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N. Dakota youth court program aims to help at-risk youth

By JACK DURA

The Bismarck Tribune

AP Member Exchange

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Nearly half of all youth referred to North Dakota’s juvenile court since March have involvement with child welfare.

One new program aims to reduce that number.

North Dakota’s Supreme Court and Department of Human Services have a memorandum of understanding to share information related to children involved in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. The program is called the Dual Status Youth Initiative, and it aims to prevent youths’ further involvement in the juvenile justice system and to better serve their families.

GETTING GOING

The initiative rolled out in January after the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice gave recommendations in mid-2018 to a group of North Dakota court, corrections and human services officials. The recommendations came after a yearlong study as the group looked at how to better serve children in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

A 6-month report with an initial evaluation is due early next year.

“I think it will show that it is successful for these families and that we need to, as with any statewide implementation, address some of the bumps in the road, but also support those who are doing the work,” Court Improvement Program Coordinator Heather Traynor said.

She shared some early numbers: From March 1 to Dec. 10, the initiative identified 1,183 dual status youth. That’s an estimated 44% of youth with juvenile court referrals for that period.

Of the dual status youth, 484 are involved in both systems, while 699 are involved with one and have been with the other.

Since February, Jennifer Skjod has been the part-time dual status youth coordinator under the North Dakota Supreme Court’s Court Improvement Program, which is funded by grants from the U.S. Children’s Bureau. She notifies child welfare workers and juvenile court officers of dual status youth after receiving biweekly lists.

Youth involved in both systems at once, along with their parents, must meet with court and child welfare representatives to find ways to “interrupt the path” by mapping out a plan based on the youth’s needs and strengths, Skjod said. A Village Family Service Center counselor is available to act as a facilitator for the “family centered engagement meetings” in 16 North Dakota counties.

For the youth involved in just one of the systems at the time, a meeting is optional and at the discretion of the juvenile court officer and child welfare worker.

Skjod said the meeting results in the family shooting for an outcome such as a diversion, which is an intervention program alternative to the court process, or a better school plan to reduce a child’s truancy.

“The outcome is always case by case,” she said. So far the meetings have been well-received by families, she added.

“CHANGING THE TRAJECTORY”

Children’s services were a focus of the 2019 Legislature, which authorized a state Children’s Cabinet and a Commission on Juvenile Justice. Traynor sees the Dual Status Youth Initiative coming to be “intertwined” with both committees, which each met for the first time in the last month.

Ultimately, the initiative will hopefully provide insight into the “pathway” for dual status youth and improve intervention and prevention, said Lisa Bjergaard, director of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Division of Juvenile Services. She is chairwoman of the new Commission on Juvenile Justice.

“The idea is to figure out as you’re looking at how those kids cross over from child welfare to juvenile justice to get predictive about which kids are at risk for that and intervene early enough so that recidivism isn’t a construct because it doesn’t happen,” Bjergaard said. “That’s sort of the endgame.”

Bjergaard expects the commission will work with the Legislature’s interim Judiciary Committee to support potential legislation to improve juvenile justice policy. That committee is undertaking a study of North Dakota’s juvenile justice system.

Skjod sees no negative in reducing the number of youth referred to juvenile court who are dual status — “a big hunk of the pie right now,” she said.

“I’m proud that we can be a leader in changing the trajectory of these youth and that we can give families hope and that we can put a T in the road on the path that they’re on,” she said.