New Data Powers Progress for Teens, Also Creates Problems, Experts Say at Conference

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John Holland

From left: Denise Herz, director and full professor, School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics, California State University Los Angeles; Hon. Darlene Byrne, presiding judge, Travis County, Texas; Tim Decker, director of the Children’s Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services; Lourdes Rosado, chief of the Civil Rights Bureau in the New York State Attorney General’s Office, and Raphael Weston of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

WASHINGTON — Data from growing research have stormed into the juvenile justice and child welfare fields over the past two decades, providing more raw material to help troubled teens than ever before. But turning that information wave into better outcomes for children — and convincing practitioners within established systems to adopt new approaches — still requires some prodding and commitment to adopting these findings, according to judges, case workers, academics and advocates for children.

A two-day conference at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy brought together hundreds of experts for a series of discussions on how to get the most out of the new data. Panelists and attendees also spent hours examining barriers to progress and discussing ways they can be overcome.

“There is no magic bullet when it comes to implementation. What we’ve heard from practitioners at these sessions over the last two days that these changes are deliberate, institutionally sanctioned changes,” said Jodi Sandfort, professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “When new policies come in, you can either treat it like, ‘Oh no, what are these people doing to us again.’ Or you can embrace it and make it happen. We have to ask ourselves how to change systems, so that all of these new ideas become standard operational procedure.”

Breakout sessions looked at several factors inhibiting evidence-based change, including implicit bias among providers, privacy laws and other obstacles to sharing information, and a general reluctance by some to adapt to new methods after a career operating under the old way of doing things, said Tim Decker, director of the Children’s Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services.

And virtually every speaker emphasized that data and research should never take the place of meeting face to face with the children and families in need of outside help. Equally important, speakers said, is listening to the social workers who deal with the issues daily.

Data doesn’t trump meeting in person

“You can collect all the data you want, but if you don’t go down to the people who live in the neighborhoods, you are going to have to see what it is that they need,” said Madge Pat Mosby, a retired system of family care coach at the University of Maryland’s Division of Social Work. She now works for Montgomery County, Maryland, social services, helping guide families through the complexities of the juvenile justice system.

Her initial brush with the system came not as a worker, but as a parent of three teens, two with mental health challenges. She spoke as a parent, albeit one with broad inside knowledge.

“I advocate for children. I wanted to put a face on my family,” Mosby said while showing slides of her three children celebrating a Christmas nearly two years ago.

One day police in Montgomery County arrived at her door, saying her 13-year-old son had stolen two video games. Mosby said she always taught her children to cooperate with officers and told her son to tell them what he knew. Police brought him down to the police station, separated him from his mother and obtained a confession. Eventually he was sentenced to 14 months in juvenile detention for stealing the two games, Mosby said.

“He was given what they called a light sentence. There was no mediation, no, ‘Let’s do some kind of diversion plan.’ None of that,” she said. “When we went to court, I came up with a program where I had put a 24-hour system in place where he could be monitored, have therapy, get access to a mentor. This was an evidence-based system, not something I just pulled out of my hat. But they didn’t care.”

Without having access to his medication for ADHD and anxiety disorders, the teen acted out behind bars, creating more troubles. When he finally got out of detention, he had to “beg” just to get back into high school, she said. He graduated at 22, works three jobs and has a young baby, Mosby said.

Throughout the conference, participants discussed the advances made since the days of locking up juveniles for minor offenses, but also emphasized the need to keep the momentum going.

Particularly encouraging, participants said, is the trend of child welfare workers and juvenile justice employees such as probation officers working together to craft plans designed not to punish, but to create the best possible outcome for the offenders and their families. That takes a lot of sharing of information and responsibilities that hasn’t happened in the past.

Lourdes Rosado, chief of the Civil Rights Bureau in the New York State Attorney General’s Office, said the amount of data available creates opportunities, but also new sets of problems.

“This is a really dense and difficult area, and you have privacy and other laws to work through, but sharing data is crucial to making sure our work is most effective,” Rosado said, adding that protecting information and ensuring its accuracy is especially important in an age where the Internet creates permanent records.

“The change can be seen in how we are aggregating data. If we start a new project now, everyone actually puts together an evaluation framework to collect data and assess it six months, nine months down the line to see if it is working,” Rosado said. “Aggregating data tells us what are our strengths, lets us see what is best, and if something isn’t working, we can just stop it right away.”

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2 thoughts on “New Data Powers Progress for Teens, Also Creates Problems, Experts Say at Conference

  1. The use of a continuous quality improvement approach, especially when combined with rapid, empirical tests of small changes in policy or practice, makes it difficult to run rigorous evaluations (randomized control trials, etc.), since program or policy-level evaluations require stability in service delivery. In addition, an emphasis on fidelity to the designs evidence-based program suppresses learning and data-driven change. Practitioners engaged in small-scale, incremental change can easily bring their street smarts to the planning of steps toward system improvement.