As a young probation officer some 28 years ago I was convinced that my studies and life experience had prepared me to single-handedly improve the academic achievement of my clients, their relationships with their family and community, and their mental health and substance abuse issues.
It didn’t take long to realize that I didn’t have all the answers and that if I was going to be successful as a probation officer I needed to collaborate with many different entities. I learned, in time, that if I worked with other child advocates the outcomes for my clients and their families improved dramatically. What I have learned about the power of collaboration is now an everyday part of my work as the agency administrator.
In particular, I have come to see the incredible value of partnering with law enforcement on the front end of the juvenile justice process. When I was appointed to my current position as court services unit director, the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court had recently begun to embrace the belief that not all youth who commit low-level criminal offenses need to enter the formal juvenile court process.
Within one year we increased our diversion rate twofold. This was a tremendous cultural shift and occurred because of a focus on research, best practices and the development of a strong collaborative working relationship with our child-serving partners — most importantly our local police department.
Changing the culture within the court service unit didn’t happen overnight. However, this paled in comparison with the work it took to convince our law enforcement partners that not all youth who violate the law need to come to court in order to be held accountable, and not all youth need to spend time in detention in order to “learn a lesson.”
For years I had heard from local law enforcement that juvenile court was nothing but a “kiddie court” that took too long to process matters and failed to hold youth accountable. To be an effective organization, I knew we had to work with our juvenile offender first responders, the police department, on diversion and to help them gain a better understanding of our agency.
In order to build this relationship we began meeting frequently to discuss areas of mutual concern while listening to the police department’s frustrations and needs. Gradually mutual trust was developed as we reviewed our mandated/legal responsibilities, introduced research and best practices and reminded them that we shared a similar mission — public safety — that could be best accomplished if we worked together.
The collaborative atmosphere that now exists between the two agencies has allowed for our most recent combined effort, the implementation of a jurisdiction-wide restorative justice program that includes partnerships between law enforcement, schools, courts and a nonprofit organization.
By using restorative justice practices instead of implementing traditional disciplinary methods for minor behavioral issues, we aimed to reduce suspension and expulsion rates and interrupt the school-to-court pipeline.
We began by educating law enforcement about the value of restorative justice and how it actually worked. By meeting monthly, the group moved from conceptualization to implementation and trained law enforcement, court officials, school principals, administrators and the community.
The first real sign that the initiative was being fully embraced was when the chief of police issued an order directing all patrol officers to first consider the utilization of restorative justice before filing a formal complaint with the juvenile court. That action then caused the juvenile court to develop diversion opportunities and a restorative justice program for eligible youth that prevents court documentation being produced. This partnership with law enforcement has resulted in a program that successfully addresses critical issues such as minority overrepresentation, bullying and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Collaborative efforts around the support of at-risk youth are not altogether unusual. However, the driving impetus behind the successes we have seen in Fairfax County is the development of a partnership with law enforcement. They joined us in recognizing that kids are different from adults and that it’s OK to use alternative methods to formal court involvement to effectively assist children.
If you have not yet considered how important law enforcement is to your juvenile justice work, please look no further than Fairfax County to assure yourself that it is not only important, it is worth the time every time.
Robert A. Bermingham Jr. is the director of court services for the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in Fairfax, Va., and serves as a member of the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice’s Probation System Review Practice Network.