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Juvenile Justice Advocacy: Working to Help Local Youth

This article is written by Cheril Lee. It was posted on March 7, 2018.

Most of the kids Boys Town assists are referred from juvenile court, "They're still at home, but there are some things going on where they're at risk of having to leave. So we go into the homes and do family preservation work so kids can stay in their schools, homes and communities," said Nick Juliano, Director of Regional Advocacy and Public Policy at Boys Town.

Juliano explained kids have the best outcomes when they're able to stay in their routines.

"Ideally, we want kids with their families, with their parents or their extended families. And we want kids staying in their schools and staying in their homes," Juliano said.

He acknowledged there are some kids who cannot remain in their homes and these kids then go to live at Boys Town. Juliano said it could be because there's a safety issue or maybe they live in a community where they're continuing to violate the law or they're skipping school. Eventually though, these children will return home to their family and their school.

But Boys Town is about much more than just housing.  According to Juliano, "We are involved in quite a bit of advocacy work and public policy work around juvenile justice reform here in Omaha. We work on committees and with youth impact programs. We want to make sure there are good policies for young people that are in the juvenile justice system so when they do get into trouble and are in juvenile court, they can get the services they need."

He said kids are referred to Boys Town for any issue you can think of but that it all starts with a law violation, where they end up in juvenile court or the Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC) because of that violation.

"Often times, there's other things going on in that home with the parents or with the young person whether it's mental health issues or substance abuse issues. Truancy is prevalent in that group of kids that will end up at the JAC or in juvenile court," said Juliano.

Then there are the typical challenges families face, including poverty.

"Poverty impacts where families are able to live and may expose them to environments where there may be more crime. Or the student may have more unstructured time where they're not in sports or other extracurricular activities, so they're hanging around and getting into trouble," he said.

Juliano believes there's an increasing recognition both here in Douglas County and nationally, with the research and best practices, that what a young person ends up in court for is an issue, but that it doesn't tell the whole story.

"You've got, sometimes, kids that are at home taking care of younger brothers and sisters when they should be attending school and doing other things. You have kids that are unsupervised and obviously are on the streets getting in trouble," he said.

Substance abuse and mental health issues are becoming an increasingly common part of these kids' experiences.

Juliano said one of the models here in Douglas County is called Youth Impact. He described it as a national crossover model which recognizes that young kids who have adverse experiences or are the victims of abuse or neglect when they are young, tend to be more likely to become delinquents and get in trouble when they are older.

One of the programs that Boys Town offers that has the largest impact is out of its South Omaha Office. Staffers work directly with South High School and Marrs Middle School.

"And our primary approach there is to work with a school counselor, a gang interventionist, and families directly, when an adult in a young person's life is seeing they are starting to have school problems," Juliano said.

Staff can work with families in their homes. They can also provide care coordination, which means meeting with the families, helping them connect with the school and making sure that they are getting the supports that they need from the school as well as linking them with other kinds of services in the community.

Boys Town has a strong presence in South Omaha including an outpatient behavioral health clinic. If a parent or someone from the school thinks there may be an emerging mental health or substance abuse issue, they can come in and get an assessment and a referral as well, if needed.

They also provide parent training, giving parents the skills to work with their kids, and address their behaviors.

"We are really trying to get to the family sooner. For South High, we operate an alternative school for 9th and 10th graders. Kids who get suspended have an option to attend a school in their office with South High's curriculum and laptops. It also gives suspended students the opportunity to continue working on their academic credits and the behaviors that led to their suspension," Juliano said.

Another challenge is the large population of parents who are not native-English speakers. Some are having immigration challenges or a tough time assimilating into our culture. Boys Town tries to provide a broad base for all families.

Boys Town's work is funded through a variety of sources. Their in-home programs are funded directly by the Probation Administration. If its in-home work is a court referral, we have a contract where Probation will fund those services. If they're kids in the Child Welfare System, they have a contract with PromiseShip.

"But largely, in South Omaha, the vast majority of the families we serve are not yet involved with the system. So, the program I described in South Omaha is funded about 60% by Boys Town directly and about 40% from grants through community foundations, the United Way and other foundations and funders," he said.

That model serves kids before they enter the system, so the funding that comes along with kids being involved in the system is not available to most of those families in South Omaha. In North Omaha, Boys Town has a mix of some system-involved families. In those cases, the behavioral health piece is largely private insurance or Medicaid.

"So, we kind of put it all together the best we can to serve as many kids as we can," Juliano said.

Shawne Coonfare, Director of the Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC), says the JAC's general philosophy is if a youth is eligible to be diverted from formal court processing, then they need to do that.

"It's really more about supporting youth and young people in what they need than keeping them out of court. What's most important to us is that we are supporting the young citizens of Douglas County. And, by doing that, many of them don't need to proceed to court," said Coonfare.

The JAC provides assessments for juveniles for the County Attorney's office. Coonfare explained the CA's office has the legal responsibility of determining further processing and further charging decisions. So they rely on the JAC to use a standardized, validated, risk-assessment instrument and other screening instruments that can help them determine the real risk and needs for that individual youth.  

Coonfare said not all kids are the same, "Two young people might be shoplifting together at Claire's, and they both come to the JAC. They meet individually with an assessment professional here as do their parents or guardians. We look at the youth holistically, within the framework of our validated risk-assessment instruments and determine what are their risk and needs. One youth may actually have low risk, not have many needs and so may receive a recommended warning letter from the County Attorney. And another youth, in that same incident, may show a really high risk to continue offending behavior and other unhealthy behavior and needs some interventions put in place, like a therapy intervention or decision-making, something like that."

The common charges kids face every year are theft, shoplifting, substance abuse and fighting. The actual issue areas the JAC is seeing are concerning.

"We're really seeing an increase in mental health issues that kids are facing and challenging family situations. So we are trying to find services to address whole families rather than just the youth," she said.

Coonfare said they're also seeing kids experiencing suicidal ideation so they're trying to make sure they get the right things in place for kids around those issues.

For the last decade, the JAC has been funded about 50% by grants and 50% by County General Funds.

"It's really that steadfast support of the County Board of Commissioners that we rely on for our functioning – to see kids and get them connected with services," she said.

There are also large grants right now from the Nebraska Crime Commission that pay providers in the community, so the JAC can make referrals to those providers to serve kids.

Over the last 15 years, the JAC has not only gotten good at their jobs, but they also continue to seek out ways to get better. Coonfare explained that includes some research projects they have going on with UNO and UNL. She said these projects continually offer the JAC opportunities to examine their processes so they can get better at serving kids.

For parents who are struggling with youth behavior, at any age, Coonfare recommends contacting the Nebraska Family Helpline.

"Anyone who needs help trying to connect a youth with any kind of services, call the Nebraska Family Helpline and they will help match resources in the community for any, any youth issue," she said.

Nebraska Family Helpline, 888-866-8660; Boys Town,