Five years on, juvenile reforms keep more kids in their homes

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Five years ago, the Kansas Legislature made major changes to the juvenile justice system in an effort to reduce out-of-home placements. Now, the nine Leagues of Women Voters in Kansas are researching juvenile reform, asking what has worked and what still needs to happen since the changes implemented in 2016 with the passage of Senate Bill 367.

The Great Bend/Barton County LWV chapter is tackling the question by asking those who work with youths at various risk levels. On Thursday, the league invited a panel to answer questions at a public program held at the Great Bend Public Library.

Great Bend LWV President Janice Walker said her group’s research includes a public education component and a report will be compiled at its conclusion. 

Panelist Marissa Woodmansee, Juvenile Services director for the 20th Judicial District, said what comes out of the LWVK report will be important information for legislators such as Rep. Troy Waymaster from Russell County, who serves on the Senate Ways and Means committee that helps fund and make decisions for the judicial system.

Other members at Thursday’s program were Rachel Thexton, Great Bend High School counselor; Lanie Trendle, supervisor at the Department for Children and Families; Stephanie Galusha, supervisor at St. Francis Ministries Foster Care; Julie Kramp, executive director of The Center for Counseling and Consultation; Detective Heather McLemore with the Great Bend Police Department; and Lisa Beran, District Judge in the 20th Judicial District.

Woodmansee said the passage of SB 367 shifted the population that Juvenile Services serves from out-of-home placement in group homes, shelters and foster homes. Now, more children stay in the community. Although that was a worthwhile goal, it was an abrupt transition from the previous guidelines they had followed since 1997.

A positive component of the bill was its provision for earlier interventions and a statewide diversion program.

Essentially, every first-time offender gets a diversion opportunity and sometimes multiple diversions where they agree to follow certain rules and are thereby diverted from progressing into the justice system. 

“The unique panel that you see today is because inadvertently this bill had a ripple effect with each of the other systems and stakeholders that also work with youth and families in our communities,” Woodmansee said. 

“It diverted the population from the back end and moved them to the front end. … So, five years ago, we probably had 100 young offenders that were in an out-of-home placement. Today, we have three; we service them all on the front end, and so we’ve had over 100 diversions.”

That means the reform did what it was intended to do, but some other groups weren’t prepared for what Woodmansee called the “ripple effect.” Kramp said The Center saw an increase in the number of children with acute mental health needs. In 2017, The Center had 191 youth intakes. “In 2019 we had 322 and so far this year we’ve had 290.” The Center’s Community Based Services program for children has grown to the point that they’ve added staff. Even so, “this year we actually have a waiting list,” Kramp said.

Trendle has been with DCF since 2017 but before that is was with Saint Francis Community Services, one of its contractors. There was a push to not have children in facilities long-term, which is good, but that also meant some Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facilities (PRTFs) closed down. If other efforts weren’t successful, those children eventually went to foster care.

“A lot of those kids being diverted back to the community were children that our foster parents weren’t previously prepared to handle,” Trendle said. For a time, this resulted in a large increase of cases, which also put a huge burden on the foster care system.

Woodmansee explained that there were group homes and foster homes specifically geared for juvenile offenders. “Those homes were designed and developed to be able to address those more severe behaviors.”

“Our foster homes, with these increases of those kinds of behaviors, weren’t trained or ready for that,” Galusha said.

“So, as the ripple continues, these kiddos end up in school,” Thexton said, noting Great Bend has a boys’ home and a girls’ home that often house children from other communities. “Kids that maybe used to end up in one of the homes that Marissa was talking about that were more equipped to deal with things like offender issues now end up in regular group homes like ours here in town.”

Beran noted that the legislation of 2016 was “a huge bill with all sorts of provisions that were very far-reaching that were supposed to be implemented. There was just no plan in place to do those things.”

Woodmansee said the state saved $42 million by not having to pay for out-of-home placements. That money was supposed to go toward community intervention programs, but last year, Kansas lawmakers diverted half of the money, $21 million, to other budget priorities. The $42 million went in “the lockbox,” Woodmansee said, but it’s “the lockbox that now everybody has a key to.”

What’s working

Part of the juvenile reform was the creation of the Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee, made up of attorneys, people like Woodmansee, schools, and judges across the state. One of the first things they did was award reinvestment grants, one of which came to Barton County. With that grant, Barton County implemented the Parent Project, a parenting class, in 2019.

“It has been a very beneficial program for our community,” Woodmansee said.( Learn more about the program online at https://parentproject.com or the Central Kansas Parent Project on Facebook.)

Sharing information with other agencies represented at the panel discussion has also been successful, Thexton said. “We’re all on the same page. The collaboration that we have right now, between all of the groups in town, the agencies, that’s why we’re all here. We all want what’s best for kids.”

What still needs to happen?

The next question for the panel was, “What still needs to happen?”

“More money, more people,” was the short answer. The nonprofit advocacy organization Kansas Appleseed (kansasappleseed.org)  has asked the Legislature to reverse the decision that took $21 million from programming.

For Kramp, more must be done to remove the stigma of getting mental health care and making sure people have access to mental health supports.

Galusha said more foster parents are needed. “Some things that we need for St. Francis, for those kids who do come out of their homes, are local placements for them, so they can remain in their schools (and near their families).” But they need foster parents who are better trained and trauma-informed.

The is something all agencies are learning more about. Trauma-informed care is an approach to human service that assumes an individual is likely to have a history of trauma and that it plays a role in the individual’s behavior. Being removed from a home, even for good reasons, is one source of childhood trauma. Research shows some key components to trauma-informed care are creating a physically and emotionally safe environment and establishing trust and boundaries to promote healing.

For example, Detective McLemore said most of what she sees with juvenile offenders is tobacco use, fights and damage to property. “It’s sometimes just kids needing help, mentally. They may have a bad situation at home or just not know how to cope.”

In closing, Walker said, “Tonight we learned a lot about how our local agencies provide support for youth who are in need of direction and encouragement to function better in society. This is not easy work. We commend each of you on the panel for your dedication and perseverance to make the system  work better for all of our youth.”

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