Children's Voice July/August 2008

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Serving Youth Through Systems Integration

By Sorrel Concodora

This past January, 14-year-old David Bennett* was resentenced to six more months of treatment at a juvenile detention center for the death of his 11-year-old cousin. David lived in a rural community with his two older sisters and mother, who would often accommodate other family members for extended periods of time. In the summer of 2004, David and his sisters were removed from the home and placed in foster care. David was 11 years old. The reunification of the family took less than one week; however, during the next year and a half David and his sisters would find themselves in and out of foster care several more times.

The severity of problems surrounding David and his family pinnacled in December 2005 when their home caught fire. Most were able to escape physically unharmed, with the exception of Serena, David's 11-year-old cousin, who died in the fire. Within two weeks David and his sisters were back in foster care. The following week David was arrested for setting the fire that burned down his home and took his cousin's life. David, who was 12 years old at the time, was adjudicated delinquent and placed in an adult jail. Several months later he was moved to a secure juvenile detention treatment center with specialized programs that address emotional behavioral issues that lead to delinquent behavior. David, now 15, is being transferred to a less restrictive residential facility. His sisters, for reasons not having to do with the fire, are in foster care and have two hours of visitation with their mother every month.

Opening Communication

While David's case is very extreme, it exemplifies what so many practitioners see on a regular basis: dually involved youth, or youth who have been served by both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. An increasing amount of research is now available to support the undeniable relationship between child maltreatment and delinquency. The child welfare and juvenile justice systems often serve the same children, respond to similar issues, and ultimately desire the same positive outcomes for the youth and communities they serve. Yet, traditionally and typically, they work in exclusion of one another.

Across the country, communities are starting to recognize the link between these two systems and are taking extraordinary steps to bring agencies together to best serve dually involved youth. Such collaborations have been able to eliminate the duplication of assessments and services, provide seamless processes easily navigable by families, reduce the time youth spend in detention, strengthen families and stabilize home environments, reduce recidivism, and improve the overall outcomes for dually involved youth. To reach these goals, communities are developing interagency strategies that pool resources, increase information sharing, formalize interagency case coordination, and establish cross-systems training of staff.

The Child Welfare League of America established the Juvenile Justice Division in 2000 through the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which also led to the development of CWLA's Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems Integration Initiative. This initiative uses a careful, methodologically designed action strategy to assist jurisdictions wishing to improve outcomes for their youth and communities. In the last eight years, states and communities encouraged by the leadership, dedication, and successful outcomes demonstrated in the many jurisdictions that have undertaken this initiative have moved forward with similar objectives. The Juvenile Justice Division strives to provide CWLA members (and other public and private youth-serving agencies and organizations) with useful tools, resources, and publications to help further their worthy goals.

Successful Collaborations in the United States Virgin Islands

In June 2006, CWLA provided a keynote address at the U.S. Virgin Islands Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Symposium that initiated dialogue encouraging the collaboration of various agencies to better serve their children and youth. Within a few months, Kimberly Causey Gomez, Assistant Commissioner for the Department of Human Services (DHS) in the U.S. Virgin Islands, facilitated a meeting hosted by the Chief Family Court Judge that inevitably led to the formation of the St. Croix Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems Integration Initiative. Since March 2007, this broad group of public and private agencies and organizations, in collaboration with CWLA, has been making remarkable strides for the dependent children and youthful offenders they serve.

Once the various agencies and organizations collaborated together, they conducted a legal and policy analysis to achieve a better understanding of how local and federal statutes are able to support their systems integration initiative. During this process the committee learned there was more flexibility with information sharing and confidentiality policies than they had originally known or practiced. This new knowledge opened many doors for new multidisciplinary teams to review dual jurisdiction cases.

By sharing information and working together, the youth-serving professionals involved conducted a very thorough data profile of the young clients they commonly serve. Through this data analysis, the stakeholders involved learned that over one-third of the youth being served by the U.S. Virgin Islands DHS had at some point entered the juvenile justice system. Of those dually involved youth, more than 50% had a history of maltreatment. The committee also found that within the dual jurisdiction population, approximately 50% had mental health deficiencies and 90% had educational deficiencies.

Having a better understanding of their young clients allows the committee to address the important legal issues relevant to dually involved youth. Currently, the legal and policy analysis committee is researching local and federal statutes that will encourage parents to be more involved with their children. According to Causey Gomez, this also includes discussing ways to create consequences for parents who either abuse or neglect their children or contribute to the delinquency of a minor involved in the system.

Overcoming Barriers

Many communities are accustomed to believing that the laws and policies within their jurisdictions are more restrictive than beneficial, discouraging systems integration efforts. "Sometimes people are reluctant to undertake the systems integration work because they worry that they do not have enough support in their community or the resources to carry out the work," says Janet Wiig, Director of the Juvenile Justice Division at CWLA. Wiig, who is currently consulting on systems integration initiatives in Arizona and Washington state, knows that a legal and policy analysis can serve as a useful tool to reveal ways to allow for information sharing, pool resources, and create multi-agency collaborations for new programs and protocols. This analysis can also offer new interpretations to already known provisions and bring awareness regarding barriers that may be overcome.

John George, Senior Consultant for CWLA, believes that "by separating myth from fact" a legal and policy analysis can also reveal and break down challenging barriers. John A. Tuell, Director of CWLA's Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems Integration Initiative, agrees. "The barriers may be real or perceived--but in many instances the effort produces policies that artfully explain the prohibitions and proper protections provided by state and federal statutes and regulations," says Tuell. "The process permits an understanding of those restrictive policies that have traditionally been enforced without support from statutory language."

Forming a Committee

A positive relationship between collaborating agencies begins with carefully organized committees. "To get the ball rolling, [communities] need to have a small number of key players from the various agencies who see the problems that need to be addressed and agree to sit down and begin identifying the desired improved outcomes for youth," says Wiig. Ideally, this committee includes an array of youth-serving professionals who have experience in the respective local law and procedures and are able to commit time, energy, resources, and credibility to the overall goals of the initiative. Committee members vouch credibility to other collaborating organizations and their own frontline staff (who will most likely be taking on work created by the committee) and they legitimize the work to the community.

Initial committee meetings give each member an opportunity to share materials and identify the legal and policy issues relevant to the initiative. With these initial conversations it is essential to have the assistance of a facilitator. Tuell, who is currently facilitating meetings in Illinois, Washington, New Hampshire, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, has guided committees through the process of cataloging relevant statutes and policies. At times, he has had to play the role of a "neutral convener" to resolve contentions that have come up in analyses, especially in the beginning. "It is important to remember that the goal is to produce agreement--or consensus--that satisfies the interests of the participants and their jurisdiction," says Tuell. "The solutions need to be organic and applicable in their world of practice."

"There is usually some intensive work involved in this kind of analysis, and each partner organization has its own considerations and limitations, including the amount of staff time that can be devoted," says George. Because of this, whether it is a local person or an outside consultant, having somebody serve as a project coordinator can greatly benefit the entire initiative.

"The project coordinator is key," says Causey Gomez. The Virgin Islands Systems

Integration Initiative hired a project coordinator who was able to "assist in all of the subcommittees in coordinating the meetings, notify members of meetings, send e-mail correspondence for follow-up, and compile work completed in the subcommittees."

Through these initial meetings the committee determines which laws and policies are most relevant to their desired goals. Together, the committee researches how the local, state, and federal laws affect the community's child-serving entities. "[This ensures the committee has an] understanding of the rules set out by these laws, as well as the underlying purposes and goals of pertinent legislative and administrative mandates," says Jessica Heldman, legal consultant for CWLA and author of A Guide to Legal and Policy Analysis for Systems Integration.

Research and Analysis

Through surveys or interviews, committee members conduct qualitative research by sharing their experience with how the current legal and policy framework shapes the system. "The benefit of conducting qualitative research with practitioners and case managers is that it contributes to a practical understanding of current interpretation and implementation of law and policy," says Tuell. Through this process the committee may find that relevant laws are explained or interpreted differently. Successful committees also extend the qualitative research beyond its members and include the points of view from stakeholders at all levels.

With this information compiled and organized, the committee conducts a more in-depth analysis and then reports positive findings that encourage collaborations among youth-serving agencies to the systems integration taskforce. These findings include "areas in which agencies and entities are already working together productively, areas in which efforts are underway to develop coordinated strategies, and areas in which the legal and policy framework supports the goals of the overall initiative," says Heldman. Likewise, the committee addresses the barriers that discourage coordinated efforts among agencies.

Looking Forward

People who choose to serve youth have a special drive and determination, but often face barriers that hinder them from providing positive outcomes. The systems integration initiatives, however, have been successful in achieving many positive outcomes for youth and the systems that serve them. "Those who choose to take on the task of legal and policy analysis have the opportunity to create new possibilities for interagency understanding and collaboration," says Heldman. Every community has unique features, but through legal and policy analysis, collaborating agencies have the framework to develop an action strategy to achieve systems integration goals. Together, agencies develop infrastructure, agreements, resources, and new polices and procedures and promote statutory change. While successful solutions and agreements in one community may not have the same application in another, as more jurisdictions take on this work, core strategies are being developed to craft interagency solutions to address particular jurisdictions' information sharing, funding, service, or resource issues.

Foster parents, social workers, teachers, probation officers, mental health care providers, and other mentors often meet children who are like David--children raised in environments that have not supported a happy, healthy, and thriving childhood. Instead, these children face the increased likelihood of neglect, abuse, maltreatment, and a trajectory toward delinquency. As a result, these children may encounter many people devoted to helping them, but who perceive their collaborative action to be limited by statutory and/or policy prohibitions. While it may be easy to become frustrated or discouraged, CWLA and the Juvenile Justice Division hope that you will be inspired by the communities currently working together to achieve common goals. There is realistic and positive hope for children like David, and for the people who are determined to help to help them.

*David and Serena's names have been changed to protect their identities.

Sorrel Concodora is Program Coordinator of CWLA's Juvenile Justice Division. To learn more about Systems Integration and how it can positively affect your community, contact her at 703/412-2410 or

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