SAN JOSE, Calif. — At 8 years old, Marco had spent most of his life in the child welfare system. When an uncle took him in, to the first stable family environment he’d ever known, the boy finally began to thrive.
When he turned 13, his behavior changed. He started fighting at school and smoking marijuana daily. His uncle feared for the family’s safety. Marco was sent to a group home. Soon, he was living on the street, addicted to methamphetamine.
The scenario is all too common, said Laura Garnette, chief probation officer for Santa Clara County. “Kids hit adolescence and something snaps.
“We don’t know why, whether it’s memories or the onset of puberty,” said Garnette, who first studied to be a psychologist. “Something triggers past trauma.”
Youths who enter the delinquency system from child welfare, as Marco did, are also at greater risk for mental health problems and educational deficiencies. “The research is very clear,” said John Tuell, executive director of the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, which oversees the center’s dual status youth initiative.
“Dual-status youth” are those involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Historically, juvenile justice and other child-serving systems have not been aligned. The RFK Center has worked with 13 jurisdictions on efforts designed to synchronize the two systems and better serve dual-status youths.
Santa Clara County, as one of the first demonstration sites to enact the initiative, underwent intensive training to improve outcomes for such kids. The program has been running since June 1, 2014.
Previously, Marco might have fallen into the bureaucratic and philosophical gap between probation and child welfare. Today, he is back in school and in treatment for substance abuse. Though he is still in a group home, he now lives four days a week with his uncle, whose family is getting supportive services.
“Marco will probably be our first graduate,” said Garnette, who sat in on his hearing in January. “Soon, he’ll be out of both systems. He’ll be living full-time with his uncle. That’s our goal.”
The aim for better outcomes was spelled out in a 2010 “Mission and Vision” statement of the Santa Clara County Juvenile Justice Court, presented by Presiding Judge Patrick Tondreau.
If it is too soon for more than anecdotal evidence of progress, there are clear indications that — with the boost of the initiative’s intensive training — efforts to synchronize child welfare and juvenile probation are working.
- Requests for 241.1 hearings, which determine a child’s dual status, have increased by 9.2 percent between 2011 and 2013, according to the 2013 Santa Clara County Juvenile Justice System Annual Report.
- In 2012, fewer youths in Santa Clara were “direct transfers” to adult court, while the number increased statewide, according to the California Sentencing Institute of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ). (Data-counting may differ, county by county.) In 2014, Santa Clara had one such transfer.
- Rates of state confinement of youth, as well as the number of juveniles in out-of-home placements, were below the state average from 2009 to 2012, CJCJ noted. (Among the sources for CJCJ data are the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Criminal Justice Statistics Center of the California Department of Justice, and the U.S. Census Bureau.)
Pall on the Golden State
In California, 3,000 foster youths are in the juvenile justice system at any given time, according to the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center (PJDC), an affiliate of the American Bar Association’s National Juvenile Defender Center.
Without emotional and family support, young people in the delinquency system may fall behind or withdraw from school. And, because of their complex needs and a dearth of appropriate placements, “Dual-status youth often spend additional time in juvenile hall, even after serving all the confinement time ordered by the juvenile court,” PJDC notes.
California can be Shangri-La or Hades, depending where one’s fortunes fall. The state’s juvenile justice system has a harsh history of funneling youth offenders directly into a decrepit delinquency system. Even when youth crime rates began to decline in the 1990s, counties continued to rely on state-run institutions, where overcrowding invited violence.
A 2003 class-action lawsuit filed by the Prison Law Office accused the California Youth Authority (now called the Division of Juvenile Justice) of denying basic rights and “failing to educate or rehabilitate its wards.” (The DJJ again was found “in violation of its duties to provide education and programming” in 2011; deadlines have been set for the division to comply.) In 2007, Senate Bill 81 ordered that nonviolent, nonserious youth offenders be “realigned” to the local level. Today, CJCJ data shows, the majority of justice-involved youth are served by the counties.
Even at the county level, there is no guarantee that juvenile justice and child welfare work collaboratively. Since the state does not, by law, recognize the dual-status population, it is up to each jurisdiction to choose to adopt the recommendations of Section 241.1 of the Welfare and Institutions Code, which sets terms for juvenile probation and child welfare to work together.
Fifteen years after that statute was passed, Santa Clara is one of only a dozen California counties that can boast this kind of cross-system coordination.
“Santa Clara County has distinguished itself. They have built a solid protocol for working together,” RFK’s Tuell said.
“I’m impressed by what they’ve overcome,” he said, citing the difficulty of coordinating long-separate data systems and funding streams, as well as improving the exchange of information. “There has been a collective effort to say, ‘These are our kids and we are responsible for their rehabilitation and treatment.’”
No longer on hold
A framed poster from the 1986 coming-of-age film “Stand by Me” hangs in the office of the Honorable Patrick Tondreau, presiding judge of the Juvenile Court of Santa Clara County since 2008. Settling in at his desk after a long morning in court recently, Tondreau was happy to talk about the progress made under his watch.
“Our primary goal is rehabilitation, not punishment,” he said. “Seventy percent of our kids have mental health issues. Seventy percent have substance abuse issues. They have dysfunctional home issues. They have education issues. We have to address everything going on in a kid’s life in order to help make that kid a success.”
The turning point came in 2009, when Tondreau was invited to bring a team to Georgetown University for a conference on dual status youth.
“What struck me was when they asked, ‘How many of you have a lead agency?’ and every team at the conference — except us — raised their hands. It was embarrassing.”
What Santa Clara had instead of a “lead agency” model — where one agency takes the lead, but both stay involved — was something called “on-hold.” Until a case was settled, the judge had only two choices: put a child’s dependency on hold — curtailing all services — or dismiss their probation.
Everyone knew the on-hold model was flawed. “It was harmful to the kid and the families and the community,” Tondreau said. “So we came back from Georgetown and we started that conversation.”
Initially, there was resistance. “Our probation officers and our social workers didn’t know each other, didn’t understand each other, didn’t trust each other,” he said.
Eventually, probation came on board. “We went through a culture change,” Tondreau said. “Probation saw that they’re not just law enforcement officers. They saw that their role is a lot like a social worker.”
The leadership of juvenile probation and the leadership of child welfare agreed that a system of lead agency was the best practice. Together, they collaborated on a presentation and applied to be part of the RFK and MacArthur Foundation-funded program. They were accepted and a training team came to Santa Clara in 2012.
“Two big things happened,” Tondreau recalled. “We all signed a memorandum of understanding that said, ‘This is not just the flavor of the ice cream for this month. We mean to do business together like this perpetually.’
“And, we started to build a ‘co-occurring team’ — beginning with two probation officers, two social workers and a couple of supervisors on both sides,” he said. “They went through massive training.”
Now, when the judge orders a 241.1 — for cases that straddle both systems — the co-occurring team steps in. If they decide a case should go to the dually involved youth unit, both probation and dependency stay involved. Plans to expand are already underway, Tondreau said. “We know we can handle more kids.”
If there are no hard numbers yet to measure success, Garnette isn’t fazed. “Three years from now we WILL have hard numbers,” she said, emerging from a grant-writing session to request funding for two new social workers. “Noticeably, it’s working.”
On the right path
Once a case is labeled “dually involved,” another team convenes — a family meeting, organized by a facilitator who is also a youth advocate.
“They bring in everybody under the sun,” Tondreau said, including parents or foster parents, social workers and probation officers. The group stays on board until a case is decided. The anecdotal evidence is encouraging, he said. “Kids are saying, I really like my team, I’m glad they’re involved in my life.”
A growing body of scientific research shows that the adolescent brain is more malleable and more complex than previously known. The findings have informed progressive legislation: In 2014, taking a cue from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the California Supreme Court acknowledged that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentences.”
The distinction has come into play in Santa Clara.
“I had a kid in court Tuesday who was on the dually involved youth team,” said Tondreau. “Seventeen years old. A foster kid. He’d committed a sex offense.”
The district attorney agreed to dismiss probation, an outcome that may have been unlikely not long ago. The decision was made to keep him in dependency.
“It was the kind of case that was serious, but he had so matured, and was so engaged in treatment — as a sex offender, he went to a specialist — that both his social worker and his probation officer had absolute confidence that he was going to be a success,” the judge said. “I think it had something to do with the team. You could tell that they really knew him.”
If they successfully complete counseling, such juveniles rarely reoffend, according to the judge. “We’ve been very successful with sex offenders. You can be, when you get hold of them when they’re still forming their attitudes and behaviors.”
Even in the best of circumstances, adolescents are vulnerable to poor judgment while their brains are developing. “You’re not weighing consequences because you don’t have the ability to do it quite yet,” said Tondreau, who confessed that he knows this through personal experience.
“Part of the reason for my love of juvenile court is that I was in juvenile delinquency court myself,” he said. “I was a good kid, but I got involved with a couple of guys and we snuck out every night and were going for joy rides. Nobody locked their cars back in 1961. We’d get in the car. We’d drive around. And we’d park it right where we’d found it. We weren’t trying to hurt anybody. Then one night, we hit a telephone pole. Everybody got hurt. Not badly. We were lucky.”
At the time he was an Eagle Scout and on the basketball team of his Jesuit high school in Portland, Ore.
He never forgot the sadness he felt, or how deeply upset his parents were. “The shame that they had, that cured everything. The judge couldn’t have done anything to me,” he said.
“Even as a really good kid, with really good parents, I made some terrible mistakes. Adolescents screw up. It’s what happens.”
Now, as a judge of adolescents, he brings that awareness to the bench.
“I tell my kids, ‘You’re a good kid. I know you’re a good kid. You just screwed up. You’re not thinking straight. You’ve just got to get through this, to grow up, and to have this as a learning experience.” Just like he did.
Heidi Benson is a San Francisco-based writer and former reporter and editor for the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. Winner of the 2006 PEN USA award for literary journalism (for "The Life and Death of Iris Chang"), she is a recent graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco.