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State to test youth-offender project targeting mental health, recidivism

Arkansas is a test site for a national pilot project aimed at helping children overcome barriers they face after getting out of jail.

These children often struggle to re-enroll in school and keep a job later on, research shows. Chances are they suffer from mental health issues, such as depression or post-traumatic stress, and consider suicide. And they're more likely to land back in lockup, either as a juvenile or an adult.

The project addresses these concerns. It's called the Reentry Measurement Standards, which outlines guidelines about how to best provide services to youths exiting the juvenile justice system. It also provides a way for officials to measure how well these children do after they leave detention.

The project is based on a national model called the Performance-based Standards, which is used in other so-called reform efforts relating to juvenile justice, such as improving conditions at detention facilities.

The researchers who created these standards teamed with two national nonprofits to lead the program.

During a Little Rock visit on Monday, project members said the 44 individual standards were "proprietary" and not to be shared with the public.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice, launched and funded the three-year initiative for $750,000 in 2015. The state doesn't pay to participate in the project.

In Arkansas, the transition from lockup to home is formally known as aftercare. Others call it re-entry or re-unification. Aftercare services are offered by separate community programs scattered across the state. Many providers have worked in the same regions for more than a decade.

Programs are often inconsistent, sometimes contributing to disparities in how kids cope with returning from detention, Division of Youth Services staff members say.

"For a lot of kids, the system isn't fair or doesn't seem fair. ... There are no standards for aftercare in Arkansas," said Adam Baldwin, the agency's system reform manager. "We want to make changes here as soon as possible. We're excited to contribute to a process that is going to generate change in juvenile justice for the entire country."

Arkansas, Oklahoma and Utah have been selected as project "test sites" so far.

On Monday, Performance-based Standards researchers met with a group of juvenile justice stakeholders in Little Rock. These community program leaders, youth agency staff members , educators and other advocates discussed the proposed re-entry guidelines, ranking certain standards and weighing how feasible it would be to meet them.

At the meeting, Madelyn Keith, executive director of East Arkansas Youth Services Inc., a nonprofit that provides aftercare services in Crittenden County, said that "promoting equity should be No. 1."

Keith added that providers need to include families more in the process of drafting re-entry plans so they were "more meaningful to the kids involved."

Carmen Mosley-Sims, a Youth Services Division assistant director, listed safety as another priority because youths "won't learn until they feel safe – everything flows from that feeling of safety."

Meeting participants also agreed with Cathy Dickens, a services coordinator at nonprofit aftercare provider Ouachita Children's Center, when she said that "collecting data was really important and is feasible."

Some thought that keeping better data could quantify the need for extra aftercare funding.

Since her 2016 appointment, Youth Services Division Director Betty Guhman has also repeated her "steadfast commitment" to improving how kids are reunified with their families and communities.

However, most of the agency's funds – $27.6 million of $49 million in the governor's proposed fiscal 2019 budget – is earmarked for residential treatment, or incarceration, rather than diversion efforts that help keep kids from ever entering the system or resources that offer them needed support afterward.

On Tuesday, project representatives visited aftercare providers in Fayetteville, Russellville and Hot Springs. They spoke with probation officers from Washington and Benton counties in between those visits.

Before this test-site phase of the initiative, project members conducted an extensive review of re-entry research and evaluated how such services were being used across the country. From there, they drafted a first set of standards that were categorized into key areas, such as case management, education and employment, family and well-being and health.

Later this year, project members expect to compile a final report that contains findings from test site visits and information from their prior research. Then, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention will use that report to develop an "implementation plan" that shows officials how to carry out the re-entry standards.

Arkansas' participation in the project is one of many ongoing juvenile justice efforts in the state.

Counties are working with the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation to figure out ways to avoid locking up low-risk youths before their court hearings through a program called the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.

The Arkansas Supreme Court Commission on Children, Youth and Families and the Youth Justice Reform Board, a legislatively empowered 21-member panel, intend to lower the juvenile incarceration rate and save money by interviewing troubled youths before they are sentenced. Using this risk assessment offers a more complete picture of a child – such as mental health, family history, drug use, behavioral issues and other factors – prior to punishment.

Critics of the youth agency expressed a mix of skepticism and hope about whether the initiative would result in lasting changes.

"Everyone here wants the same thing. But is there the political will to really make these changes?" said Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, a federally funded advocacy group. "At some point this system is going to break. We don't want it to break on the backs of kids."

By Amanda Claire Curcio

7 March 2018


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