The Post-secondary Experience in the Juvenile Justice Environment, Part 3

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As previously covered, clear and timely communication, flexibility, plus a collaborative mindset are the essential elements of a vibrant juvenile justice or social services internship.  However, without enthusiastic initiative taken by students, instructors and supervisors alike, gaps may develop which could undermine the best of plans or intentions.

Since the internship is primarily for the benefit of the student, interns should be prepared to assume the majority responsibility for seeing that the mechanics of the internship run smoothly.

This means speaking up promptly if deadlines are missed, or if components and stakeholders don’t interact as expected.  Likewise, interns should not hesitate to make suggestions to both instructors and/or supervisors if they discover additional learning opportunities, which might be incorporated into the program.   Taking this kind of initiative is essential to acquiring one of the key attributes of a professional — anticipatory lifelong learning. Completion of a degree or certificate program of study is only the beginning, not the end, of what is required to not just survive, but to thrive in the demanding field of juvenile justice or human services.

Seek And You Will Find

Headshot of Michael Mitchell of Association for Child and Youth Care Practice wearing glasses, dark jacket.Some students may have little choice but to take the initiative, especially if tasked by their instructor, department or school with finding their own internship placements.  However, this doesn’t mean that students need to go it alone. Collaborating with other students can reduce the workload. In seeking the assistance of county or city social service departments, the juvenile justice authorities or community non-profits, students will likely find enthusiastic professionals, who are more than willing to assist.  This assistance may include personal referrals, introductions and/or general brainstorming. Checking in with the campus placement office can also help in developing employer leads.

With the proper support of the instructor, students may even convince an employer to participate in the program for the first time.  Working up talking points with the student will help them clearly and concisely communicate what they are seeking in order to secure an internship opportunity.

Experienced Concordia University professor Varda Mann-Fedder states, “…the key is that the classroom instructor give the right support to both the supervisors and the students. This is labor intensive, but is the absolute best way to maximize outcomes for everyone.”

The World Is Your Oyster

Employers seeking to attract interns might start by developing a database from an online exploration of post-secondary institutions both local and a bit more distant.  Since juvenile justice and social services draw from a wide combination of major and minor areas of study, agencies are encouraged to cast a wide net. In addition to specific programs in criminal justice or social work, supervisors will want to look at teaching, psychology, sociology, non-profit management, and child and family development to name just a few.

A short promotional email message, directed to the department head, is the first step in getting the message out to instructors and students alike. Start the message with “Please announce, print, post and forward as you see fit.”   Work up a streamlined flyer attachment, with bullet points as to the benefits of working in the agency or program. Contacting a school’s placement office may also yield results, as graduate placement and internship placement share much in common.

It’s important to remember that internships need not coincide with the school term, and that most students return home from state-wide and out-of-state campuses for the summer.

Employers will want to reach out to two- and four-year institutions, both undergrad and graduate programs alike.  Some of the most motivated and committed intern candidates have proven to be returning adult students from 2-year or technical colleges.  These students bring with them life experience and maturity, from first careers, military service or family-raising, which is invaluable to a quality internship experience for all involved. In addition, these returning students especially offer fresh perspectives and innovative ideas, which can truly ramp up the collaborative spirit of any internship.

As previously mentioned, synergy can make a good internship program into a great one.  If an agency has several different programs, it’s wise for program coordinators to collaborate in recruiting and enrolling the best candidate for each particular program.  This can be accomplished through joint interviews, where students and supervisors are able to exchange program objectives and review student learning and career goals. This saves time and energy for all concerned.

What Goes Around Comes Around

In closing out an intern’s tenure, supervisors and instructors have an essential responsibility to capture as much student feedback as possible.  As with a strong curriculum model, both of these stakeholders need to take qualitative and quantitative measurements, which generate outcome data, then feed that back into the program design and operations.  Unlike the Twelve-step slogan, it’s a mistake to “take what you like and leave the rest.” Outcome data left on the table is a priceless opportunity squandered. Re-integrating feedback into program revisions and enhancements produces a beautiful synergy, which becomes almost self-perpetuating.  This keeps programs fresh, responsive, relevant and innovative. This can be done in two ways.

Not unlike the weekly activity summary, which is used as a formative assessment tool, the intern exit evaluation should articulate the totality of the experience for all three stakeholders, but especially the supervisor and the intern.  This document can act as an informal summative evaluation for the instructor.

Questions might include:

How would you characterize your overall internship experience?

To what extent did you achieve your personal internship objectives and those of the course?

What personal advice would you like to give your supervisor and instructor?

The other productive summary activity is the exit interview with the agency CEO or program director.  This allows the student to be openly candid about their experience. These fresh insights can prove invaluable to a management team, which is open to applying a synergistic model to the entire agency.

From beginning to end, timely written or verbal communication, clear expectations, initiative, innovative creativity, and synergy are the essence of a quality internship.  The following are examples of what a well-designed and executed program can mean to students:

“It has been a wonderful experience.  I’ve learned from the best that human services has to offer in my opinion.   [My supervisor] has been patient with me in times of need, but he also has helped me set high expectations.  This allowed me the room I needed to grow. Working with the rest of the staff throughout the agency has also been very beneficial.” Female undergrad, 4-year public university, Criminal Justice Certificate program

“I need to be more direct with clients and not give them an excuse to not do something. Instead of saying ‘if you could return those forms’ say ‘we need those forms by this date’. I could use a better understanding of how/when to withdraw a client from the program. I need to be quicker at calling clients and be more confident when talking to them. Lastly, I need to start taking the first steps toward reaching my learning goals.“ Male graduate student, 4 year private college, psychology major/criminal justice minor

This type of honest insightful feedback is priceless to supervisors and instructors, who are self-confident and professionally focused, yet flexible and quality-minded.

The Gift Which Keeps On Giving

Yes, setting up a quality internship program is initially labor intensive.  However, working collaboratively with an outcome-based mentality, instructors, students and employers can jointly create a peerless educational experience.  This in turn, may well improve client services, staff morale, employee acquisition and turnover, plus community goodwill. Done smartly, post-secondary internships can generate years and years of diverse, quality and enduring benefits.

Michael Mitchell has worked with more than 30 post-secondary interns from four-year and two-year institutions who have worked with juvenile court-supervised, at-risk, special-education teens, plus adolescents with clinical mental health issues. He is a first vice president, online publications editor and membership services chair for the Association for Child and Youth Care Practice. Write to him at He wishes to acknowledge his sincere gratitude to Program Director Jay Kiefer and Director of Finance Shannon Algrem, both with Briarpatch Youth Service of Madison, Wisconsin, for their indispensable assistance in the preparation of this series.            

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