From juvie to the streets

Many young offenders wind up homeless after their release. The state is revamping its reentry programs to help those kids get re-established in their communities.
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Many young offenders are at risk of homelessness after their release from detention.

Many young offenders wind up homeless after their release. The state is revamping its reentry programs to help those kids get re-established in their communities.

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.

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