State's juvenile court program looks to improve

Key to program is meeting with youth and families to map out an interventional plan

By Jack Dura
The Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - One year into a new North Dakota court program, collaborators say its areas of focus have become clearer for better serving youth and families involved in both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems and for reducing referrals to juvenile court.

North Dakota's Dual Status Youth Initiative launched in January 2019. It was born from a yearlong study and recommendations in 2018 from the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice to a group of state court, corrections and human services officials.

Last month, the initiative's Executive Committee met to review a third-party evaluator's critique of the program's first six months, The Bismarck Tribune reported.

The evaluation said "North Dakota has been highly successful" in launching the initiative, with positive outcomes for youth, but noted there could be better compliance with some "programmatic" elements, such as improving counties' consistency in holding interventional meetings with families.


By the numbers

A work group is set to form by May to address areas of significance from the evaluation, such as disproportionate involvement of Native American youth -- a rate of 2.5 times their proportion of all North Dakota youth.

The initiative's work group would aim to include members from law enforcement, schools and tribal social services, said Court Improvement Program Coordinator Heather Traynor and Dual Status Youth Coordinator Jennifer Skjod.

Collaborators of the initiative also plan to share its results with other groups, such as the Legislature's interim Judiciary Committee, which is undertaking a study of North Dakota's juvenile justice system, and the newly formed North Dakota Children's Cabinet.

"We're just really trying to find places where this could fit in," Skjod said.

Data for a one-year review of the initiative will go to the evaluator next month.

The crucible for the initiative was a memorandum of understanding between North Dakota's Supreme Court and Department of Human Services to securely share data related to children involved in both systems.

On average, 42% of youth referred to juvenile court each month are dual status youth, Traynor said.

The six-month report outlined 881 youth the initiative encountered in its first six months from March through August 2019, 340 of whom were involved in both systems and 541 of whom are involved in one system and have been with the other.

Traynor provided numbers after one year, from March 1, 2019, to Feb. 29, 2020: the program encountered 1,396 youth, 603 of whom were involved in juvenile court and child welfare and 793 of whom are involved in one system and have been with the other.

One common scenario of dual status youth is truancy combined with parental issues at home, Traynor said.


'We have to keep an eye on that'

Key to the initiative is meetings with youth and their families to map out an interventional plan for their success, with a juvenile court officer, a child welfare worker and potentially other parties, such as school staff.

The meetings are mandatory for youth concurrently involved in both systems, but discretional for the other subset of youth.

A contracted counseling service is available in 16 North Dakota counties to facilitate "family-centered engagement meetings."

"Multidisciplinary team meetings," which are similar but lack the third-party facilitator, are available instead in other counties.

The six-month report noted compliance for holding these interventional meetings hasn't been consistent, that after six months the meetings were held in less than half of the cases in which they are required - only as much as 47%.

North Dakota's top juvenile corrections official sees progress in the first six months, such as positive feedback from families and good implementation in some regions around the state of the initiative's practices.

But there's more to do, Division of Juvenile Services Director Lisa Bjergaard said.

"We know that that report shows that less than 50% of the kids who should have this intervention are actually receiving it, and so some of that is because this is first six months' data and it's a new process," Bjergaard said. "And I think in the second six months we can expect that the number of kids and families who are given the intervention should continue to improve, but I think we have to keep an eye on that."

The Department of Human Services is overseeing a redesign of county social services into 19 mostly multicounty human service zones. The department's vision is to make family centered engagement meetings available statewide, said Children and Family Services Division Wellbeing Administrator Diana Weber.

"We're currently redesigning how we provide in-home case management services, and in doing that we're looking at how FCE meetings could become part of the warm hand-off between child protection services and in-home case management," Weber said.

The department has to look at which providers could offer the meetings and where, she added.



A big goal of the initiative is to reduce the overall referrals and subsequent referrals to juvenile court, Skjod said. She receives data on youth in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems to sort and then notify juvenile court officers and child welfare workers in counties.

"Sometimes we have kids that get up to 10 subsequent referrals in a year," Skjod said. "If we can somehow show that the meetings and the different diversions that are being implemented are successful in helping these kids, maybe stop them after the second referral, maybe after the third referral ... keep them from getting deeper and deeper."

The six-month report noted that 80% of North Dakota youth in correctional custody are dual status youth. That's another area of focus.

"If we can work with these kids to stop them from getting to that point, that would be ideal," said Traynor, the Court Improvement Program coordinator.

Traynor said it will probably be two or three years before the initiative's results could show a potential reduction in referrals to juvenile court. The one-year report is likely to show the effects of the 2019 Legislature raising the age of culpability from 7 to 10, she said. That change took effect Aug. 1, 2019.

Bjergaard said it's important to provide the support and resources for court and child welfare services to continue the initiative's work.

"I think it's just so important that we really do all we can to be aspirational about this work and really shoot for the moon," she said. "We have to be willing to try bold, new strategies to reduce the impact that deep-end systems have on kids and families."

Published: Thu, Mar 26, 2020