A Consolidated Court System gives Dually Involved Youth a Better Chance for Positive Outcomes

Dually-involved youth (DIY) in jurisdictions without a consolidated system in place, could have two separate cases, before two separate judges, each with different goals. If this wasn’t confusing enough, the two court systems might not have coordination, cooperation, or communication. The child could be represented by two different lawyers and would be assigned a probation officer and a social worker, which could have very different case plans that include contradictory orders and services that interfere with one another. Each of these stakeholders plays an important role in making decisions that can affect DIY for the rest of their lives.

Because DIY present more complex issues than single-jurisdiction youth, they tend to drain already scarce resources from child welfare agencies, probation departments, and the courts. This can happen when agencies duplicate case management efforts. Additionally, because there are multiple parties involved, usually with differing goals and means of achieving them, costs can add up and their plans can be less effective than if there was a consolidated effort to provide a unified plan administered by cooperating agencies. I will not be addressing financial costs in this post; in the next post I will discuss financial costs and how having a unified system of courts and service programming will benefit all of us as a society. In this post I will focus instead on some of the challenges raised by having DIY report to multiple agencies and/or courts and show the advantages for DIY in jurisdictions using an integrated systems approach.

DIY courts act as a nexus to consolidate the stakeholders making decisions that affect dually involved children’s outcomes.

Apart from a single court making more logistical sense, having a single court for DIY makes sense because it acts as the central hub in coordinating the efforts of social services and probation departments. The areas where having a consolidated court can have the biggest impact on DIY are in (1) screening and assessment, (2) placement, and (3) case planning and supervision.

Screening and assessment

            According to a report by the National Center for Juvenile Justice (download it here) screening and assessment is the first key area to improving outcomes for dually-involved youth. When children are not identified as being dually involved it makes it impossible for the courts, social services, and probation departments to work together in the children’s best interests. The problem with the traditional two-court system is that agencies often rely on self-reporting to determine if a child is involved in more than one court system. The problem with relying on self-reporting is that children might not mention they are involved in the foster care system or, if they do, they do not know enough information to quickly contact their legal guardian.

By promptly identifying DIY, problems such as the duplication of efforts, prolonged detention periods, miscommunication between agencies, and others can be avoided. For example, when a child in foster care is arrested, the “front line” juvenile justice officials (intake, detention, and probation) might not know that the child is in foster care. Even when these officials do find out that the child is in foster care through self-reporting, the child might not know enough information for juvenile justice officials to be able to reach foster parents or social workers, especially if the arrest happens after normal work hours. Additionally, if judges do not have sufficient information about a child’s legal guardian, they could be more likely to detain the child even for a minor offense simply because they do not know whom to release the child to.

The first step in ensuring dually-involved youth are identified is for agencies to routinely screen for involvement in the other system. Two feasible ways to ensure dually involved-youth are properly identified are to use a shared automated database or to use interagency screener personnel. An automated database has the advantage of storing information for social services and probation in a single system, thus giving both agencies and the court a comprehensive picture of a child’s circumstances and services. The drawbacks to automated systems are that multiple agencies have to agree on which one to use and they cost time and money to develop. Another option is to use interagency screeners to identify DIY. Interagency screeners are personnel whose job it is to check for involvement in other court systems when a child touches their system. Both social services and probation can have their own screeners that check with the other agency when a child touches the system. This option has the advantage of being easier to implement. New York City began using interagency screeners in 1998 with great success. Once DIY have been identified, the court must decide where the best placement is for the child.

Placement

            While experts agree that usually the best option for positive outcomes for youth in the foster care system is reunification with their family, this is not always possible. (see Goldsmith, Oppenheim, and Wanlass, 2009) Even when reunification does happen, it is not uncommon for a child to spend some time in an alternative placement before going back to their family. One problem with removal is that a suitable placement can take a while to find and, in the meantime, the child is left in limbo. Unfortunately, for DIY, this could mean extra time spent at a correctional facility. In order for DIY to avoid extra time spent in correctional facilities, some jurisdictions have opened one-stop interagency assessment and screening centers, known as Child Advocacy Centers (CAC).

            Child Advocacy Centers are one-stop locations that promote interagency coordination of investigations of child abuse and neglect. In the traditional process, agencies do not collaborate and it often results in repeated interviews of child victims, confounded evidence, and other problems. In addition to being inefficient, this can also prolong the trauma a child has experienced. The integrated approach allows investigators, medical professionals, prosecutors, and victim advocates to assess a report as it is received and recommend an appropriate permanent placement faster because some steps aren’t being repeated by multiple agencies.

            At CACs, a multidisciplinary team conducts a battery of assessments to determine the full scope of a juvenile’s needs. The multidisciplinary team consists of a probation officer, a mental health professional, a social worker, an occupational therapist, and a school psychologist. The team assesses each resident in multiple areas, including criminality, education, substance abuse, mental health, and family dynamics. Based on the assessment, the court allows the probation officer to follow the recommendations of the multidisciplinary team without going back to court. According to an evaluation of the placement division of the Sacramento County Probation Department, there are multiple positive effects from using CACs, including fewer placement failures and more family reunifications. Although there are indications that CACs are beneficial, a more comprehensive evaluation of CACs would be useful to hone in on what the best practices are for evaluating placement for DIY.

Forming a united mindset/policy on how DIY are assigned services will give them a better chance for positive outcomes.

            The main problem of the traditional two-agency system is that sometimes they can work counter-productively. When it comes to recommending services (mental health, substance abuse counseling, domestic violence counseling, etc.) for DIY, sometimes probation departments and social services submit very different case plans. Other times they could request services that are far enough away from each other that utilizing the services becomes burdensome for the child or family. (Think of the example I gave about Dulce in my last post.) In order to have more positive outcomes, revamping the way case planning and supervision decisions are made should be one of our top priorities.

Case planning and supervision

Probation departments and social services can work counter-productively because they have inherent differences in how they approach a child under their supervision. Although there is some overlap when it comes to their jobs, mainly in assigning community assistance programs, probation officers and social workers have different objectives. Probation officers periodically meet with an offender to ensure they are complying with the terms of their probation. They are required to report to the court when a probationer violates their probation and generally they are focused on the probationer not offending again. On the other hand, social workers provide support for families who have been referred to the dependency system. They are more focused on providing government assistance so a family can rehabilitate and re-unify. When probation departments and departments of social services work together they can have a more effective case plan.

Joint case plans submitted to a single court make the most sense for DIY. Doing so requires both agencies to work together before a hearing in front of a judge. This has the benefit of coordinating efforts and conducting cooperative case planning. Disagreements or differences in case plan goals can either be worked out before a hearing or settled at the hearing with the help of the judge. Any concerns about confidentiality can be addressed in advance with the court deciding which information can and cannot be shared between agencies. Cooperative case planning can take various forms, from more informal means like phone conversations, to more formal approaches like team decision making. If case plans were provided in a single document, it would also make the process simpler for the court because it provides more comprehensive information in less paperwork. For many courts resources are already stretched thin, and streamlining court processes is beneficial for everyone involved.

 Now that I have outlined the benefits to DIY from having an integrated approach, in my final post I will address what benefits we as a society can see from using this model.

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