Tips for Working With Youth Who Have Had Contact With Multiple Systems

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A young person bundled up against cold winter weather.

Jill*, age 19, is on the youth advisory committee at The Link, an agency in Minneapolis, MN. She also has a part-time job as a research assistant and her own apartment. But it wasn’t always like this—at age 11 she was placed in The Link’s School Matters truancy intervention program in the juvenile justice division. After experiencing foster care, group homes, and homelessness, Jill became involved in sexual exploitation. She turned to The Link for help because of the positive relationships she’d developed with staff years before, and went through its Safe Harbor Passageways program.

Jill’s story of having contact with multiple systems throughout her life is a common one among youth served by runaway and homeless youth programs. “The re-entry population faces great challenges in achieving positive outcomes in the areas of housing, employment, and education. In the absence of support, youth are at risk for re-offending, [facing] housing instability or homelessness, substance abuse, and conflict at school,” says Jasmine Hayes, deputy director at the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Hayes and Beth Holger-Ambrose, the executive director at The Link, recently shared their insights via a webinar on helping these young people, “Addressing the Housing Needs of Youth in the Justice System,” organized by the National Reentry Resource Center and the Coalition for Juvenile Justice last month.

We spoke to Hayes and Holger-Ambrose to learn more about how to help youth like Jill thrive. Three key factors emerged: coordination between systems to provide early transition planning and streamlined case management, engagement of youth in their case plans, and expanding young people's networks of safe, caring adults.

Coordinate and Have Patience

“Whether the setting is juvenile justice, child welfare, or a homeless youth service provider, success means thinking about exit and transition plans as early as possible, from day one of meeting youth. It’s important to create a plan with one set of goals and objectives for each young person informed by multiple systems, as opposed to having one from the justice system, another from child welfare and another from behavioral health,” Hayes explains.

At The Link, juvenile justice division staff have ties to local law enforcement and often take referrals directly from probation officers. The Link case managers then continue to work closely with the officers and with social workers if youth have an open child welfare case.

Be patient and view outcomes over the long term, recommends Holger–Ambrose. “It is natural and okay to allow youth to come in and out of services, to work with those things characteristic of how the adolescent brain works. Youth might not be on time to meetings, or not show up, but it goes a long way let them know that you are always there for them.”

Let Youth Drive the Process

We’ve written about why and how to let youth inform and drive the programs offered to them. This is even more important when creating case plans with system(s)-involved youth. Often these youth have had their trust broken by multiple adults they thought would support their wellbeing.  

 “All the programs we run are designed and led by youth. We integrate into youth’s case plans what youth say they need to achieve housing, stability, overcome mental health issues, get their education, and practice good parenting if they are parents,” Holger-Ambrose explains.

Get Creative about Family and Permanency

Family is one of the most critical factors for the re-entry population. Often youth enter one of the service systems because of a fracture in family relationships -- especially among older youth, Hayes says. She recommends that healing needs to happen in damaged relationships. To accomplish this, service providers must identify potentially supportive individuals early on and identify the steps needed on both sides to build a stronger connection.

The majority of youth want a connection with family, regardless of the issues that may exist, according to Hayes and Holger-Ambrose. Case workers should not always equate having permanent connections with going back to live with family members. Permanency can mean expanding one’s “family” connections to include extended family, friends’ families, and other safe adults who can commit to supporting these youth as they transition to adulthood, Hayes explains. One approach to building networks of natural support is called family finding, and it can help ensure that youth’s support networks include more than just their case managers.

“Youth who have had contact with juvenile justice often come from families struggling with poverty and homelessness themselves,” Holger-Ambrose says. The Link offers a parent support program which assesses a young person's entire family and helps them through any crises they have. It includes parenting and skills-building curricula, as well as financial assistance for meeting basic needs.

An ideal transition plan takes the form of a roadmap that provides young people with the resources available to them, how they can access these resources, where their goals and objectives fit into the map, and how staff can help them get there. Hayes notes a forthcoming re-entry toolkit that will be released later this year by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, intended to support transition planning for youth involved with the juvenile justice system. Other resources include Foster Club’s toolkit on creating a youth-driven transition plan, the U.S. Department of Education’s foster care transition toolkit, and The Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s roadmap for service providers serving youth who are involved in the justice system (PDF, 1.3MB).

*Not her real name.

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