The Missouri Approach to Juvenile Justice Centers on Family and Community Engagement

January 29, 2018

The “Missouri Approach” to juvenile justice emphasizes moving beyond symptoms to the root causes of juvenile delinquency so that changes made by young people are long-lasting, preparing them to return and contribute positively to their school, home, and community.

The Missouri Division of Youth Services (DYS), housed within the Department of Social Services since 1974, has long been praised as a juvenile justice pioneer. DYS uses a therapeutic youth development approach to treatment, as opposed to the more traditional correctional model. One of the important characteristics of what has come to be called the “Missouri Approach” is a focus on family and community engagement within the treatment paradigm. “Just as there has been an increased understanding of adolescent development and adolescent brain development nationally, so too has there been an increased appreciation, within the Juvenile Justice field, for the critical role that families play in the lives of their children,” says Phyllis Becker, Director of DYS.

The systemic approach at DYS takes into account the context of the family and the community of which the youth is a member, and treatment keeps these systems intact and reinforces the influence of parents. “We understood that the things our youth had done to get into our system were adaptive responses to their family struggles, community challenges and trauma they may have experienced,” said Ms. Becker. “We wanted to help youth explore some of the ‘why’ (what was behind the behavior) and not just focus on what they did (committing offenses).” Treatment facilities within DYS are smaller and regionally-located, so youth can be closer to their families. With a lower student to staff ratio, DYS staff are able to focus on forming positive, healthy relationships with youth. DYS operates similarly to a school district. Approved by the Missouri State Education Department, DYS can issue diplomas and credits youth earn can be transferred.

DYS has had a long-standing relationship with the Local Investment Commission (LINC), a nonprofit located in Kansas City. DYS first learned about FAST through LINC. With seed money provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and programmatic support from LINC, DYS ran their first FAST Cycles in 2012. “We were focused, in particular, on how we were going to support our kids in their transition back into their communities,” said Ms. Becker. “This is a very vulnerable time for our youth, and we wanted to help strengthen our families, provide support to parents, and establish lines of communication with parents, to keep youth from returning to us.” Since 2012, DYS has run 21 cycles of FAST and served 179 families across Missouri.

FAST first came to Missouri when Tim Decker, currently serving as director of the Missouri Children’s Division and a former Director of DYS, was working at LINC. LINC, which is a community collaborative between the state of Missouri, citizens, and business, civic, and community leaders, working to improve the lives of children and families in the Kansas City region, began running FAST at Bryant Elementary School in 1999. “We have always had a strong commitment to family engagement,” said Brent Schondelmeyer, Deputy Director of Community Engagement at LINC. “Part of our programming includes afterschool support for students, and we realized that getting families engaged in this work, bringing families together at the school would help support our larger efforts.”

After seeing success in the program, LINC began to expand FAST to additional schools. Through the years, LINC has implemented FAST in 20 schools across Kansas City, graduating 386 families. “LINC’s overall mission is to support and strengthen children and their families in our local communities,” said Steve Winburn, Community Support Liaison at LINC. “Many of our families are under a lot of stress and feel isolated, but with FAST, we are able to bring families together. Parents meet other parents in similar situations, and bonds and connections grow around those shared experiences. It helps families to know they are not alone.”

When Tim Decker was appointed Director of DYS, he wanted to bring FAST to DYS, after seeing the success of the program in his work with LINC. “There was a great alignment in shared values between LINC, DYS, and FAST,” said Rick Jackson Certified FAST Trainer Supervisor, “but there was still a lot of work needed to develop and build a structure that would allow DYS to implement FAST effectively and sustainably within their system.” Meticulous planning ensued, and together with LINC, DYS began to build a sustainable structure to implement FAST at the High School level; a few crucial elements aligned to help make the program a success within DYS.

The strong relationship between DYS and LINC plays a crucial role in the success of FAST. LINC is part of the Community Partnerships program, run through the Missouri Family and Community Trust. LINC works closely with many government departments, including the Missouri Department of Social Services, of which DYS is a part, to help streamline efforts and collaborate to best support children and families in Missouri. Specifically, these partnerships work in their local communities “to identify and develop solutions to overcome challenges such as homelessness, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, after school care,” among others. LINC supports DYS FAST cycles at the statewide and local level. Other Community Partnerships work with each DYS site at the local level as well, providing resources, support, and people.

Because LINC is a nonprofit, they often have more flexibility and are able to adapt to best collaborate with DYS and other agencies. “We are like a Swiss-army knife,” said Mr. Schondelmeyer. “Our purpose is to be supportive of the success of state government, so we can pivot to make sure we are the best resource to them.” Furthermore, the staff at LINC, drawing from their own experience, was able to support DYS to think about how FAST could work in their treatment centers.

Similar values held by DYS and FAST also help ensure program success. “Through the years our department has established strong buy-in to our treatment values, including those which emphasize the importance of family,” said Ms. Becker. “This consensus really helped as we introduced FAST, which also values parents as partners, to our staff.” Like FAST, DYS approaches treatment from a Family Systems perspective, recognizing that there are certain habits and behaviors within a family that can help buffer against stresses and challenges the family may face. Parent empowerment and authority, personal expression and open communication within the family, and habits/rituals around shared meals are a few examples of these habits and behaviors, and elements that are incorporated into the FAST Program.

DYS also spent time ensuring the program was well integrated into their system. “We knew it was important to introduce FAST in a thoughtful way—informing both leadership and staff—and to make sure the program would be streamlined in with other programs and services we were offering,” said Ms. Becker. “Part of the appeal of FAST is that it can easily blend into what you are doing. It doesn’t feel like just another program to add to the list, but can rather fit into and amplify whatever services you are already offering,” said Mr. Jackson. DYS even invested in developing locally-based Certified FAST Trainers housed within each facility to help strengthen individual programs.

This means that each treatment facility has the flexibility to adapt their FAST Program to best meet the needs of its youth and families. For a recent FAST Cycle, the Team hosted the FAST family sessions on a local college campus, where Rosa Parks Center, a DYS residential program for girls, is also located. Several of the girls from Rosa Parks participated in the cycle, along with youth and families from other locations in the region, and others helped with set up and other activities for the sessions. “It was a really positive experience for the youth and families to get to spend time on a college campus, but also for the students and administration at the college. They got to see some of the work being done, and it was a great way to broaden and strengthen the community,” said Mr. Jackson.

Additionally, family recruitment and transportation support for families might look different from location to location. Often, DYS youth are a crucial part of recruitment for FAST. “Our Youth Partners will determine recruitment strategies, and will do presentations or one-to-one meetings with other youth,” said Mr. Jackson. Similarly, the Parent Partner on the FAST Team is critical for recruiting families. “Our Parent Partners have often gone through the FAST Program themselves, and so they understand it is a commitment, but if a family wants to participate, we do our best to remove any barriers that may stand in their way,” said Amy Kyriazis, Senior Program Administrator with DYS. “Some of our locations are quite rural, so supporting families to get to our treatment facilities looks different at those locations than at those located near a city.” DYS staff can often rely on support from their Community Partnerships to help make sure families can attend each session.

Indeed, all of the careful planning has paid off, and DYS has seen a lot of success with the FAST Program. “It is always great to witness the change between the first couple weeks of FAST, when parents are a little quiet and unsure, to later when parents have really formed relationships with each other and can share stories and jokes,” said Ms. Kyriazis. Families who are connected to the juvenile justice system are often very isolated, which can make a very tough experience even more difficult. FAST has provided a way to bring parents together, to gain support from and give support to each other through this shared experience. “In the beginning of the program, parents are often hesitant to talk about the challenges they are facing,” said Ms. Kyriazis. “One mother, who had initially been very reserved, shared concerns about not having the money for activities to keep her son busy and engaged during his transition. As it turned out, many parents shared this concern. It opened the way for a great exchange among parents, and the group came up with several new ideas.”

At a conference hosted by the Council for Juvenile Correction Administrators (CJCA), Ms. Becker and Ms. Kyriazis presented on FAST at DYS, and the impact the program has had on youth and families. A panel of FAST Graduates, including three parents and their kids, as well as FAST Team Members/DYS Staff and leadership also participated. Parents on the panel all agreed that the Mutual Affirmation activity, where parents and youth exchange gifts and words of affirmation, was the favorite activity of the FAST Session. Similarly, parents appreciated the designated meal time, time they could spend together as a family.
“Social capital is such a critical aspect of FAST. It is about building relationships, not through tweets or emails or Facebook, but face to face,” said Mr. Schondelmeyer. “Engaging with people, being together with your family, meeting other families, and ultimately creating that community that will be there for you for years to come.”