Since closing its large juvenile training schools 20 years ago, Missouri has become a model for the nation in juvenile corrections. The small scale and therapeutic, family-oriented atmosphere distinguish Missouri’s juvenile facilities from the training schools common throughout most of America.
According to Vicky Weimholt, the DYS deputy director in charge of treatment, convincing delinquent teens to open up about their troubled pasts is critical in reversing behavior problems. And the keys to getting teens talking are physical and emotional safety. “Without safety,” she says, “you’re really very limited in what you can do. “Our staff are always there, and they will not let you get hurt,” Weimholt explains. “And on the emotional side, you can’t underestimate the power of group work. There are nine or ten other kids in the same circumstances, facing the same problems…There’s safety in knowing that I’m not the only one going through this.”
More than most states, Missouri also supports youth through the tricky transition when they leave facilities and return home. “Large, locked, secure training schools frequently fall prey to an institutional culture in which the measures of success relate only to compliance with rules and norms,” writes Johns Hopkins University criminologist David Altschuler, the nation’s foremost expert on so-called “aftercare” for juvenile offenders. “Progress within such settings is generally shortlived, unless it is followed up, reinforced, and monitored in the community,” Altschuler complains, and in most jurisdictions, “the complexity and fragmentation of the justice system works against the reintegration of offenders back into the community.”Missouri, by contrast, makes aftercare a core component of its correctional approach. It assigns one “service coordinator” to oversee each young person from the time they enter DYS custody until he or she is discharged—usually after three to six months on aftercare. These coordinators—unlike the parole officers employed by most states—decide when the young person will leave residential care, and they already have longstanding relationships with teens when they do head home.
After going through the program, a stunning 70 percent of Missouri youth stay out of serious trouble for three years after leaving DYSfacilities (an outstanding success rate for such a program). Even at the Northwest Regional Youth Center, which receives the most serious offenders in the Kansas City region—including many youth who’ve failed in other programs—half of the graduates succeed for three years.
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(Source: The report on this program, titled “Small is Beautiful: the Missouri Division of Youth Services” was prepared by Dick Mendel for Advocasey, a publication of the Annie C. Casey foundation. The article appeared in Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 2003, in the issue called Juvenile Justice at Crossroads. Founded in 1948, the primary mission of the Annie E. Casey Foundation is to foster public policies, human-service reforms, and community supports that more effectively meet the needs of today’s vulnerable children and families. In pursuit of this goal, the Foundation makes grants that help states, cities, and neighborhoods fashion more innovative, cost-effective responses to these needs. www.aecf.org)
Engendering parent support for the core learning principles and parent involvement in the learning process is of the utmost importance.
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