December 1st, 2012

Programs help teens connect with services

Two Maine programs are helping teens in the juvenile justice system connect with services related to mental health challenges.

THRIVE, which provides training and technical assistance to youth and family-serving organizations to strengthen trauma-informed practices is now the training and technical assistance partner for Maine’s Department of Corrections Division of Juvenile Services’ four-year, $4 million Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grant, “Expanding Trauma-Informed System of Care Practices in Maine.”

The program focuses on youths 12-20 diagnosed with a serious emotional disturbance, whose offenses have placed them on informal adjustment, probation or community reintegration from a correctional facility. Objectives include creating an infrastructure within juvenile services for providing trauma-informed services; ensuring that youth involved with juvenile justice are screened, assessed, and referred to appropriate services; and reinforcing trauma-informed system of care practices statewide to mental health agencies through training, technical assistance and social marketing.

“The work is recognizing that the trauma is pervasive, and as a system we don’t always do a very good job of identifying it in children and youth,” says Arabella Perez, THRIVE executive director.

The group will utilize a screening tool to identify youth who have experienced trauma and the type and frequency of that trauma.

Perez says data shows that youth who have experienced three or more adverse childhood experiences versus youth who had less than three tended to be more symptomatic and have more outcomes than their counterparts. She says the research also found that youths with a caregiver who had three or more adverse experiences tended to fare poorer than those who didn’t.

“We extrapolated that caregivers clearly had an impact on parenting and perhaps the child’s own trauma or environment was also triggering something for the parent,” she says. “We used that data and worked with family organizations to have them do some outreach.”

Perez says the focus is on “How can we support you in parenting?” and not placing blame on caregivers.

Perez notes family organizations and family support partners do well with engaging with parents and introducing the topic of trauma and adversity.

“We’re very strong believers in having family and youth peers partnering with these families,” she says. “Those connections help with engagement.”

THRIVE is the lead agency for Youth MOVE Maine, which received a three-year, $600,000 SAMSHA grant to support the continued expansion of Youth Courts, specifically tying them in with substance abuse prevention, education, treatment and recovery.

Youth MOVE Maine expects to have three Youth Courts up and running within the next few months for teens facing first-time, non-violent offenses who may also be at risk for substance abuse and mental health challenges. The teens receive skills-building opportunities within a restorative justice framework.

Ryun Anderson, Youth MOVE Maine director, says court training began over the summer, with the first hearing in September.

“The intention is to build a relationship between youth courts and substance abuse providers so that we are able to address the high rates of substance use and abuse among young people who are involved in criminal activity,” Anderson says.

Not everybody who faces the Youth Court has a substance abuse history. “But if you are utilizing substances you are at higher risk for criminal activity, and if you are engaged in criminal activity you are at higher risk for using substances,” Anderson says. “The data clearly shows there are risks for both, so if you are addressing one and not paying attention to the other, then you are not fully addressing the problem.”

The teens will be screened and connected to appropriate services.

Teens who face the Youth Court will be lower risk offenders, referred by juvenile corrections officers, the police or school administrators. “It’s essentially an alternative to whatever other sanction they might have received,” she says.

The youth face a panel of three judges – all high school students trained in the Youth Court model and restorative justice. Also present are advocates for the respondent, victim, and community. “Each tries to uncover the story of what happened,” she says. “Because in a restorative justice framework you aren’t focusing on crime and punishment, but you are focusing on relationships, and, ‘How do you repair that harm?’”

To take part, the teen must first admit to the infraction. “So this isn’t a place to decide if they are guilty or innocent, it’s a place to decide how to move forward,” Anderson says.

“There is a recognition that when kids get in trouble, a lot of the times the punishment and shame disconnects them further from the community and because of that, they are at a higher risk for getting in trouble again,” she says. The program aims to hold youth accountable in front of their peers, while also helping them move forward and stay connected to the community.

By Pamela Berard

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