In their first year out, 26 percent of the young people released from juvenile detention facilities in Washington State wound up homeless or unstably housed. That's according to a DSHS study which followed the 962 youth discharged from the state's juvenile justice system in 2010-2011.
Sadly, it isn't surprising that one-quarter of former juvenile offenders wind up homeless. After all, they've just spent years isolated from the only communities they knew in a place where (all too often) they’ve learned few of the life skills they'll need to be successful on the outside. But the DSHS finding is also alarming. If this trend continues, if the juvenile justice system remains a pipeline to the streets for kids who have served their time, the state will be coping with — and paying for — all the predictable, negative downstream consequences: adult homelessness, incarcerations, unemployment, chronic illness.
The risk of long-term damage starts mounting during those critical 12 months right after discharge. According to the report, young offenders who were released without some kind of stable housing were arrested and convicted for new offenses at higher rates during that first year than the cohort who had places to stay (52-55 percent vs. 38 percent). Young offenders without stable housing options also had higher rates of substance abuse and illness that year, and were twice as likely to develop serious mental disorders or die.
The good news is that the state recognizes the problem and is now gearing up to make sure young offenders receive better support for their return to the real world. John Clayton, assistant secretary of the DSHS Juvenile Justice & Rehabilitation Administration (JJ&RA), has issued a Reentry Initiative.
“We are very concerned about the homelessness issue,” says Kathleen Harvey, JJ&RA administrator for reentry, transition and education. In an effort to reverse the lockup-to-streets trend, JJ&RA has just kicked off a complete overhaul of the programs it uses to prepare youth in juvenile facilities for their return to the community. Officials want those young people to leave detention with better plans for housing: not just a primary residence, but a backup option in case the primary placement falls through. As in the past, each reentry plan will also identify pathways to education, employment, job training and health care. Without these supports, says Harvey, many kids will fail to make a healthy transition to the community.
The most important part of the new overhaul will be a fundamental change in the way JJ&RA develops new reentry plans. Instead of a comparatively top-down, staff-driven approach, the process will be more youth-driven and family-centered. In addition, and for the first time, plans will be tailored to the community each youth expects to rejoin.
This customization is critical, says Harvey, because much about the community will have changed during the young offender's absence. The agency is launching three-month tests at different sites to identify service providers and adults from each youth’s home community who will help the young offender and his or her family develop an individualized reentry plan prior to the exit date. JJ&RA has always started planning for each youth’s future when he or she is admitted to one of its facilities, rather than waiting until the release date looms. Now, especially with state parole services so deeply cut, it’s even more critical that (as Harvey puts it) “we engage the people who are going to be in their lives long-term.”
It makes good sense to bring caring adults from the community into these youngsters' lives. Youth in detention are cut off from the ongoing real-world practice all kids need to grow up responsible. They may learn how to live on the "inside," but not on the outside. Being able to count on supportive adults in their daily lives can help them work on growing-up skills, like resisting peer pressure and staying committed to a positive goal despite obstacles. If the justice system can marshal help from constructive adults, including family members, newly-released youngsters stand a much better chance of making a successful return.
Support from caring grownups seems only right, too, when we consider the harm and deprivation inflicted on most juvenile offenders when they were very young. Sixty percent of court-involved juveniles endured serious trauma including abuse and neglect, with high percentages of physical and sexual abuse in the case of girls. Even kids who were treated better in the past respond to present events with brains that are developmentally different from the brains of adults, and that drive many reckless, destructive young decisions.
Brain development is especially important in the thinking of Judge J. Wesley Saint Clair at King County Juvenile Court. (He also serves on the governing board of the Committee to End Homelessness). Because the human brain continues growing until a person is about 25, a youthful offender who is personally connected with positive adult role models stands a good chance of progressing toward a better life.
Judge Saint Clair argues that officials in charge of juvenile offenders may become more willing to mentor them, and elected leaders may be more inclined to fund effective reentry programs, if they understand the brain science which prompted the Supreme Court to ban capital punishment and mandatory life sentences for juveniles. He makes a point of connecting with the youngsters who come before him, “giving them the opportunity to be heard and understood, and at the same time urging them to choose a path toward more success.”
The push for adult mentoring of at-risk youth has become a national movement. The organization Positive Youth Development (PYD) recommends building programs in which adults in the community guide vulnerable youngsters toward healthy maturation and dissuade them from bad behavior. PYD's suggested approaches to juvenile rehabilitation start with seeing young people not as passive objects of adult intervention but as participants in their own growth. Central themes include focusing on young people's strengths, and finding adults with positive attitudes to work with the youth in a variety of non-family settings: in schools, churches, neighborhood centers and workplaces.
Fewer than 10 percent of juvenile offenders commit violent crimes. With the right kind of help, they won't. They can develop the resiliency and self-directedness they need to overcome harmful behavior patterns before those patterns lead to more serious offenses.
The human element and related complexities woven into youth-driven, community-centered approaches like PYD suggest that revising reentry planning at JJ&RA may require a paradigm shift in staff thinking about how kids develop. This is unlikely to happen without sustained theoretical and practical training, because even receptive professionals in a field will subconsciously absorb new rhetoric, concepts or "steps" into their old ways of thinking and working. "A training proposal has been drafted using best-practice principles on family engagement," says Harvey. "But resources are needed to initiate a full statewide training." Meanwhile, professional facilitators will lead conversations with families.
Many of these young offenders come to believe the social messages they hear telling them they’re losers, Hill says. So she and her colleagues and partners have adopted strength-based approaches. They ask young people, “What are you good at? What do you want to do and be?” Far less effective would be a top-down directive from some adult authority who thinks he or she knows best and is skeptical of their ability to follow through.
Planning for the lives of juvenile offenders after their release from county detention is a collaborative process, according to Hill. King County partners with YouthCare, YMCA, Friends of Youth, Neighborhood House, Auburn Youth Services and other organizations. Social workers help youngsters draft individualized plans for education, job readiness, career exploration and medical services. “Stable housing is a part of that [plan],” says Hill. Funding for housing is limited, but her department works with housing and service providers to find transitional or permanent placements.
No matter how enlightened or effective the reentry program, juvenile offenders have to overcome many obstacles in their quest to make a successful return to the community and avoid homelessness:
First, some families can’t or won’t accept a released youngster back into the home. Families in Section 8 and public housing, for example, are prohibited from taking in a person with a criminal record. In other cases, no-contact orders may prevent released youth from moving back in with their families, wrote Sarah Cusworth Walker, assistant professor at the UW School of Medicine, in an email. Parents who can allow released youth to live with them, said Walker, may need to learn how to best handle the son or daughter who used to flout house rules or lash out physically at family members.
Those parents can find help at social service agencies such as Cocoon House, whose WayOUT seminars teach parents of low-risk young offenders how to interact with their kids in ways that reduce the chances they'll break the law again. “It’s a fundamental way we work with youth against homelessness: keeping them with their families,” says Joseph Alonzo, the Cocoon program director.
Second, juvenile offenders from the foster care system face special obstacles. These “dual-systems” youth comprise about two-thirds of the total number of young offenders in King County. On average, they get in trouble at a younger age, are detained more often and receive longer sentences than their counterparts who have lived with their birth parents. (This is according to research reported in Doorways to Delinquency.)
To complicate matters, a conviction renders a dual-systems youth ineligible for certain supports that are available to foster kids with clean records. For example, if they turn 18 while they're in detention, they can't receive Extended Foster Care stipends after their release. “Foster care youth are unwanted and know they’re unwanted,” says Judge Saint Clair. “There’s no reason to change their behavior if they don’t derive any benefit from it. Why not continue to associate with people who aren’t gainfully employed or productive members of the community?” To change, foster and former foster kids need to believe they have a stake in a future where they count for something.
Finally, legal obstacles can prevent released youth from finding housing and stability. Most who have served their time can have their records sealed when they turn 18. But many kids don't know that this is their right, or how to go about exercising it. As a result, landlords may learn of their prior court involvement and refuse to rent to them, says Mary Van Cleve, an attorney at Columbia Legal.
These youngsters may also be ignorant about tenant rights in general, or about their right to particular social services, says Jennifer Werdell, associate director of the Access to Justice Institute at Seattle University School of Law. Released youth who lose their ID or have their possessions stolen while couch-surfing may be unable on their own to get new copies of documents which are required for getting and keeping housing.
In many cases an advocacy attorney who can write “the right letter to the right person” can “smooth the way, change the picture,” says Werdell. But consistent, complete legal information and professional legal services are hard for released youth and other at-risk youngsters to find. An ideal arrangement would be a “one-stop shop” that resides with other youth services, according to Van Cleve and Werdell. Without ready access to legal assistance, released youth facing homelessness may be unable to secure stable housing.
The need to house youth who have served their time is urgent. Failure to do so imposes a hefty financial penalty on society in the form of their future unemployment and health problems, even if they go on to lead crime-free lives.
Fortunately, the fact that young offenders aren't miniature adults with mature brains has its positive side: They grow up. And “most kids with a juvenile record," says Serena Holthe, an attorney at the Center for Children & Youth Justice, "don’t end up having an adult record.” In fact, the majority resemble those of us who broke a law or two during our reckless years but never got caught. “With some stability and support they’ll become contributing members of society,” says Holthe.
Just as we did.
Photo of King County's juvenile detention center courtesy of jseattle/Flickr.