Ripe for Juvenile Justice Reform in Arkansas

Arkansas Nonprofit News Network

This is part one of a two-part series.

The number of delinquent youth remanded to the Arkansas Division of Youth Services during the fiscal year that ended in July was the lowest in at least two decades, according to figures recently released by the DYS.

Juvenile judges committed 451 youth to state custody in fiscal year 2017 — a 14 percent decrease from 2015, when commitments to the DYS reached 526.

The commitment rate does not reflect every youth confined in a facility in Arkansas. It excludes kids detained in county-level juvenile detention centers, as well as those who were transferred to the adult criminal justice system. Nonetheless, the decline in DYS commitments, which appears to be driven by local efforts in several of the state's most populous counties, has some advocates cautiously hopeful that Arkansas may be poised to finally overhaul its juvenile justice system.

Over the last two decades, most states have dramatically reduced the number of youth locked away in secure facilities, including Arkansas' neighbors. Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana all lowered their juvenile confinement rates by double digits from 1997 to 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Arkansas' rate decreased by just 8 percent over that period, despite an emerging consensus that confinement is usually a counterproductive and overly expensive response to delinquency. The question now is whether policymakers can translate recent local successes to statewide reform.

"There are parts of the state where things continue to be a problem and others where we're making great progress," DYS Director Betty Guhman told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network. The DYS is a division of the state Department of Human Services.

A top aide to Gov. Asa Hutchinson with a background in social work, Guhman previously served as chief of staff during Hutchinson's tenures in Congress and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The governor named her to run the DYS on an interim basis in July 2016 and made the appointment permanent that September. Guhman seems to channel Hutchinson's preference for cautious, deliberative incrementalism rather than bold calls to immediate action — but she is quietly aiming for big changes.

"The whole juvenile code needs to be revisited," she said. "Do you want to start picking at this or this or this — or do you want a whole rewrite? I think most everybody is supportive of a complete rewrite. ... We're really trying to do that for the [2019 legislative] session, working with judges, providers, other advocates. ... Let's see what we can all agree on and try to move forward."

"We" means three principal players. First, the DYS, which oversees Arkansas' eight residential juvenile facilities, as well as diversion and aftercare programs. Second, the juvenile judges whose courts constitute the "front door" to the system. Third, the nonprofit providers that contract with the DYS to deliver services, from managing residential facilities to administering diversion and aftercare.

In recent years, reformers in Arkansas have largely focused their efforts on the county level rather than the state, partly because of a lack of continuity in DYS leadership since former director Ron Angel retired in 2013. Angel actively pushed for legislation intended to reduce the use of confinement by steering funding toward community-based programs and away from secure facilities. The effort foundered in the state Senate, however, and Angel departed soon afterward.

Angel's successor, Tracy Steele, lasted in the job for a little over a year, as did the next appointee, Marcus Devine. Commitments to the DYS, which declined during Angel's six-year tenure, rose from 2013 to 2015.

Pat Arthur, a lawyer formerly with the National Center for Youth Law, worked closely with Angel from 2007 to 2013 to craft reforms aimed at reducing confinement. "When Ron Angel was in charge of DYS ... there was a genuine effort to downsize facilities," she said. "I worked my whole time there trying to reduce the beds."

"All of the prisons there should be closed," she added, referring to the DYS residential facilities. "They're all antiquated, large institutions that are being shown around the country, in practice and also through research, to be ineffective in providing the kind of rehabilitative programming that youth in trouble with the law need to get back on a positive track and contribute to their community."

After Angel left the DYS, Arthur said, "there was just not the same kind of commitment ... to changing the system to one that relies less on incarceration and more on keeping youth in programs that work in the community. There was lip service perhaps, but nothing concretely that was done to advance it."

Arthur retired last December and said she was not familiar with developments in Arkansas in the past year. But other advocates expressed optimism about the agency's direction under Guhman — who, unlike her two predecessors, is expected to stick around.

"I think there's reason to be hopeful, but I think there's a lot of frustration — among not just advocates but folks within the system themselves — about the pace of change," Jason Szanyi, a deputy director at the D.C.-based Center for Children's Law and Policy, said.

Since 2013, Szanyi has worked with juvenile courts in two Northwest Arkansas counties, Benton and Washington, to implement a program called the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, or JDAI, which has helped reduce detention in favor of community-based alternatives such as mentorships, family therapy and evening reporting centers. JDAI is active in more than 300 sites throughout the country, and Pulaski County will begin implementing the program in 2018.

In other jurisdictions, the use of a new risk-assessment tool has reduced confinement by helping judges identify various needs and risks of youth. Faulkner County Circuit Judge Troy Braswell said the screening process has been "a game changer" since it was rolled out in his court in 2016 as part of a pilot program.

Between 2015 and 2016, Braswell said, "we cut juvenile confinement by 23 percent in our district. And then for the fiscal year, as far as DYS commitments, we cut our commitment by 31 percent." He noted that the juvenile crime rate seems to have dropped as well: "We also had a 7 percent reduction in charges filed by the prosecutor.

"Kids are still going to get detained when it's appropriate, but that can't always be the answer," Braswell said. "As courts individually, and then as a state, we've got to do a better job of providing services to the family earlier on in the case." Braswell also chairs the Youth Justice Reform Board, a body created by the governor to make recommendations on juvenile justice issues.

Such reforms have reduced both the number of youths detained locally in juvenile detention centers and those committed to DYS facilities — but only among those courts that have embraced them. Many other judges continue to lock up large numbers of kids each year, meaning confinement numbers have remained high for the state as a whole.

"Arkansas has not seen the same level of reduction in commitment to state custody as many other states," Szanyi said. "There's a lot of inertia in terms of how things have been done in the state, and how they've been done from county to county. That can be tough to counter without a coordinated effort to reform the system. ... You need someone at DYS who has a long-term vision for juvenile justice reform.

"Director Guhman is someone who has a longstanding relationship with the governor and understands the issues," Szanyi said. "Our hope is that ... with strong leadership at DYS, we can start tackling some of the issues that need to be looked at in order for Arkansas to see some very significant and beneficial changes in the system."

Tom Masseau is the executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, an advocacy group that performs regular observations at the eight juvenile treatment centers and correctional facilities run by the DYS. He attributes the recent decrease in commitments mostly to individual judges choosing community-based alternatives; broader statewide reform has remained more talk than action.

"The holdup is that everybody likes the idea of reform, but nobody wants to roll up their sleeves and do it," he said. "I think when Ron [Angel] left, everything just kind of fell apart, and you had some directors who were appointed who had the best intentions but for whatever reason just couldn't move it forward. Now, I think with Betty Guhman in there — at least based on my meetings with her, she seems very committed. ... It's just contingent upon the legislature giving leeway to the division.

"I see us moving more toward some serious reforms," Masseau said. "At least, that's what we're going to be pushing for."

Braswell said the push for reform must continue at the local level, but he, too, sees new potential for the state to lead rather than follow.

"I think up to this point, DYS has been doing what the juvenile justice system has been doing," he said. "In my conversations with Director Guhman, I think they understand they're going to have to be more targeted in their contracts with the providers and making sure that judges and providers are working together to provide the services that are evidence-based and have a track record of working. To me, they understand that things have to change."

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.

Sentenced to Life Without Parole As a Juvenile: Donald Scott | Age 61

"They can keep my body locked up, but my soul and mind are always on the other side."


For more than a decade I have interviewed more than 1,000 kids in 35 states. What of these kids who were sentenced to long sentences and JLWOP, life sentences without parole? These kids become adults who become geriatric. These are the people I have interviewed for the past year.

These are their stories. There are more than 2,000 people — juveniles serving life without parole all over the country. These are some of their voices. These are their faces.

This is a series by Richard Ross that runs every other Thursday until Dec. 14.

Jackson, Mississippi, Native Working to Change Culture of Suspension in Its Public Schools

Jackson Free Press

JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI — Juan Cloy remembers being suspended when he was at Provine High School in the 1980s. He and several friends got in a fight with some kids from the neighborhood at school. Everyone involved got suspended.

Of course, the idea of suspension is for kids to stay home, but none of the boys did. He and his friends went outside and walked around the corner to find the boys they got into a fight with in a car.

“One of the kids pulled a gun out on us,” he said. “… [T]here was no resolution. We never resolved that — ever. To this day it hasn’t been resolved, and this was in high school.”

Cloy, who worked as a law enforcement officer for more than 20 years at the Jackson and Canton police departments and the FBI, now is the Mississippi director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a subsidiary of the Council for a Strong America. The organization signed a memorandum of understanding with Jackson Public Schools to work on discipline and the relationship between school resource officers and JPD.

Specifically, Cloy is working to help implement PBIS — positive behavioral intervention and supports — and restorative justice programs — like justice circles, which invite everyone to share their experiences and discuss situations openly instead of being suspended — throughout JPS.

Drawing on his suspension experience in high school, Cloy says the school’s discipline procedures and culture should help resolve conflicts — not just remove kids from school.

“People say they bring that stuff from the neighborhood to the school, and that’s true,” Cloy says. “But while they’re in our care in the schools, we should have some sort of system set up to help kind of diffuse that and figure out what’s going on.”

A culture problem

As a part of his work with Fight Crime, Cloy is focused on working with JPD to help the school district suspend and expel students less.

“Statistics show that a kid who is out of school for suspension or expulsion is more likely to end up in the back of a police car,” Cloy told the Jackson Free Press in an interview.

A new report from Fight Crime published this month shows that Mississippi has higher in-school and out-of-school suspension rates than the national average. Cloy focuses on Jackson Public Schools and the Biloxi School District in his work for Fight Crime.

JPS has a higher rate of out-of-school suspension than in-school suspension, indicating that administrators are using the latter less overall, opting to just send kids home instead.

Jackson, the second-largest district in the state, did not have the worst rate of suspension by a long shot, however. Philadelphia, Mississippi, schools have the highest out-of-school suspension rate in the state, the Fight Crime report shows.

JPS administrators have worked to use suspension data to change the district’s discipline policies and implement behavioral management systems like PBIS, which rewards students for positive behavior. The district also uses Tools for Life, which teaches younger students their “tools” for negotiating and interacting with others.

JPS Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray says PBIS and Tools for Life are what helped drop the district’s number of discipline cases so far this year. At the end of October in the 2016-17 school year, 177 students were referred to the alternative school for discipline issues. This year, that number was 145.

Murray explained the discipline data to the new Better Together Commission, tasked with conducting a districtwide study and soliciting community input as a part of the third “takeover” option for JPS.

“Good leaders run good buildings, and so we have to make sure our principals are quality leaders and that they understand that they are responsible for the cultural climate of their building, and again, that doesn’t mean suspending every child, that means being able to adopt a culture,” Murray told the commission on Nov. 8.

Cloy agrees. He says he has seen a culture of suspension in his work with JPS so far. Last school year, students in JPS were suspended in some high schools for being out of class or dress code violations, while other students in different high schools receive in-school detention for similar infractions. More than 8,000 out-of-school suspensions were recorded in the 2016-17 school year in JPS. The district implemented a new code of conduct, with new discipline procedures this school year, in part due to that data.

“I just think suspension is a culture: You go home,” he told the Jackson Free Press. “And it’s a culture districtwide, so culture, as they say, is one of the hardest things to change.”

Freddrick Murray, interim superintendent of Jackson Public Schools

All about leadership

That doesn’t mean progress has not occurred in the district, however. Murray mentioned a JPS school he used to go into four years ago where discipline was an issue, but told the commission that it is very different today — and discipline is not an issue anymore. He said responsibility for the discipline goes to the school leader, the assistant superintendents and ultimately to him as the superintendent.

In the midst of a potential state takeover, Murray reorganized the district into four feeder patterns based on data, including on discipline. The district now has four area superintendents, and as a part of the reorganization, Murray removed and then hired 14 new principals for the current school year.

In Fight Crime’s work inside JPS schools, Cloy says Wingfield High School in Jackson is an example of a school that has implemented alternative and creative programming, from an arts program to jiu-jitsu to chess for students that help combat disciplinary issues. Other schools,  he said, are going day-to-day.

Cloy said he can tell when a behavioral system in a school is working.

“You can tell when a program is run, whatever the program is,” he said. “When the bell rings, and the students walk out of the classroom, you can tell who runs the building. You can tell what program is working and if there’s a program that’s being used.”

With autonomy, Cloy says, principals can work to adapt different behavioral interventions from PBIS to restorative justice practices (both proven to reduce suspension rates) effectively.

“Each school has to be treated differently, and certain principals have to be put in place and given full autonomy to run their schools and use their programs,” he said. “And if it doesn’t work, then you get a new principal.”

State reporter Arielle Dreher is a reporter for the Jackson Free Press, where this story also appears. Read more about Jackson Public Schools at jfp.ms/jpstakeover and juvenile justice and alternative solutions at jfp.ms/preventingviolence.

California Corrections Committee Proposes New Minimum Standards for Incarcerated Youth

California youth advocates are fairly pleased with recommendations on use of pepper spray, shackling, visitation rights and vegetarian meal options for incarcerated youth that came from the Executive Steering Committee of the state Board of State and Community Corrections.

Israel Villa

“This time around was historic; we are advocating for changes that have never been addressed before,” said Israel Villa, a formerly incarcerated youth. “My understanding is that the [board] usually goes with the steering committee's recommendations.”

Villa, the program and policy coordinator for the organization Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement, said he is hopeful the recommendations will be approved.

The committee held a panel with youth advocates last week in preparation for a Feb. 8, 2018 meeting, when the full board will vote on revising statewide regulations for incarcerated youth.

The committee recommended requiring that facilities must document the use of pepper spray on youth. Advocates had been hoping for a ban. California is currently one of five states that allow guards to carry pepper spray inside youth prisons.

Sara Kruzan

Sara Kruzan, a formerly incarcerated youth and program coordinator at Healing Dialogue and Action, said this requirement is a step in the right direction, but that using pepper spray should not be tolerated.

“There is a double standard in place,” she said. “If your children got into a fight at school, it wouldn’t be acceptable to pepper spray them as a form of punishment. That would be considered abuse.”

Villa said the issue of pepper spray goes hand-in-hand with the issue of staff-to-youth ratios.

“If there were more staff members available, these facilities wouldn’t need to rely on pepper spray to handle altercations,” Villa said. “These are kids, and punishment doesn’t help their situations.”

Youth advocates proposed improving the staff-to-youth ratios, but the committee decided not to recommend action on that matter. Currently, the state requires one adult for every 10 youths during the day, and one adult to 30 youths during the night.

The committee also suggested new regulations that would prohibit the general use of shackles. Instead, the facility would be required to conduct individualized assessments before each use.

Kruzan said she is worried that this proposed regulation will fall short.

“I’m concerned about who will be making that discretion regarding shackles, and why we are still OK with shackles being used on our youth,” she said. “I can’t align myself with a system that treats youth in a way that doesn’t even match our values as a community.”

Executive Steering Committee meetings are designed to provide direction and focus to the revision process by identifying critical issues, providing direction to workgroups that propose revisions and making a final recommendation to the full board. The full board is expected to make a final decision on revisions to Juvenile Titles 15 and 24 regulations by April 2018.

Revisions to California’s regulations were last made in 2014, but there is no particular rule for when a state reviews its regulations for youth facilities, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

The committee also suggested that facilities should be required to process requests for vegetarian meals, and supportive adults should not be barred from visiting incarcerated youth simply because of the adults’ conviction history.

Overall, Kruzan said these regulations should guide facilities to treat youth in a trauma-informed manner, rather than with a punitive approach.

“Anyone who is working with youth should be looking at the factors that contributed to their situations,” she said. “In my case, my trauma was never acknowledged and the phrase ‘child sex-trafficking survivor’ was never used. No one knew how to handle me, so I was criminalized.”


Hello. The national Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund like our work so much that they have agreed to match donations of up to $1,000 per person. They will spend up to $28,000 through the end of December.

So this would be an especially good time to donate to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Any money you give us up to $1,000 will be doubled.

Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.

Thanks for listening.

Contribute Now

What It Feels Like to Be Kept in Los Angeles Prisons When You’re a Teen

LOS ANGELES — Kim McGill was only 12 years old when she was first arrested and incarcerated for grand larceny. As a young girl, she had taken order requests from individuals, stolen and sold the items. At 13, she was charged with a felony for the second time and imprisoned in a juvenile detention center for shoplifting more than $1,000 worth of merchandise. After that she was prosecuted for several misdemeanor cases, both as a youth and an adult.

As a former felon and now the lead organizer of the Youth Justice Coalition, McGill is against confinement.

“It's not about fixing the system so people re-enter with more resources,” she said. “It's about knowing that you can't get well in a cell, you can't grow in a cage.”

McGill’s memories still gnaw at her today. She described sleep deprivation due to extreme air conditioning, fluorescent lighting and lack of sufficiently warm clothing. She recalled the absence of any external stimulation: the lack of windows, the inability to see the sky and the deficiency of engaging activities.

The walls were all one color, usually beige or white. Steel cells, tables and beds were the only items in the lock-ups, unless a concrete slab protruded from the wall as a makeshift frame. Sleeping on the floor was not uncommon, nor was seeing the physically most vulnerable people being forced to sleep with their heads next to the toilet in an overcrowded cell. McGill remembered how inmates were talked at, not spoken to; and how the explicit use of her last name made her fail to feel like a human being, let alone like a child.

The United States leads the industrialized world in the number and percentage of children it locks up in juvenile detention facilities, according to Human Rights Watch.

In California, 71,923 juveniles were arrested in 2015 according to a report from the California Department of Justice. Slightly more than 58,000 were referred to probation, about 13,000 were counseled and released, and approximately 1,000 youth were turned over to another agency.

Meanwhile, improvements have been made. Lawmakers unveiled a list of bills in March 2017 in an attempt to divert youth from a school-to-prison pipeline and keep them out of the juvenile justice system.

“We have made really big progress, we just have to do a lot more,” said Dr. Bo Kyung (Elizabeth) Kim, assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “We still incarcerate the most vulnerable population in this country. ... More than any other country in the world.”

Confinement conditions

Among her bad memories were the powerlessness: “As a young person you’re in cells usually with no bathrooms. So, you’re pounding on the door or a plexiglass window ... in the door, to try to get someone’s attention so you could pee. [You are] especially desperate in the middle of the night when you’re locked in, and having people either know that you’re pounding and ignore you, or pretend not to hear you, and having to pee into a towel or into a corner or hold it all night. That was particularly horrible.”

But the boredom was the worst.

Being in a place where pencils, pens, books and paper are all considered contraband, she said, inmates could spend hours, days and sometimes months without the ability to read or write, let alone do anything else to stimulate your mind.

“Once I had a nickel on me that wasn't caught during the search and I wrote with it into an entire cell wall,” she remarked. Although there would be dayroom time, it was rarely programmed to help you grow.

Contemplating whether she had found solace in anything or anyone during her most vulnerable moments, she said, “[I] can't think of any positive thoughts that got me through anytime.”

Young people who go into the system are particularly vulnerable, McGill said.

“Because of your age or because of your lack of experience, you’re introduced to people who have been much more involved in the streets,” she said. “So, prisons, jails [and] juvenile halls are also breeding grounds for violence.”

McGill pauses for a moment before saying strip searches were obviously another distinct memory. She would have to “strip down naked in front of total strangers, not only the people that you’re locked up with but the guards. In [the] case of the youth system, it’s probation officers. In [the] case of the adult system, it’s usually sheriffs, sometimes police officers.”

The stench of the facilities is another feature she vividly recalls as being unbearable. “I think that anyone who’s been locked up can smell … exactly how it smelled when we were there,” she said. “And you can differentiate between the facilities you’ve been based on the smells they had.

“Sounds at night are also something that never leaves you,” McGill said, “whether it’s the pounding of doors, crying, screaming, people mumbling to themselves, people rhyming … yelling, arguing with each other.”

But even so, McGill said she was better off than many other people who have been in solitary confinement and were sentenced to life in prison.

Racial profiling

One of the most impactful things for her development was growing up in communities of color, she said.

“I think I had the benefit of seeing the obvious issues in the system from a very young age … When you’re white [like me], and you’re going through it, it’s really obvious to you that you’re getting preferential treatment.”

On the streets, McGill was treated as a victim while her friends were viewed as criminals. She recalled being taken aside by police twice and asked if she had been kidnapped. She was constantly queried about why she was in specific areas, if she knew they were dangerous and if she wanted a ride home.

A 2017 report from Human Impact Partners found that in 2015, 88 percent of juveniles in California who were tried as adults were youth of color.

The record also cited evidence of “rampant racial inequities … in the way youth of color are disciplined in school, policed and arrested, detained, sentenced, and incarcerated.”

Crissel Rodriguez, the Southern California regional coordinator at the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, agreed.

“We see that the zero tolerance policy has actually really affected communities of color,” Rodriguez said.

Kim said youth of color are much more likely to be in touch with police negatively at every single point of contact in the system, and they are more likely to be taken further into the system than out of it.

“The justification for that for the judges themselves, is that ... it’s dangerous, so we are going to detain them,” Kim said. “It’s a way to protect them. But under the purview of protecting them, they’ve further introduced them to a system that brings them back over and over again.”

Detention dispute

In 2012 Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 9, which supported judges reconsidering the sentences of juveniles punished to life in prison. After that, most of the state’s juvenile life-sentenced prisoners are being resentenced, according to The Sentencing Project.

Brown signed SB 394 in October, legislation that now outlaws the state from sentencing youth offenders to life in prison without possibility for parole.

Today McGill, 36, leads the Youth Justice Coalition, an organization that challenges the U.S. “addiction” to incarceration and race, gender and class discrimination in the juvenile “injustice” systems. To her, and most people in the coalition, this crusade is personal.

“The greatest feeling that myself, and I think other people, have got has come through our organizing and fighting back to change the system,” she said. “It’s healed us more than any other single thing has.”


Hello. The national Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund like our work so much that they have agreed to match donations of up to $1,000 per person. They will spend up to $28,000 through the end of December.

So this would be an especially good time to donate to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Any money you give us up to $1,000 will be doubled.

Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.

Thanks for listening.

Contribute Now

Sentenced to Life Without Parole As a Juvenile: Chantay Clark | Age 39

"My mother was a violent alcoholic. she used me as a punching bag so I ran away."


For more than a decade I have interviewed more than 1,000 kids in 35 states. What of these kids who were sentenced to long sentences and JLWOP, life sentences without parole? These kids become adults who become geriatric. These are the people I have interviewed for the past year.

These are their stories. There are more than 2,000 people — juveniles serving life without parole all over the country. These are some of their voices. These are their faces.

This is a series by Richard Ross that will run every other Thursday.

Millions of Youth Are Homeless for More Than Month At a Time, New Study Finds

WASHINGTON — Nearly one in 30 teens and one in 10 young adults experienced homelessness in the past year, a groundbreaking new study has found.

Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall interviewed more than 26,000 people from all over the country over the past year. They found that 4.3 percent of youths 13 to 17 years old reported at least one instance of homelessness; nearly 10 percent of young adults 18 to 25 years old had experienced homelessness.

The study, “Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America,” is one of the largest of its kind ever attempted. It also offers a wider look at what one researcher called the “spectrum” of homelessness — everything from sleeping on the streets to “couch surfing.”

“We are capturing homelessness that doesn’t fit with most people’s images of homelessness,” said Matt Morton, who helped lead the study. “The scale has not been highlighted. This helps capture the fluidity of it.”

The study, released today, is the first in a series of reports that Chapin Hill plans.

Morton and his co-authors estimate that at least 700,000 teenagers and 3.5 million young adults have been homeless in the past year. Nor was the experience all that temporary: Nearly three-quarters of youth surveyed were homeless for more than a month, the study reports.

The experiences may differ greatly, but the prevalence doesn’t seem to change much from cities to countryside, the study said. Some 9.6 percent of rural young adults experienced homelessness last year compared to 9.2 percent of urban young adults; 4.4 percent of rural teens suffered homelessness last year, compared to 4.2 percent of teens in urban America.

“It’s really a national problem,” Morton said.

Researchers also crunched the numbers behind youths’ homeless risk factors:

  • Education appeared to be the biggest factor. Youth without a high school diploma or GED had a 346 percent higher risk of winding up homeless than youth who stayed in school;
  • Unmarried young people with children were 200 percent more likely to suffer homelessness;
  • Youth in poor families were 162 percent more likely to experience homelessness;
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender youth were 120 percent more likely to wind up homeless;
  • African-American youth were 83 percent more likely to experience homelessness; and
  • Latino youth were 33 percent more likely to suffer homelessness.

Perhaps most alarming, Morton said, researchers found that nearly half the youths who went homeless in the previous year were doing so for the first time. For Morton, that means child welfare officials must engage early in preventing homelessness. “We cannot solve a problem that dynamic, that cyclical, without significant intervention upstream,” he said.

Whatever the report’s specific policy recommendations, it’s “a spectacular” way to open an important conversation, said Ruth Anne White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare in College Park, Maryland.

“Those numbers are sort of staggering. Even though I’m steeped in this, I’m just blown away,” she said. “I’m glad Chapin Hall got this on paper. This is kicking off a really important conversation.”

Despite researchers’ hopes that Congress will increase funding for and create new “housing interventions,” White is skeptical. Existing law may already be “flexible” enough for child welfare bureaucrats to get help to youths who need it, she said. What matter is getting the bureaucracy moving.

“There are kids that have dozens of foster care placements. In any event, it’s a very flexible stream of funding and I’m not sure why it doesn’t figure more prominently in the report,” she said.

“The main emphasis is to use existing funds,” White added. “I don’t think there’s any taxpayer who thinks that [funds] shouldn’t be automatically triggered when there’s a kid on the street. What are we doing with all that money?”

The report’s recommendations are:

  • “Conduct national estimates of youth homelessness biennially to track our progress in ending youth homelessness.
  • “Fund housing interventions, services and prevention efforts in accordance with the scale of youth homelessness, accounting for different needs.
  • “Federal policy should encourage assessment and service delivery decisions that are responsive to the diversity and fluidity circumstances among youth experiencing homelessness.
  • “Build prevention efforts in systems where youth likely to experience homelessness are in our care: child welfare, juvenile justice and education.”
  • “Acknowledge unique developmental and housing needs for a young population and adapt services to meet those needs.”
  • “Tailor supports for rural youth experiencing homelessness to account for more limited service infrastructure over a larger terrain.”
  • “Target strategies to address the disproportionate risk for homelessness among special subpopulations, including pregnant and parenting, LGBT, African-American and Hispanic youth, and young people without high school diplomas.”

Hello. The national Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund like our work so much that they have agreed to match donations of up to $1,000 per person. They will spend up to $28,000 through the end of December.

So this would be an especially good time to donate to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Any money you give us up to $1,000 will be doubled.

Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.

Thanks for listening.

Contribute Now

Racial Disparities Persist After Years of Juvenile Justice Reform, Models for Change Leaders Say

WASHINGTON — James Bell, founder and president of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, told a gathering of juvenile justice reformers earlier this month that it was time to begin “an uncomfortable” conversation about racial disparities in the youth justice system.

He made the comments to Models for Change stakeholders gathered here to discuss the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s final evaluations of the $121 million juvenile justice reform initiative, which began in 2004. It ended as MacArthur changed its emphasis from reforming youth justice to jail reform.

The daylong meeting centered around the many success Models for Change helped bring about, from reducing incarceration sentences to influencing states to stop shackling youth in courts to raising the age at which teens are treated as adults in court.

[Laurie Garduque video | Accomplishments]

Bobbe Bridge, founder and president of Center for Children & Youth Justice in Washington state, said, “Models for Change was certainly the catalyst in accelerating reform. We have certainly changed the conversation.”

Yet, thanks in part to Models for Change support for data collection, it is apparent that racial disparities in the youth justice system, if anything, have gotten worse, not better.

A MacArthur-commissioned evaluation of Models for Change by Mathematica Policy Research found that disparity “persists, mostly at pre-Models for Change levels.” The Sentencing Project recently reported that in 2015 black male youth were five times more likely to be locked up than white youth.

[Laurie Garduque video | Racial disparities]

Speaking of the reforms, Bell said, “What we now know after 10 years of informed analysis is that all of those things have benefitted white kids and the racial disparities persist.”

In the past, he said, the reformers wanted “to get something rather than nothing” so the discussions that might have made decision-makers uncomfortable didn’t happen. Now, he says, “As we go into 2.0 of reform policy we are going to make people very uncomfortable to examine why the disparities still persist.”

Laurie Garduque, who led the Models for Change initiative at the MacArthur Foundation, said although the disparities rate has not improved, the harm done to youth in the system has been reduced for kids of color. “Fewer of them are being swept up in the system, more of them are being diverted and remain in the community, fewer are incarcerated; the incarceration rate has dropped dramatically, somewhere between 40 and 60 percent depending on the state,” she said.

Laurie Garduque

She added, “You are dealing with a host of economic, structural and political issues … you can’t expect the justice system to overcome. So there has to be an acknowledgement that we can make the system fairer and more just, but the deck is stacked against certain groups in such a way that it is very hard to make it equitable.”

The Mathematica evaluation reports that in states where Models for Change concentrated its effort:

  • “Significant paradigm shifts not only continued during Models for Change, they were propelled by it ...
  • “State and local stakeholders became more aware of the harms of detaining youth, particularly low risk youth, in out-of-home placements.
  • “The poor conditions that characterized confinement drew attention and litigation.
  • “Evidence mounted about the ill effects of formal involvement in the justice system.
  • “As these perspectives took shape, so did intentions to divert youth from pretrial detention and secure confinement and from the justice system entirely.
  • “As interest in diversion and serving youth in the community grew, evidence-based programs emerged as desirable alternatives to secure confinement and formal processing.“

Models for Change was not the only group influencing change. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) is active in seeking community-based alternatives to youthful incarceration.

Donald K. Ross of Malkin & Ross said his public policy firm, which worked for Models for Change, hired 56 different lobbying firms to work with states to help bring about reforms. For example, at the beginning of Models for Change in 2004 only 10 states forbade shackling of youth in courtrooms. Today there are 31 such states.

[Laurie Garduque video | Changes]

Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center, said that when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that kids are different, it gave everyone the freedom to use the youth developmental language. Yet, “what we haven’t eliminated is a persistently punitive response to offending in this country that still infiltrates and drives our criminal justice system.”

[Laurie Garduque video | Language]

Garduque said the research the MacArthur Foundation helped underwrite established the legally relevant ways that kids are different from adults, which was made concrete by Supreme Court decisions. Now there is a reluctance to think of young people as the worst thing they have done and focus instead on the individual young person.

Marsha Levick

The field was forced to ask, she said, “How can we hold young people accountable for their transgressions in ways that recognize that they are not adults and doesn’t jeopardize their future life chances and gives them the skills and competencies to become successful adults?”

[Laurie Garduque video | Future]

What’s most gratifying for her is that “Those principles have been adopted and now seem to be secure and are the basis for another generation of law and policy reform where we are rolling back those harsh and punitive sanctions.”     

Leonard Witt is executive director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism, the publisher of the JJIE. The JJIE was a MacArthur Foundation Models for Change grantee.  


Hello. The national Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund like our work so much that they have agreed to match donations of up to $1,000 per person. They will spend up to $28,000 through the end of December.

So this would be an especially good time to donate to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Any money you give us up to $1,000 will be doubled.

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New LA Child Welfare Chief Bobby Cagle to Find High Demand, Too Few Foster Homes

LOS ANGELES — Bobby Cagle, a former foster child and caseworker, is set to take over as head of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) starting Dec. 1 as part of ongoing efforts to curb long-running issues within the nation’s largest child welfare system.

"What having been director [of the Division of Family and Children Services] in Georgia will do is give me a leg up on the fact that that is a very large system," Cagle said in an interview in his Atlanta office. "LA County is composed of about 10.2 million residents, almost the same size as Georgia, in a very compact area."

His first priorities are "assessment of the system and the relationships with the key stakeholders in the community that are really vital to us being able to do the work," he said.

The Board of Supervisors is already working on the size of caseloads and promoting kinship care, Cagle said. "The nice thing in LA is that the Board of Supervisors already arrived at the conclusion that kinship care is a vital component and that they need to move in that direction," he said. "My encouragement will just be joining into the chorus."

As for caseloads, "One of the things … that every system deals with is the size of caseloads," Cagle said. "The trauma you experience in everyday work, even at a normal size caseload, is multiplied when you look at caseloads that are too large."

Another major concern is "the number of visitations that have to occur as well as the difficulties they have with traffic and also the distance that children have to be transported to do the visitations," he said.

“Cagle has worked in child welfare, substance abuse, early education, and social services for nearly 30 years, which has prepared him to handle critical incidents, community engagement, the courts, and thrive within the unique challenges and opportunities of working in Los Angeles County,” said Supervisor Hilda L. Solis in a statement made at Cagle’s appointment in September.

She voted in favor of appointing him in a 3-2 vote of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Cagle will succeed former director Philip Browning, who retired after serving as director for five years.

The appointment comes four years after the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who remained in his home despite several investigations into reports of abuse by his mother.

Since then, DCFS has continued to face challenges of mismanagement, high caseloads and a shortage of foster homes.

According to Wende Nichols-Julien, chief executive officer of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Los Angeles, the most pressing issue facing Cagle is the crisis of too few foster families and family environments for children.

DCFS serves more than 30,000 children each month, with more than half in out-of-home placement. This number is steadily rising each year while out-of-home resources are declining.  According to the DCFS 2015-16 Biennial Report, the number of foster care resources, including family and group homes, has dropped by 52 percent from 2005 to 2015.

“We need to meet the shortage of foster care placements head-on by recruiting but also partnering with and supporting families in an ongoing way,” said Amy Heibel, communications director of the Alliance for Children’s Rights.

As director of DCFS, Cagle will oversee nearly 4,800 social workers, 2,000 of whom were hired under Browning between 2015 and 2016 as part of the department’s effort to lower caseloads and reform the system following Fernandez’ death.

Cagle faced a similar situation on his appointment to his previous position as director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) in 2014 after two cases of children dying the previous year.

"The work is just very disturbing sometimes," Cagle said. "You see things done to children that you cannot even imagine …When I was a caseworker and my caseload got too large, I would lose sleep. … We have to recognize that those factors are all present anywhere that you’re doing social work in the child welfare system. … We have to do things to compensate for that the best we can."

Throughout the last three years, he has been applauded for his work at DFCS. While director, he was credited with reducing the state’s backlog of child protection investigations by ordering mandatory overtime for DFCS investigators, increasing staff and pay for frontline workers, decreasing caseloads and increasing reimbursements for foster parents.

During his leadership, the state also experienced a dramatic increase in the number of children in foster care, going from 7,600 in 2013 to 13,200 in 2016.

Tom C. Rawlings, director of the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate, thinks this increase is due to Cagle’s “stable and transparent” leadership, which led to a more efficient and responsive system.

“It’s not been what we’d hoped to see, but in some ways it’s been an indication of his success rather than his failure,” Rawlings said. “While we never like to see any dramatic increase because it means we’re taking too many children into care, in this case I think it actually means we have been better at recognizing cases.”

In April 2017, another high-profile child death hit DFCS when 10-year-old Kentae Williams died after reports of abuse by his adopted father. The case led to the firing of three DFCS workers, one of whom had only two years of experience on the job, a result of high caseworker turnover within DFCS, deputy division director Virginia Pryor said.

Declining to comment further on Cagle’s appointment, Solis said in her statement that her decision to approve him came from conversations with foster youth, who “told us that they wanted someone who is from foster care, is culturally competent, believes in safely keeping families together whenever possible, can build relationships in the community, and had skills and experience working across sectors.”

Solis also noted in her statement that child welfare advocates said they “wanted someone who had ‘on the ground’ experience in child welfare, a track record of public-private partnership, recognized the role of counsel and the courts, and held a genuine belief in strengthening at-risk families.”

Cagle is noted for his work with early childhood education as former commissioner of Bright From the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. He has also expressed understanding of issues affecting immigrant children, LGBTQ youth and homelessness within the child welfare system.

“[Cagle] was the only candidate who emphasized the disproportionate harms facing LGBT youth in the system,” Solis said in her statement.

Still, the landscape Cagle faces in Los Angeles County is shaky, and undergoing recurring scrutiny.

A report by the California State Los Angeles School of Criminalistics and Criminal Justice and the Children’s Data Network at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work analyzed the connection between children touched by DCFS and the proportion of youth with probation involvement.

The study found that four out of five probation-involved youth in Los Angeles had received at least one referral to child protective services for suspected maltreatment, many with their first referral during early childhood.

Los Angeles County has one of the largest juvenile justice systems in the country, with more than half the juvenile justice population with open mental health cases in 2015. The relationship between early childhood mental health and youth incarceration is one researchers are now investigating as reason for better child welfare practices.

“We must be mindful of the maltreatment and family instability these youth have experienced,” said Emily Putnam-Hornstein, director of Children’s Data Network and co-author of the report. “LA County is deeply engaged in prevention planning — the momentum is really tremendous. Continued leadership from DCFS under Director Cagle will be critical.”

Heibel agreed the child welfare system has an important role to play in preventative care and as a continuum of care for children and young people.

“We know that children thrive when they can maintain healthy connections and grow up in stable homes that can provide for all of their needs and help them recover from trauma,” she said. “Under Cagle’s leadership, we hope that we will continue to make progress toward supporting caregivers who step up to provide stable, loving homes for children who cannot remain with their biological parents.”

Roger Newton contributed to this story.

This story has been updated.


Hello. The national Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund like our work so much that they have agreed to match donations of up to $1,000 per person. They will spend up to $28,000 through the end of December.

So this would be an especially good time to donate to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Any money you give us up to $1,000 will be doubled.

Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.

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Community Organizing Is ‘the Job I Wanted But Didn’t Know Existed’

DeJuan Bland is community organizer for MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength) in Detroit. OST Hub editor Sara Hill asked him a series of questions about his work.

Q: Tell me about how you started in the field.

DeJuan Bland

A: Every summer when I was off from college, I worked with Kendell Barry, at Developing K.I.D.S. It was a six-week summer program. We did academic work, team building, community service. It was my job to create the curriculum for the summer. I graduated college and didn’t want to get a job punching a clock. Two weeks after I graduated, MOSES and the national network Gamaliel held a race and power summit. I found out what community organizing was, and it was the job I wanted but didn’t know existed. One of the nights at the summit they had an “action” that dramatized what was happening at the summit. I offered to write a play about it, a reimagining of “Waiting for Godot,” transposed to America of today, showing the structural and institutional racism, and how it impacts children and youth of color. They gave me the microphone to speak at the end of the play. I got a couple of job offers after that. MOSES, a faith-based community organizing agency in Detroit was one of the offers, and I took it because I wanted to work in the city.

Q: What have you learned that you’d wish you learned from the start of your career as a youth worker?

A: I’m learning that it’s a co-learning process. I struggle with being pegged as an exceptional person, so whenever I feel like I’m not doing the right thing, it can cause paralysis. What helps is remembering that everything is messy, but without effort, nothing gets done. The second recommendation is to trust in the things I’m good at. There’s a reason that I’m here. It helps me when working with young people, that it’s OK to feel like you don’t have it all together.

Q: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen at your program? In the field?

A: I don’t know if it’s a change, but I’m becoming more aware of an intergenerational divide, and how it needs to be addressed. More seasoned people in the social justice field, they have the experience, and they say, “Just listen to me, and we’ll be all right,” and the young people don’t have space. Conversely, if the youth have the space, they don’t want to hear about the experience and wisdom of more seasoned social justice community leaders. I feel that there needs to be co-creation. The two are siloed, there’s separation and division between people even in one organization.

Q: How have you handled those changes?

A: I have been building relationships across the divide. This is key. The next step is for the leaders, including youth and older people, to build relationships. One thing we did recently is a poetry and politics event. We talk about meaningful things going on in our lives and community, and we use art to drive that conversation. The last couple of sessions have been intentionally intergenerational. That has helped specifically with the campaign that I’m running around juvenile justice reform, which is to stop young people from getting arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors. We were in a space in the campaign where the young people were doing all the work, but their schedule is difficult, they have school, other obligations. Having the older people there to step in the gap when young people can’t be there is helping, and it’s not in a way that they’re taking over the campaign. They’re helping the young generation.

Q: How do you battle burnout, stay resilient?

A: I do a lot of things, music and poetry. I go out and perform [my music and poetry] — that gives me energy. I box, that gives me energy as well. On the job, I ground myself and remind myself about the meaning of the work, why it matters to me.

Q: What are your dreams?

A: I have an end goal. I’m still piecing together what that looks like. I want my writing to be published and studied. I want my life to mean something beyond the time that I’m actually living. I’m a minister, I use everything in my life for ministry. I want to do work that changes how we see the juvenile justice system, not just Detroit and Michigan, but the whole country. There’s a story in the Bible, in the Book of Acts in the New Testament. The disciples are approaching a city, and the officials in the city describe them as the “people who are turning the world upside down.” Along with the people I work with, I want to be described that way, particularly regarding the justice system.

Q: What’s some advice you would give someone entering the field?

A: That this work will have you wrestling with yourself and all the things you didn’t think you had to deal with in yourself. And that’s OK.