuse, neglect, and mental health. A $52,000 grant from the Supreme Court of Ohio will help juvenile and child welfare staff create positive outcomes for these youths.

MOUNT VERNON — It's challenging to create positive outcomes for kids involved in the juvenile justice system or who face abuse, neglect, or dependency issues in the home. The challenge becomes more complicated when they get caught up in both systems.

With the help of a $52,000 grant from the Supreme Court of Ohio, local juvenile and child welfare agencies are taking on that challenge.

Youths involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are called dual-status youths (DSY). Reports show that the number of these youths ranges from 17% to 60%. Locally, Juvenile Judge Jay Nixon puts the number between 30% and 70%.

“These are the kids who stick around, who will be citizens of Knox County for years and years,” said Nixon. “So we are benefiting the community by making the outcomes better for these kids.”

Dual status covers three levels:

  • Dually-identified: kids involved in juvenile justice who have a history, but no current involvement, with the child welfare system
  • Dually-involved: kids involved with both systems simultaneously, whether formally or informally
  • Dually-adjudicated: kids engaged in a formal program in both systems

Data shows that DSYs have higher detention rates, frequent placement changes, significant behavioral health needs, higher recidivism rates, and poor educational performances.

“The goal is to identify and deal with issues prior to them becoming dually-involved and adjudicated and to keep them out of the court system,” said Nixon. “Early identification of these kids gets them into the services they need to keep them from becoming dual involved. Once we get them, we can improve their chances.”

Reaching at-risk juveniles

Reaching the kids is the key to positive change and improved outcomes.

It's also the problem.

Nixon said that confidentiality laws such as HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) “hamper the communication between agencies so that we can identify these kids.”

Once a youth becomes involved in the juvenile system, a risk assessment can identify a general area of need, such as a family or living situation, mental health, or substance abuse. However, the evaluation is self-reported.

“There's a bit of resistance for sharing by a kid or a parent for fear of what it could lead to,” explained Nixon. “Twenty-eight percent self-report. I think that is under-represented. If we had the information sharing, we could identify the types and names of youths at risk.

“We have a very good relationship with Job & Family Services,” he continued. “We've held meetings to smooth out various struggles and tensions. We need to make sure we work together to help these kids. I think we are making inroads.”

Freely sharing names of at-risk youths between the courts, prosecutor and probation offices, defense attorneys, and JFS isn't the only obstacle. Different record-keeping procedures, software systems, and information-tracking requirements compound the problem of identifying dual-status, at-risk juveniles.

Breaking down those inter-departmental barriers is the first step. That's where the grant comes in.

Models for Change

The $52,000 grant enables local juvenile and child welfare staff to implement “Models for Change,” a program that encourages system reforms in juvenile justice. It promotes a unified approach to identifying and helping at-risk youths. The goal is to reduce repeat offenses, the use and length of stay in detention, increase residential stability, and create other positive outcomes.

“I'm very happy that this opportunity is available to our county,” said Matthew Kurtz, director of Knox County JFS. “It's very forward-thinking. It's looking at traumatic experiences of the youth and looking at a way to address those problems instead of being punitive.”

Consultants from the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice will offer technical assistance as local officials work through the year-long integration process. Along with child welfare and juvenile justice directors and supervisors, team members include youth and parent representatives, public defender, behavioral health, school resource officers, and guardian ad litem for minors.

Working through various committees, the group will create procedures to track outcomes, recidivism rates, and stability; break down information-sharing barriers while staying within the law; identify common and conflicting goals; and improve data collection. It will also explore whether blending funding and grant sources between agencies is possible.

“There are a lot of restrictions as to how the money can be used,” said Nixon, adding that there is duplication between what the juvenile system, JFS, and schools are trying to do. “We want to look at how we can more effectively and efficiently serve these kids. I think there is a lot of potential in that.

“One of our goals is to shorten the time between ordering a drug and mental health assessment and placement,” he said. That includes identifying potential barriers such as payment difficulties or lack of providers.

Noting that immediacy works better for consequences and treatment, Nixon said, “We need to speed up the court process and working with providers. One of the things we're looking at changing is how to arraign and the court process. Sometimes it takes a month. Maybe we can get it done in a week instead.”

The process will include conference calls in addition to on-site consultant visits.

“Ultimately, the goal is to help kids become law-abiding citizens,” said Nixon. “So if we can change their thinking, it's going to be better for the community and the kids.”

Outagamie County's experience

Other counties in large, urban areas have implemented the program. Now the goal is to move out to smaller, rural counties. Nixon said that the Ohio Supreme Court chose Knox County because of its population and demographics.

Outagamie County in Wisconsin became a DSY site in 2012. Melissa Blom, manager of the Children, Youth and Families Division of the Outagamie County Health and Human Services Department, said that 64% of youths in Outagamie's juvenile system are dual-status youths. Forty percent are adjudicated delinquents.

After working through the same process that Knox County has begun, Outagamie officials implemented new protocols in March 2013. Changes include a family focus vs. an agency focus and a greater awareness of a trauma-based approach.

“Initially, there was a lot of finger-pointing and a lack of embracing that youth are a part of a family, and the agency has a relationship to work with all of them,” explained Blom. “Often, Child Protective Services would recommend that youth had to be held accountable and would throw their hands up feeling hopeless. Youth Justice would often only work with the youth and not the family system.”

Now there is better and quicker communication between CPS and YJ.

“Families aren't sitting in limbo wondering what's going to happen. We really improved our process,” said Blom.

After discovering that many dual-status youths had a history of trauma exposure, Outagamie approached reforms from the goal of ensuring the delivery of trauma-informed care. Staff from YJ and CPS underwent training in how to care for children who have experienced trauma. Parents and caregivers can also take the course. Within the past year, Outagamie's CPS division began piloting two trauma screening tools.

Another change Outagamie County made, with the approval of the judges, is moving to a one-family, one-court system rather than dual courts.

“If one judge is seeing the family instead of multiple judges, that judge can get a better idea what's driving this child,” said Blom.

Six years into the process, Blom said Outagamie County cannot demonstrate specific outcomes such as reduced recidivism or better educational performance. Youth Justice and CPS continue to face challenges, including confidentiality, data sharing, staff turnover and retraining, the need for youth mental health treatment, and the increasingly higher volume of kids entering CPS.

“We have not been able to say that because of our coordination and working together, we are seeing a reduction. That is the part we're struggling with the most,” she said. “I think we need to do a better job of collecting data.”

Blom said that data collected between 2013 and 2017 is more prevalence-based than outcome-based due to incompatible, non-automated data systems. She noted that her department is at the mercy of which information system Outagamie County buys.

“We struggle in Wisconsin as a county-based system with automating data across youth justice and child welfare as until just recently youth justice information was not contained in WiSACWIS but rather the county database with little ability to cross-reference other than manual,” she said. “We don't have one database; we have three. Trying to get them to marry them and share is difficult.”

WiSACWIS is the Wisconsin Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System.

Although she doesn't have hard data, Blom said that anecdotally, the protocols are working.

“I do think that we are a better system because of [going through the process]. We make solid decisions, and families are not as confused,” she said.

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