NH Juvenile Justice: Giving families a voice in the process

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 06-06-2023 10:16 AM

It only took Tonya McMurray’s child a few seconds to realize something that was said in a moment of anger would become words to regret.

In a heated conversation, a back and forth between teenagers taunting each other, McMurray’s child threatened another classmate.

Soon after, McMurray got a call from the police informing her that criminal charges were possible.

And it was the first of two faults – a few weeks later there was another conversation with police after a vandalism incident.

“He called me and said, I really, really, really, really messed up,” she said. “It’s recognized after the fact. But not before.”

For any youth involved with the juvenile justice system, daunting fears of courts, charges and even incarceration follow incidents that in some cases are one-off mistakes.

But because of an overhaul of the way the state handles juvenile criminal cases, youth and their family have an ability to include their backstory, through an assessment process, before conditional release guidelines are set.

This assessment is the key to critical reform to the juvenile justice system that now focuses on connecting youth with supportive resources – like counseling, community service and engagement – as opposed to punitive measures, sparing incarceration for the most extreme incidents.

A centralized assessment

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After McMurray’s child talked with the police, the teen soon received a letter in the mail from Jodi Varney, a juvenile probation and parole officer. In the letter Varney had an offer for McMurray and her child to participate in a new tool, the Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths assessment.

Prior to any court ruling, all youth involved in the juvenile justice system in New Hampshire have the opportunity to participate in a CANS assessment.

The voluntary process means that someone like Varney visits the family at home – with both the child and parents – to discuss behavioral and emotional needs, family life, any risks, behaviors, cultural challenges, caregiver needs and the child’s strengths in the community.

“It’s a way of organizing the family story,” said Jeff Sellers, who oversees the assessments for the state. “It also helps minimize the amount of times the family has to tell their story… It helps speak a common language and helps get the information across.”

After the visit, the assessment officer writes a report that follows the youth through their court process – with recommendations for rules for conditional release.

“All of those recommendations from the assessment that’s conducted utilizing the CANS are informing those next pieces,” said Amy McMormack, who is the associate bureau chief responsible for juvenile justice services in the state. “There’s a shift there of how we interact with kids and families to have them have a voice in the process.”

For example, if a child is accused of assault, the assessment could also reveal that the youth struggles with mental health and substance use. Counseling could be recommended as one of the conditions of probation.

If the incidents with McMurray’s child had occurred a decade ago, her family would have been given a list of 20 strict rules of probation, which every single kid who engaged with the court system was instructed to followed.

“They were static. They were ‘follow this, follow that, you will do this, you will do that,’” said McCormack.

These instructions laid rules for the child to not break. But when it’s the same list of don’t do this, and don’t do that for vastly different incidents – there’s little room for intervention, or prevention from the state.

Today, those probation rules have been replaced with a set of four identical instructions for all youth – to remain arrest free, follow court orders, to submit to searches of their property for safety reasons and to not obtain weapons. But the fifth rule, is to follow an individualized plan, which the CANS assessment helps dictate.

“That individual plan that youth may have to follow may say, ‘you will keep your hands and feet to yourself, you will refrain from using alcohol or drugs or illegal substances, you will engage in mental health treatment to improve overall wellbeing’,” she said. “These are very different sentiment than, ‘you shall report to me when I tell you to.’ Now, you will do these things to improve your overall well being.”

A shift in approach

When Steve Rafnos was early in his career as a police officer turned juvenile prosecutor in the Manchester Police Department, he’d attend four or five detention hearings a week.

At the time, police departments prosecuted their own juvenile cases.

The standard approach in Manchester was detain, detain, detain and push for placement in the Youth Detention Center, where treatment was lacking and the approach was punitive.

“It’s situations now where we wouldn’t detain the kids,” he said.

But at the time, 100 plus kids were sentenced to the Youth Detainment Center at a time. Some weeks, it exceeded capacity.

After Manchester, Rafnos moved to Nashua where the judge he worked under followed a different approach – kids thrive better when they’re in their community.

“You can’t incarcerate your way out of problems,” said Rafnos. “The justice system, as it is, works for people that don’t have other problems. But almost everybody you deal with ... They’re not going to respond to incarceration because they have mental health problems and or substance abuse problems.”

So how do you design a juvenile justice system that balances punishment against persona, especially when you are talking about youth who made a bad mistake and regret it?

Today, that’s the central approach of the state’s work with youth. The resounding goal across all departments – from prosecutors to judges to assessment officers – is to find solutions to keep the kid at home and connected to support services.

In 2019, a group of state leaders, which included Joe Ribsam, the new director of the Division for Children, Youth and Families, McCorrmack, Sellers and Rafnos, as well as Susan Ashley, a circuit court judge, and others – attended a five-day program hosted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, that focused on transforming juvenile justice probation.

The trip, and subsequent work which has continued since, has brought leaders who interact with youth at different points in the juvenile justice system, to the table together.

“The reality that we see on a regular basis is that many kids are coming in and we’re seeing just glimpses of what might be prompting the delinquent conduct and haven’t always felt that we have the ability to know enough about the youth to get at the root causes,” said Ashley.

Now, the CANS Assessment helps identify those root causes.

And in a system that historically disproportionately involves youth of color, the assessment levels the playing field and gives all youth the same access to services.

“It’s creating consistency for an equitability regardless of race, poverty level. All of those pieces get eliminated and the discretion becomes an a structured tool that’s evidence based that is providing the outcomes that we’re all following,” said McCormack. “That kid has one interview and that tool is utilized and [stakeholders] are all speaking the same language.”

Meeting families needs

Varney hears it time and time again when she sits down with a family for the CANS assessment – they’re a really good kid and they just made a mistake.

It’s the exact way McMurray felt about her child.

Her child has dyslexia, not only making school harder, but less engaging. When seventh grade came around, each class was in a different room with different teachers who had different styles – it made it harder to follow the script set out by their Individual Education Plan.

McMurray adopted her child and a biological half-sibling at birth. She’s learned that the ADHD influences her kid’s tendency to speak or act without thinking first.

“We’re continually working on that you need to think before you do things, not do them and then say, look that was a mistake,’ ” she said.

But McMurray will also tell you that her child is a funny kid with a good sense of humor. Her kid loves to play any sports and will happily watch a Celtics game.

For McMurray’s child, the recommendation was community service – a good balance, in her opinion of reaffirming that there was consequences to her child’s behavior – but not assigning a detrimental punishment that would hang over their heads for decades.

“The idea of legal system – this huge, heavy kind of hammer coming down... Our greatest fear was there would be this huge piece that was really punitive,” she said.

State data shows that when a CANS assessment is utilized, the recommendation by the assessment officer in roughly 70 percent of cases is for community based services – like participating in activities at the YMCA, enrolling in the FAST Forward program, or engaging with a community mental health center.

“We were all teenagers once. You make a mistake or you make the wrong choice and you don’t have to go to court,” said Varney. “It’s an alternative.”

Often, juvenile court interactions with children lead to criminal charges as adults. Rafnos has seen this time and time again.

“When I was working in district court, I’d have Johnny in juvenile court closing his case all on Monday because he’s turning 18. Two days later, he’s sitting in the prisoner box as an adult,” he said. “To me, that’s a huge failure.”

Now, CANS Assessment data shows that court involvement is only recommended for 28 percent of cases.

The key to this process is that it’s voluntary. But state data shows that 72 percent of families opt to participate.

If a family declines the assessment, there’s also an ability now to rewind the process. With legislative efforts in 2022, lawmakers introduced the ability to complete the CANS assessment when they get to court and have a defense attorney.

It’s a way to flip the script of juvenile justice work. Instead of probation and parole officers dictating how they will punish these kids, who made mistakes as adolescents – now, they’re offering support services to help, redefining consequences.

“The overall transformation is about connecting with kids and families in different ways, assessing them and providing different outcomes that they are part of, and not just always told,” said McCormack.

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