Editor’s note: The Log Cabin Democrat is taking a deeper look at Faulkner County’s juvenile court system, its successes with the risk assessment tool now mandated across the state through Act 152 and other related juvenile justice reform topics. This is the eighth story in the series.

Juvenile justice advocates from across central Arkansas grouped together Wednesday, learning the significant role positive youth development principles plays when serving at-risk teens.

Administrative Office of the Courts Juvenile Justice Specialist Faye Shepherd and 20th Judicial District Juvenile Chief of Staff Leeanna Brown co-presented the “Introduction to Positive Youth Development Fundamentals” course alongside Sonja Okun, who is a consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation on the Re-Imagining Juvenile Justice project.

Juvenile probation officers within the 20th Judicial District and other neighboring districts attended the workshop. Juvenile justice advocates including Deliver Hope representatives, the Division of Youth Services and others also attended the presentation, which was held on the University of Central Arkansas campus.

Incorporating positive youth development (PYD) principles is a deliberate strategy used in juvenile justice to help meet the adolescents’ developmental needs — moral, social, cognitive, emotional and physical. Okun said juvenile probation officers and other juvenile justice reform advocates can put this strategy into play by “focusing on the whole child, not just a single problem that needs to be fixed.”

This particular strategy builds on the individuals’ strengths and is age/development-centered, she said.

PYD helps at-risk youth build positive relationships, create expectations and provides opportunities for them to connect and continue to grow.

Those who participated in the workshop learned that building strong relationships with juvenile offenders creates a foundation for that teen.

Circuit Judge Troy Braswell Jr. said his office works with teens and gives them the tools they need to succeed once they move on from the court system. However, he said the support system his staff creates doesn’t stop there. Some still serve as mentors after the children they serve complete their required programs successfully and move on into adulthood.

By understanding that juvenile offenders are still cognitively developing, Okun said juvenile probation officers will begin learning how to strategize with the individuals they serve and work toward a successful future.

To understand the need for a strong support system, presenters put the participants’ skills to the test through a “brain creation” exercise.

Attendees split into four groups and were given straws, pipe cleaners, small weights and paper clips to begin forming their child’s “brain.” The exercise demonstrated how life factors affect juveniles’ development processes and the need to focus on the teens' strengths while building a support system.

To start off the exercise, a member from each team rolled a die to determine how many walls (pipe cleaners) the team would receive. From there, the team would roll the die a second time to determine how many support beams (straws) they would get. These pieces would determine how the team would build the base of their tower (brain).

The goal was to build a tower (brain) as tall as possible, while maintaining a strong structure that could hold the weight of the obstacles in their lives.

Some of the children were dealt bad cards, and sometimes they received stronger, positive reinforcers that kept them standing.

“We can see the lack of straws … but it’s not over yet,” Shepherd said of one group’s structure, adding that positive reinforcers could keep the structure in place. This practice referenced the services the juvenile court system offers at-risk youth.

The juvenile justice advocates also focused on the changes their practice has seen in the last 30 years.

“Instead of service methods, we used ‘scared straight’ methods,” Lona Jeffrey, a 16th Judicial District juvenile probation officer, said of the practices used in the 1990s.

It was a decade focused on punishing juveniles and not fighting against recidivism, she said.

It wasn’t much better between 2000-2009, Brown said.

In some cases, juveniles faced stricter sanctions than adults. Referencing a disorderly conduct charge, Brown said juveniles fount at fault would be required to complete more community service, serve more jail time and pay a higher fine than an adult found guilty of the same charge in district court.

“It was lock up first and ask questions later,” she said.

However, from 2010 to today, the juvenile justice reform movement has made an impact in how the court system addresses at risk youth, Brian Henderson, a juvenile probation officer for Van Buren and Searcy counties, said.

“We are looking more into what services we provide to families to help the entire family,” he said.

Sheila Franklin, a Faulkner County juvenile probation officer, said serving whole family is important because family roles have changed.

“We have more grandparents and great-grandparents raising children,” she said. “When we look at juvenile court, we’re looking at family court. If you’re only serving the juvenile and not the parent … even if you take the kid away and put them in placement, when they go back, it’s the same environment.”

PYD allows at-risk youth to form a sense of belonging, which is an important factor to help them succeed, Okun said.

By hosting workshops such as the PYD session held Wednesday, juvenile justice advocates are able to come together and learn how they can work together to successfully put this strategy to use.

“One of the most important things is bring people together [so they can] learn from each other,” she said.

Staff writer Marisa Hicks can be reached at mhicks@thecabin.net.