Center Aims to Keep Status Offenders Out of Courts

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In Florida, a statewide network of nonprofits working seven days a week, 24 hours a day provides community-based help for families of teens in crisis.

In Clark County in Washington state, students who skip school must attend a truancy workshop where they learn consequences of not attending and sign a statement pledging to improve their attendance.

In Calcasieu Parish, La., a one-stop “Multi-Agency Resource Center” under the Office of Juvenile Justice Services serves as a centralized intake point for families in need of services.

Such interventions are part of a growing effort to keep youths out of court for “status offenses” such as truancy, violation of a curfew, running away from home or drinking alcohol.

Now there’s a vast new online resource for jurisdictions seeking alternatives to the courts for status offenses.

The Status Offense Reform Center, launched Friday by the Center on Youth Justice at the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, brings together step-by-step guides to the reform process, case studies from the field, advice from experts on handling status offenses, a huge online library and other resources.

The center details ways for jurisdictions to implement, sustain and monitor system changes designed to keep juveniles out of court for status offenses.

The center, supported by funding through the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, reflects the realization that families and community-based resources, not the juvenile justice system, are best-equipped to deal with status offenders.

Launch of the center comes about a week after a report by the nonprofit Coalition for Juvenile Justice calling for a ban on detaining status offenders. The report said detaining status offenders, as judges sometimes do for violation of orders not to repeat a status offense, may increase the likelihood youths will become more involved with the juvenile justice system later and even with the criminal justice system when they become adults.

The report, titled “National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses,” said detained status offenders are often held in overcrowded, understaffed facilities where they can be exposed to violence.

While that report focused on the whys behind status offense reform, Vera’s Status Offense Reform Center provides close looks at the hows.

“The thrust of the center is really about how do you do the work and not necessarily from a theoretical standpoint, but actually from the sort of nitty-gritty details,” Annie Salsich, director of Vera’s Center on Youth Justice, told JJIE.org.

Vera knows the territory well: For about a dozen years, the institute has helped more than 30 jurisdictions reform systems with the goal of keeping status offenders out of the juvenile justice system.

The new online center aims to provide what Salsich calls “online technical assistance” for jurisdictions that can’t afford to have experts come in and offer it in person.

In a white paper released just before the center went live, Vera spelled out some of the reasons it makes sense to undertake reforms to keep kids out of court.

The most recent national estimates suggest 137,000 status offenses were processed in court in 2010, and youth in more than 10,000 of those cases spent time in detention.

On the center’s website, Vera notes it’s costly and does more harm than good to handle status offense cases in overburdened courts “ill-equipped to provide the assistance youth and families in crisis urgently need.”

The site points to jurisdictions nationwide where community-based, family-focused alternatives to court intervention have reduced family court caseloads and lowered government costs while providing “meaningful and lasting support to children and families.”

Vera says successful reform includes:

  • Ways to steer status offenders away from courts and toward community-based services.

  • An immediate response, when necessary, providing trained professionals to help families deal with status offenses to “de-escalate the situation.”

  • A “triage process” that distinguishes between a range of cases ranging from serious ones requiring immediate and ongoing support to minor ones requiring little intervention.

  • Easy access to effective services that engage not only the youth but the entire family.

  • Ongoing monitoring of services to assess performance and, when necessary, make adjustments.

Vera’s online center highlights case studies of successful reform efforts.

In Florida, for example, the statewide network represents 31 community agencies that serve troubled teens ages 10 to 17 through nonresidential and residential services, including round-the-clock shelters.

The network provides screening; a thorough intake meeting about the family and youth; an in-depth psychosocial assessment; a referral to a network provider; continuing review of a case; and mandatory follow-up 180 days after the end of services.

The network has contributed to dramatic results: In fiscal year 2013, only 4 percent of status offenses were handled by courts, and the network said in 2011 its preventive services had saved the state more than $160 million in juvenile justice out-of-home placement costs.

In Washington state’s Clark County, truant students at a high risk of failure are enrolled in the “Truancy Project,” in which they receive interventions including home visits and an analysis of their mental health needs. During the 2011-12 school year, only 10 percent of truant students in the county became involved in family court proceedings, compared with nearly 40 percent in the 2008-09 school year.

Since the 2011 launch of the Multi-Agency Resource Center in Louisiana’s Calcasieu Parish, where status offenders may be referred by law enforcement, family members, school officials or others, the time span between seeking help and receiving it has dropped from 50 days or more to about two hours.

Vera’s center also includes detailed “toolkits” loaded with how-tos. The first two, launched with the center’s site, focus on structuring system change and using local information to guide that change. The other two toolkits, to go online in 2014, will focus on planning and implementing system change and monitoring and sustaining it.

Among common challenges, Salsich says, are a lack of time and money to embark on and carry out changes that will ultimately divert status offenders from the courts.

She said cost savings typically don’t come immediately but ultimately result from decreased spending on court processing and out-of-home placements.

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