Youth Voice: A closer look at the needs of youth involved in Massachusetts Juvenile Justice System

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The Annual Policy Connection Student Blog Contest-2nd prize winner

The Office of Government & External Affairs, and Strategic Partnerships invited students share their thoughts on some of today’s most hot topics in policy and politics in the Student Blog Contest. Below is the 2nd prize winner.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services website, there is a disproportionate number of arrest rates amongst youth compared to the rate of their unlawful behavior. As a participant of Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), a national program geared towards improving the detention component of Juvenile Justice Systems, since 2006 and last year’s passing of Raise the Age bill, there are rising reform efforts in the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice system.

As announced in the Citizens for Juvenile Justice’s 2012 Data Points report, our Juvenile Justice Department unfortunately does not currently track the strengths, needs, or social backgrounds of youth in their custody. Lack of this information “leaves us with disturbingly little information about the assets and potential strengths that youth in the system bring in with them.” Without information regarding youth’s mental health, physical and behavioral needs, possible trauma history, adequate housing, and special education needs, we are not effectively serving this population of youth, nor are we preparing them for successful reintegration into the community.

The concern of recidivism amongst youth residing in the urban communities of Boston and the impact on access to social services and education are human rights issues. With the Grade Retention Bill and Creating Safe and Supportive Schools as level two priority for the legislative ballot, we need to raise the awareness of educational needs of youth and create supportive schools due to a violation of human rights that affect many youth involved in the juvenile justice system. We need to increase research that explores the deficit impacts students’ experience being kept back a grade. This policy deeply impacts youth currently involved in our juvenile Justice department. Youth generally missing too many days and being labeled as a juvenile offender impacts the education they receive thus putting them at greater risk for being kept back.

As advocates for human rights, five graduate social work Wheelock students came together creating Project S.T.A.R.S – Striving To Achieve Resiliency and Success through the reduction of recidivism amongst youth residing in urban communities of Massachusetts. Together Project S.T.A.R.S and Roxbury Kroc Center’s Bridging the Gap (BTG) program partnered on a Community Based Participatory Action Research Project (CBPARP), to explore the human rights issues of recidivism amongst the youth they serve and develop a clear understanding of whether staff’s views of their needs coincided with their view of what they need. Outcomes were shared at a community luncheon hosted by Project S.T.A.R.S and BTG at the Kroc center followed by an open discussion of the themes as well as effective and implementable take away messages. These common themes represent specific interventions and connections that both staff and youth reported during focus groups. Themes included parent/family involvement, relationships, hope for the future, authority figure/community influences, staying out of trouble, and BTG program curriculum.

These five overlapping themes gathered via focus groups with both youth and staff of the BTG program shows us that while some may argue that youth want jobs, money, and material things, when really asked specific questions such as what keeps you out of trouble, what influences your decisions, and how can we help you? Many youth responded that it was places like the Kroc Center, programs like BTG, and close relationships with program staff that made the ultimate difference in the choices they make, places they go, and how they choose to spend their time. It is programs like bridging the gap in which these positive, authentic, and transparent relationships emerge, by supporting these youth while holding them accountable for the choices they make.

The takeaway message from the community luncheon reminded us all of the importance, role, and value that relationships hold in the lives of every child. Students need to have a sense of hope in order to succeed and as social workers and professionals who serve these children, we must strive for cultural competence, examine the impact of one’s community, and take the time to listen to youth, making note of their strengths, skills, and challenges. We must empower these youth to develop positive coping skills and more effective means for getting their needs met in order to reduce their risk of reoffending.

Project S.T.A.R.S
Nicole Johnson, Amanda Jacobsen, Kailla Pearl, Carrie Long, and Elizabeth Beliard
Graduation Year: 2014, Master Social Work Program

As a group of graduate social work students, we all saw a need in the community and took a passionate initiative to explore the issues of recidivism amongst youth in the communities many of us grew up in. We are dedicated to advocating for human rights and equal distributive social justice for all.

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