Once Lame Juvenile Justice System Jockeys to the Lead

Richmond, Ky.—In four short years, Kentucky has erased a blot of shame from the record of what was laughably described as the state’s juvenile justice system.

When the federal government suspended funding for that system in 1995, it was a pit of Dickensian atrocities: Bounty-hunting county sheriffs grossed over half a million dollars annually in county and state Department of Social Services fees for jailing minors; state law did not require juvenile corrections facilities to be staffed by people trained to work with and rehabilitate youth; and the county-run system routinely shoved youths into adult facilities.

But thanks to a governor constitutionally allowed to succeed himself for the first time in state history, the creation of a Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), and the choice of a DJJ leader intent on training a crack staff to bring a balance of sanctions and services to incarcerated youth, the state is on the cusp of freeing itself from a consent decree it entered after the federal government declared Kentucky in violation of the U.S. Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

The key was adopting a preservice training academy program that has turned direct-care juvenile corrections officers into officially designated “Youth Workers” – a move that holds lessons for other states. Kentucky has joined what Leslie LeMaster of the D.C.-headquartered National Institute of Corrections terms “an explosive growth of states committing to capacity-building academy programs that have become integral to the training culture.”

Thirty-three states and 24 counties, municipalities and judicial districts now have academies, up from “four or five” in 1994, says LeMaster, whose agency receives $450,000 annually from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to develop training needs assessments. Kentucky started late, but is now first among states in number of training hours (400) required for new direct-care hires, plus all existing staff.

‘Light and Dark’

The turnaround is all the more remarkable when contrasted with the entrenched county-run and loosely administered system that was placed under various social service and child welfare agencies. With investigations, studies, litigation and newspaper stories revealing poor housing, inadequate care and lack of medical and psychological services, the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in. The 1995 consent decree cited 13 so-called juvenile facilities (many youths were actually housed with adults) with 140 violations, ranging from harsh isolation practices to routine abuse and neglect.

“The difference between now and then is like the difference between light and dark,” observes Earl Dunlap, the Justice Department monitor overseeing the changes dictated by the decree.

And events moved quickly, recalls Dunlap, in a consent decree atmosphere that he describes as “non-adversarial.” Guiding the transformation was a decision by the state Legislature in 1992 to allow the governor to succeed himself. In the first contest where this took effect, Democrat Paul Patton ran on a juvenile justice reform platform and won in 1995. (He would be re-elected in 1999.) One of his first acts was to draft Ralph Kelly, New Jersey’s former director of juvenile services and a 30-year veteran in child welfare and juvenile justice, as the first commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice, which the Legislature created in 1996. “Resistance to change was a significant problem within many facility staffs,” remembers Kelly, a past president of what is now called the Association for Child and Youth Care Practice, based in Houston.

Enter ‘Youth Workers’

With the public, the Legislature and the governor waiting for change, Kelly moved at warp speed to impress his philosophy of “balance” on a direct-care staff who have the greatest influence on, and most interaction with, youth. Thrust in the past into a one-dimensional keep-the-peace custodial role, these staff were at the heart of Kelly’s reform agenda; he made them the change agents of his system overhaul. He involved them from the outset in the process of change and support for positive youth development.

The vehicle: pre-service training academies for new youth workers.

“We had to bring about professionalization,” Kelly says about his decision to retrain tenured youth corrections officers with new skills and ideas “to empower them as agents of positive change.” He assigned Michele Foley, now training division director, to “pull together a program that stresses core skills and competencies.”

“Before the academies, training was shoot-from-the-hip and helter-skelter,” Foley recalls. “Now every lesson is written out and there is no deviation.”

Kelly believes a “solution-focused” balance of sanctions and services, equally applied and individually tailored, is the best method to provide an effective response to juvenile crime; and that in many situations, youngsters are both victims and victimizers.

With that coda, in early 1997 an eight-week course (now 10 weeks) made its debut in the Bluegrass State: It combined practical experience gleaned from on-the-job training with classroom work featuring modules in cultural awareness, group dynamics, conflict resolution and a two-and-a-half day Life Space Crisis Intervention component. Life Space focuses on fostering trust, respect and accountability among at-risk youth.

The training academy, operated out of Eastern Kentucky University’s (EKU) Training Resource Center, required attendance by all new direct-care hires at the state’s 35 residential treatment facilities (for sentenced juveniles) and three detention facilities (for pre-adjudicated juveniles). The direct line or direct-care workers are now officially classified as Youth Worker I. After a successful academy period, they are put on a track that can yield promotions to Youth Worker II and III.

“A regular occurrence,” relates Foley, “is that after we train them, the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services – right across the river – steals them and pays them $8,000 more.”

[Kelly, acknowledging that “we’ve got to raise salaries considerably to remain competitive,” keeps leaning on Gov. Patton to lean on the Legislature. In 1998, the Legislature upped the entry-level Youth Worker I rate from $16,260 to $17,700. The Youth Worker III position, which can be attained after a year of post-academy work, now offers $19,000.]

The 10-week cycle starts with two weeks in the training facility classroom, followed by two weeks on the job, two more weeks in the classroom, back to the job for two weeks, capped by a graduation after the last two weeks spent back in the classroom.

Since 1997, 812 trainees have gone through a program that has cost $846,589. The expenditure represents “a 70-30 state-to-federal government split,” says Foley. She successfully continued Social Security Act Title IV-E funds from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that had been given to the child-welfare agencies who previously administered juvenile corrections. The funds can be used for staff training.

“The money was earmarked for kids who were out-of-home placements and at risk,” Foley says. “If they were housed in a non-secure environment, such as our group homes, and there were less than 25, we still qualified for the money. None of this money can be used for our secure, or locked, larger facilities with 40 or 50 beds.”

Early Problems

Monitoring the academies has proven to be a pat-it-here, pat-it-there constant operation that has kept Kelly, Foley and Norbert Allen, the staff development branch manager of pre-service training, cruising Kentucky’s 40,395 square miles.

“Some classes are seriously mature, and some are seriously immature,” observes Allen after 25 academy cycles (as of December). This reflects the findings that trainees, with a mid-30s median age, are often green to corrections procedures, or are past corrections workers, unemployed corrections workers or recent state arrivals who worked corrections elsewhere. Few of them were interviewed for their jobs with a youth development orientation.

Bugs had to be worked out after the first academies. One of the most serious involved the placement of newly calibrated and sensitized academy graduates (at $1,800 a pop for training) into juvenile facilities manned by surly supervisors from the old shoot-from-the-hip days.

“They entered a hostile environment,” states Foley. The solution: “We bundled them all together – supervisors, recruits, cafeteria workers, maintenance men – and put them in the academies so they would understand that everyone in the facility had the same mission and goals, ethics and values.”

Another concern centered on high post-academy attrition rates (37 percent, which with some fluctuations remains steady even now). Those are attributed to long working hours because of staff shortages (more slots have been opened and filled), poor salaries (more pay increases are proposed), and just plain fear on the part of first-time facility-assigned recruits. But Kelly and Foley would move quickly to shore up the dam, knowing that from the very beginning there was a mandate for, and a protector of, the academies.

Decree Still in Effect

With the consent decree still in effect in this mostly white state (92 percent) that has 4,000 youth going through its juvenile justice system annually, Kelly was given a $113 million budget and didn’t waste time with foot-dragging, blue-ribbon committees or pontifical political prattle when he was turned loose by Gov. Patton. He immediately closed three of the 13 facilities cited by the decree, terming them “unacceptable.”

“It took courage for him to do this. It was unprecedented, some toes were stepped on,” recalls Dunlap. “The consent decree was a blessing.”

He ticks off some of Kelly’s rapid-response changes: capacity at the facilities is kept low (the average is 30 to 35 beds); no facility may have more occupants than its bed capacity; there is now one youth worker for every 10 kids; every facility has a trained psychologist on site; there are two nurses assigned to each facility; a new $11 million facility will open in January with 80 beds equally distributed in eight pods (living quarters); and DJJ’s funding in the past four years of eight new detention facilities.

“Patton was the only Kentucky governor I’ve ever known who ran on the issue of juvenile justice reform,” claims Dunlap. And with his re-election, “the all important follow-through was there. This commonwealth has set a standard most states can be guided by as a best practice.”

Dunlap confesses that he has already filed his final review on whether DJJ facilities have been brought into compliance with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. Without revealing details, he believes a federal judge will soon lift the decree because of the fast results and the all-out commitment shown by officials and staff.

The Trend

In 1994, with only four or five training academies in existence (among them: California, New York and North Carolina), Dennis Barron, program manager of OJJDP’s Training and Technical Assistance Division, now calls the training momentum “a quantum leap” and ascribes it to administrators seeing that academies are “proving a necessity, especially in the area of juvenile justice.”

Gale Smith, executive director of the Ithaca, N.Y.-based Juvenile Justice Training Association, cautions that, if anything, the number may be higher. “We haven’t been able to tap into all of them, because when we sent our surveys out, not all had a structured curriculum or schedule in place,” he says. But, he avows, “The growth in academies indicates jurisdictions are seeing the value of a structured, scheduled experience for a new staff. They like the idea of being able to control quality and content, and know that new staff bringing this knowledge to a work site is a definite advantage.”

Smith says it is difficult to determine how many states have a permanent centralized training facility either in practice or in the works, or whether they train at several locations. The criteria agreed upon by the surveyors was whether a state had a functioning and structured curriculum and schedule.

A state-by-state survey by EKU’s Training Resource Center of Juvenile Justice Training Programs reveals needed improvements in the field: Entry-level juvenile direct-care staff salaries ranged from a low of $12,500 in Montana to $30,183 in California. But four-fifths of the states paid below $25,000. Training hours range from 30 hours in Connecticut to the new leader, Kentucky, at 400. But the champion is being challenged.

“We will go to 640 hours [by March] because the Legislature and state officials are strong proponents for more staff training,” says Ed Anderson, chief of the California Youth Authority’s Training Division. A strong advocate of pre-service academies, Anderson points out that his state has operated its own training academy in Stockton using hotel rooms and classrooms (similar to Kentucky’s) since the 1980s.

Anderson projects 60 cadets per 16-week class, three classes per year. (Kentucky runs 30-something per class, but has run as many as seven classes per year.) “Who can deny pre-service training as a way to do the job taxpayers expect? You just can’t hand keys to someone and say, ‘Go do your job,'” comments Anderson. He says his system is a combination of the attitudinal and custodial approaches.

Kentucky, with its all-encompassing balanced approach, seems to have carved out new ground.

On Campus

In allying themselves with the EKU Training Resource Center here in Richmond, Kelly and Foley have assembled a team headed by Bruce Wolford to manage the training program from paying the bills to arranging restraint training at a nearby National Guard Armory.

The EKU team, which includes James Wells, a professor of correctional and juvenile justice studies, and several colleagues charged with ongoing updated evaluations of the program, is also committed to introducing curriculums such as Life Space Crisis Intervention, developed in Cleveland, which emphasizes that rather than being reactive to aggression and conflict, youth workers should learn how to assess the moment for underlying patterns of behavior, assess the dangers, and devise an intervention to minimize escalation.

Wells still ponders why “terminations and dismissals still occur most often six months into the program.” Single males pull out more than anyone else.

“Often, the kids in the facilities have never had anyone to talk to,” instructor Ed Burton tells an academy class. “If you’re not paying attention, listening to them or maintaining eye contact while you’re on duty, why should they respect you or obey you during a time of crisis?” Staff have learned that the level of youth worker engagement at the job site is high. One youth worker, for example, detected that a juvenile was dyslexic. Another saved a life because of an academy course on medications that teaches how to chart dosage and be aware of mixing drugs that may spur an adverse reaction.

Each instructor in every class involves the new recruits in give-and-take dialogue. At the end of each day’s session, the recruits are asked to offer their comments on the day’s instruction, without criticism from the instructors.

“Its our turn to learn from them,” says training branch manager Norbert Allen. “Sometimes they teach us more than we teach them.”



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