“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” —Sen. Robert F. Kennedy on the Day of Affirmation, June 6, 1966, at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Over the years I have looked to those famous words for inspiration and a call to action in the face of personal and professional challenges. Sen. Kennedy’s legacy is a result of the expression of great vision, moral courage and decisive action that served to change the course of history. We have such an opportunity today to change the life course for youth impacted by a history of maltreatment and its consequences.
The great human and financial costs of the effects of violence and maltreatment of children have been researched and documented for decades. We now have compelling data about the higher prevalence of maltreated youth in the juvenile justice system, as evidenced by jurisdictions like King County, Wash.; Los Angeles; the state of Missouri, and others. In Doorways to Delinquency (Halemba & Siegel, 2011), the authors found that 67 percent of the youth served in the juvenile justice system in King County had previous involvement in the child protection system.
The results are similar in my home jurisdiction of Outagamie County, Wis. In addition, we are finding that youth with a history of maltreatment are referred for their first delinquent offense one to two years earlier and recidivate about twice as frequently as their peers. Our data also indicates that maltreated youth are prone to penetrate more deeply into the juvenile justice system once they enter, resulting in frequent placements in out-of-home care or juvenile corrections. When it comes to opportunities for success, dual status youth face a disadvantage that has implications reaching throughout their adult lives.
Thanks to the work of the RFK Children’s Action Corps and the various local jurisdictions participating in reform efforts, we have substantial knowledge about what it takes to mitigate the effects of maltreatment and bend the trajectory for youth away from continued delinquency and its adverse consequences. The sum of this knowledge imposes an ethical imperative upon all of us working for children and youth to collaborate and make use of our resources to enact reform.
I’m calling on each of you today to answer that imperative.
Recently, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced a renewed funding initiative for the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice to provide technical assistance to four competitively selected sites aimed at improving outcomes for dual status youth. You can find the application for the initiative here: http://www.rfknrcjj.org/initiatives/.
As someone whose jurisdiction participated in the first round of the initiative in 2012, I strongly urge you to consider applying. I know of no better way to answer the call to improve outcomes for youth impacted by maltreatment and delinquency. The experience has enabled meaningful, systematic collaboration and information sharing between our child protection and juvenile justice divisions and helped transform our organizational culture toward the pursuit of common goals. Priceless accomplishments!
I paraphrase here Sen. Kennedy’s warning against the four dangers often encountered in the pursuit of change: the belief that one person cannot make a difference in the face of great challenges (futility), the belief that hopes and idealism must always succumb to the limitations of policies and resources (expediency), the difficulty of standing up to the disapproval of our colleagues (timidity) and the false and insidious reassurances of the status quo (comfort).
We have all faced these challenges along the way in the form of budget limitations; the indifference of colleagues, superiors or staff; or the disapproval of some who do not believe in the restorative power of youth engagement and healing. I can tell you from firsthand experience that the amazing staff of the RFK National Resource Center and the cohort group of practitioners involved in dual status youth reform offer the perfect antidote: optimism, hope, support and great expertise.
Sen. Kennedy declared that historic Day of Affirmation in Cape Town as a day of celebration of liberty. Through collaboration, engagement and effective practice, we have the capacity to improve the outcomes for many youth disaffected and disadvantaged by their life experiences, offer them a path of liberation from the hurtful events of their past and provide hope for a better future.
By uniting the passion generated from the many centers of energy and daring that exist among you, my colleagues working in child welfare and juvenile justice, we can help create a new Day of Affirmation for Dual Status Youth. Become a ripple of hope in your community, and join the current of reform on behalf of our youth.
Mark Mertens is the manager of the Outagamie County Health and Human Services Department’s Youth and Family Services Division (Appleton, Wis.) and serves as a member of the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice’s Dual Status Youth Practice Network.