2012 Capstone of the Year

Peter Forbes and Lisa Belmarsh

One of the drivers of Peter and Lisa’s participation in the Certificate Program and their eventual Capstone Project efforts was the acknowledgment that large numbers of child welfare involved youth in Massachusetts were entering the DYS pre-trial detention system on an annual basis. Nearly 80% of these youth were low-risk and thus could have been served in less restrictive placements than secure detention. This is not unique to Massachusetts: research has shown that foster youth are detained more often than non-foster youth even when controlling for the number of crimes and severity of crimes committed by the youth. Research has also shown that juvenile detention has critical, long-lasting consequences, such as disrupting already tenuous relationships in school, services, and families and increasing the likelihood of adjudication. Given these negative effects of detention, Peter, Lisa and others with whom they work knew they had to take action if they were to improve outcomes for this vulnerable population.

As leaders in the Massachusetts DYS, Peter and Lisa were well situated to drive change and have had an ongoing commitment to keeping youth in their communities. Since before their participation in the 2009 Certificate Program [insert hyperlink], they have been involved with the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) work in their state. JDAI is a national effort created by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to keep low-risk youth out of secure detention facilities. Through the JDAI work, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between DYS, which oversees juvenile justice, and the Department of Children and Families (DCF), which oversees child welfare. The MOU was created to (1) commit the two agencies to reducing the unnecessary use of secure detention for child welfare involved youth who are arrested, (2) share information on such crossover youth, and (3) collaborate on identifying these youth as early as possible. The MOU thus laid the groundwork for Peter and Lisa’s Capstone Project work that followed.

After their attendance at the Certificate Program in 2009, Peter and Lisa used their Capstone Project as a strategic planning exercise that would guide their efforts to implement the vision of the MOU. The purpose of their Capstone Project was to (1) reduce the number of low-risk child welfare involved youth from being detained, (2) reduce the length of stay for those youth who are detained, and (3) improve the practice standard for such youth who are eventually committed to DYS as a delinquent. To achieve these goals, Peter and Lisa sought out to:

  • Establish data collection tools, data fields, and data systems to analyze the various ways that child welfare involved youth end up in DYS detention.
  • Convene DYS and DCF staff and leadership to determine how to prevent such youth from entering detention and reduce the length of stay for those ultimately detained.
  • Engage DCF social workers and DYS detention case managers in implementing the practices identified for prevention and reduction in length of stay.
  • Establish a practice standard to guide collaborative efforts between the assigned DCF social workers and DYS case managers of youth that do get committed to DYS.
  • Create an automated data interface between the two agencies for the purpose of sharing information for case planning.

Since the submission of their Capstone Project, Peter and Lisa have seen significant progress as a result of their work and the efforts of those with whom they partner. DCF and DYS have successfully worked together to enhance data collection efforts to identify child welfare involved youth that enter detention, and identify their placements prior to detention. Weekly inter-agency meetings have been established to expedite case plans for child welfare involved youth who enter pre-trial detention and weekly and quarterly reports have been developed to allow leadership to see trends and develop strategies for preventing placement in detention in the first place. For instance, leadership is now able to determine if a high number of youth from a particular placement are entering detention so they can work with that placement to prevent more youth from being detained. Further, as part of this Capstone’s intersection with the state’s implementation of JDAI, DYS is working with the Juvenile Court and the Office of the Commissioner of Probation to explore diversion and other alternatives to detention that can further contribute to preventing child welfare involved youth from being detained. For instance, a pilot project has placed over 70 child welfare involved youth in foster care placements instead of detention.

While it is clear that Peter and Lisa have made progress, they have also faced challenges in their work. One obstacle that they faced from the start was how to begin identifying child welfare involved youth in detention and collect data about them while the computer systems were being prepared to meet such needs. Therefore, as an interim step, Peter and Lisa decided, through significant staff effort, to manually collect and enter data from a review of intake information, interviews with the client and family and conversations with DCF staff. To ensure that accurate data is collected and that the manual data collection remains a priority, Peter and Lisa review case files and discuss missing information with individual staff members responsible for the case. Moving forward, they are planning on converting this manual process into a dynamic system that automatically identifies if a youth entering detention has any involvement with the child welfare system, and that provides a portal for joint case planning between child welfare and juvenile justice case workers.

Another challenge that they faced was a grievance that was filed by a labor union against the terms of the MOU–the foundation of all the aforementioned efforts. After many meetings and negotiations, this grievance was constructively resolved through an amendment to the original MOU in 2011.

Despite these challenges, there has been a downward trend in the number of child welfare involved youth entering detention in Massachusetts since the time Peter and Lisa’s Capstone Project efforts were fully underway. Over the past two years, the number of child welfare involved youth detained has dropped from a high of 326 youth in the second quarter of 2010 to 201 youth at the end of 2011. While there has been a general decrease in the raw numbers of DCF involved youth entering detention, the percentage of detained youth who are DCF-involved has held steady. This has been a significant accomplishment in that DCF youth have fewer placement options and other detention alternatives available to them. This has also been achieved in the face of tremendous fiscal challenges being experienced by the state, which make it more difficult to implement new programs and address the underlying issues that cause child welfare involved youth to enter detention.

Even with this progress, the work is not complete. Peter and Lisa’s next steps include developing more strategies for keeping child welfare youth out of detention (by, for example, working with placements that have high referral rates), automating the identification of child welfare youth when they do enter detention, and improving data collection on how long child welfare youth stay in detention so efforts can also be targeted at reducing length of stay for this population.

While Peter and Lisa have engaged numerous partners in this work, the substantial progress made is due in large part to their commitment to improving outcomes for youth, their perseverance in overcoming challenges and their leadership. As Bob Wentworth, Assistant Commissioner of DCF in Massachusetts says: “It is most evident to me that our progress is largely attributable to their diligence and persistent focus on implementing a well thought out strategic plan. Their collegial and collaborative approach in working with DCF in this effort has greatly assisted in breaking down institutional barriers that impede the collective effort of our separate child serving agencies to build a community of practice that is founded on positive youth development principles.”

We congratulate Peter and Lisa on their selection as the recipients of the 2012 Capstone of the Year Award and we look forward to their ongoing efforts to improve the lives of crossover youth.

Peter and Lisa were participants in CJJR’s 2009 Certificate Program for Public Sector Leaders, a week-long, intensive course for public sector leaders working with youth involved with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. This certificate program is not longer available. Upon completion of a Certificate Program, participants become CJJR Fellows by designing and implementing a Capstone Project focused on multi-system reform in their jurisdiction. CJJR currently has over 200 Fellows that benefit from being part of a growing network of mutually supportive leaders and receive ongoing support for their systems change work.