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Providing Immediate Services to Families in Crisis: The New Paradigm for Status Offender Systems

The Vera Institute of Justice recently released a report, Making Court the Last Resort: A New Focus for Supporting Families in Crisis, that outlines the significant improvements some states are making in how they respond to chronically disobedient children.

Many families struggle with a child's chronic disobedience such as truancy, alcohol and drug use or other rebellious, but not criminal, behavior.  For families without the means to access private care, often the government is the only place they can turn for help.  States have put in place "status offender" systems to repond to such youth.  However, these systems frequently act as a conduit for non-criminal youth to enter the juvenile court system and receive punitive interventions similar to those for youth charged with criminal activity.  This is in spite of the fact that court involvement and detention tend to exacerbate instead of resolve behavior problems.

But now states are recognizing the failure of their status offender systems to promote healthy families and are refocusing them on providing immediate, family-focused alternatives to court intervention. Avoiding the criminal justice system through this approach has the support of the American Bar Association and a large majority of the public.  (Also critical to ongoing efforts to reform status offender systems is the MacArthur Foundation's Models for Change Initiative, which is currently working with Washington and Louisiana on these issues.)  The results of these reform efforts have been much better outcomes for youths, as well as, savings for the taxpayer.

Florida:   Florida has created a status offender system that puts the family first, prioritizing keeping families intact in the community and youth out of the criminal justice system.  They did this by creating a system that directs the families of juvenile status offenders to a "families in need of services" (FINS) system.  Upon referral to the FINS system families receive immediate crisis intervention from a non-profit provider that contracts with the Dept. of Juvenile Justice.  This provider's services include both non-residential intervention and outreach, as well as residential respite centers.  These services are available around the clock, every day.

Families whose problems are not resolved through the FINS system are brought into a conference with other stakeholders such as school staff to decide how to proceed.  Additional services could be provided and a modified service plan developed or the case could be refered to juvenile court.  However, this is rarely necessary as the success of the FINS system has been dramatic.

  • Over the past three years only 6% of FINS cases have ended up being petitioned to court.
  • 96% of youth are crime-free while in the FINS program; 90% successfully complete the services; and 90% of successful completors were crime-free for six months after exiting the program.
  • Florida TaxWatch estimates that this system saved the state over $30 million in one fiscal year.

The executive director of the FINS service provider sums up the program thus:  "By helping families stay together, we are saving taxpayer dollars and strengthening ties between families and their home communities.  Just as important, we are serving habitually truant youth and stemming the flow of youth into the juvenile justice system."

New York:  New York has recently followed the lead of one of its counties, Orange, in revamping elements of its status offender system.  Again, the change has involved bringing in a non-profit service provider to immediately respond to families in crisis with needed services.  Under the new system, when parents seek help they are initially screened and referred immediately to the service provider, who then sends a caseworker to interview the family within 48 hours.  In severe cases it can be even sooner.  The provider then develops a service plan and must connect the family with useful services within three weeks.  Additionally, the state has amended its Family Court Act to limit detention to instances where there is no reasonable likelihood that diversion services will be successful and all available alternatives have been exhausted.  Like Florida, the state is seeing very positive results:

  • Status offender court petitions decreased over 40% from 2004 to 2006,
  • Non-secure detention of youth in the status offender system fell 39% from 2005 to 2006 (excludes New York City).
  • Out-of-home placements for youth in the status offender system fell 28% from 2004 to 2006.

Connecticut:  Connecticut suffered until recently with a very poor status offender system.  The state's judicial branch received over 4,000 referral from the system the year before it was revamped in 2007.  This was combined with a virtual lack of services for these youth, and a frequent practice of incarcerating youth in detention facilities for violating judicially imposed behavioral rules.  This system was clearly failing as more than half of the young people involved in it were later charged with delinquency offenses.

To improve the system the state made several changes.  First it prohibited the use of secure detention for status offender cases.  Then the state established an advisory board to recommend further reforms.  In response to this review the state mandated that every young person referred to court for the first time as a status offender be diverted to support services.  These services are provided by non-profit-run Family Service Centers (FSC), which give immediate support through crisis intervention, case management, family mediation, educational advocacy, support groups and one-on-one therapeutic sessions.  Only if the family has multiple crises during the FSC intervention or the young person's behavior worsens is the case referred to the court.

Though just recently implemented, the new system is already paying dividends:

  • Status Offense court referrals decreased 41% between Oct. 2007 and Mar. 2008.
  • No status offender youth have been in secure detention since the FSC programs began, down from an average of 300 before.

Conclusion:  While well intentioned, status offender systems have been a failure at keeping families together and young people out of trouble.  Yet, some states are looking to a new paradigm of dealing with chronically disobedient youth that emphasises immediate services and diversion from the criminal justice system.  Those states have seen dramatic decreases in the need for detention and other punative interventions as services restore balance to families in crisis.  This has not only benefited the families involved, but also reduces reliance on the criminal justice system and thereby saves these states money.

Providing Immediate Services to Families in Crisis: The New Paradigm for Status Offender Systems

Vera Institute of Justice - Making Court the Last Resort: A New Focus for Supporting Families in Crisis
American Bar Association - Juvenile Status Offenses Factsheet
American Bar Association - Early Interventions for Juvenile Status Offenders
MacArthur Foundation - Models for Change Initiative
Models for Change - Studies Show Public Supports and is Willing to Pay for Rehabilitative Programs
Connecticut Status Offender Reforms
National Juvenile Justice Network
Justice Policy Institute
Center for Children's Law and Policy