Working with today’s generation of youth involved in the criminal justice system does not provide instant gratification for direct service workers. Today’s generation do not get up to volunteer a seat for the elderly. Today’s generation will curse out their parents, teachers and strangers just because they feel like doing so.
We can blame it on social media, lack of parenting and lack of community involvement in the village model. After all the blaming is done, however, how do we empower a community of professionals who give 100 percent of themselves to a population who are not always receptive? How do we empower professionals whose salary is often far below that of their peers due to being in the social service field?
When I was a youth in the ‘90s, there was an expectation of respect that was always present when communicating with adults. As a youth involved in the juvenile justice system in that same decade, I knew there was a level of respect you needed to maintain whether in the streets, community or courtroom.
Even though you may have been in the streets with your friends cursing, fighting and creating havoc, that same behavior was not to be taken back into your home or school. The expectation of respect meant that one could not curse at their parents or otherwise disrespect their parents or teachers.
When I was arrested for the second time, I requested the police officer send me to detention because I was too worried about what I would face at home with my parents. The thought of being detained for committing what I thought at the time were petty crimes was a real consequence that the judge offered me. Realizing I would be unable to hang out with my friends and would lose my freedom while being detained in a facility led me to the straight and narrow. When I was offered therapy, I jumped at the opportunity.
I see a new culture within youth today. Many of today’s youth are not intimidated by the thought of being detained. In many cases, being detained has become the new rite of passage to becoming a “man” or gaining street credit. Youth today often feel that if they have been detained then they have a higher level of street credit. They feel it is their right to be disrespectful to adults, elders, teachers and community leaders. Youth today do not feel the pressure of the expectation of respect.
How do we empower the direct service staff working with our youthful offenders to empower them for positive changes in behavioral, social and competency skills? How can we convince our direct service staff that their investment in the youth will actually make a difference? As professionals working with the juvenile justice population, we are aware there is no instant gratification and it can be many years before we know if our investment made a difference.
Employers must be creative in how they support their direct service staff to help ensure that a level of optimism can endure and that they still maintain a sense of value, even when they feel completely discouraged. We do not want our staff to become burnt out because a handful of youthful offenders feel it is their right to be disrespectful.
Executive staff need to support the direct staff by giving them opportunities to vent their frustrations without being disciplined. Incorporating “mental health” days is very important for staff who may have been involved in an incident that included police or affected another participant. Staff appreciation events are very important to provide a break and an opportunity to create some hope and re-energize direct staff, who are often the pivot of the program infrastructure. Creating and maintaining an environment of positive staff morale with support from executive staff will lead to lower turnover and let staff feel empowered.
As an executive of programs that serve a majority of youth who are underserved, I recognize that it is key for every staff member to feel empowered, that their opinion matters and that their input aids program development and implementation. If we work to support our direct staff who hold community-based programs together for youthful offenders, we will in return have an opportunity to create a supportive environment for them and help create a cultural change among the youth.
Jennifer Gauthier is the CEO of Lead4Life, Inc., an emerging nonprofit serving youth and adults in the criminal justice system. She brings both life experience and professional training to her work of empowering young people and young adults in the criminal justice system.