Editor’s note: The Van Buren County Democrat, with The Log Cabin Democrat, is taking a deeper look at the 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 story is part of an on-going series.
Working with court-involved youth can be trying and frustrating. However, Administrative Office of the Courts Juvenile Justice Specialist Faye Shepherd said teens are more willing to work with court officials when they know their voice will be heard.
“Youth voice and empowerment can be a critical tool going forward,” Shepherd said Tuesday during a training session for local juvenile probation officers and other area juvenile justice advocates.
Tuesday’s training focusing on youth voice was a branch of the Annie E. Casey Re-Imagining Justice series. This particular workshop series so far has touched on the need for positive youth development, utilizing cross-system approaches when configuring what services a child needs and addressing the racial and ethnic disparities still present within the court system.
On Tuesday, local juvenile justice advocates gained a better understanding of what youth voice is and how it can be utilized in the juvenile justice environment.
Allowing court-involved youth to speak their opinions does not mean letting them determine how their court case will play out or what they will be required to do while on probation, but instead gives the child the chance to speak up and be heard, Shepherd said.
To be successful, implementing youth voice can never be “all about youth.”
Earning the chance to speak up about how they feel their probation period is going and which of the services they are required to take part in gives court-involved youth the right to have an opinion.
While youth voice advocates that teens have the right to speak up and be involved in their probation process, juvenile probation officers cannot let them think all of their suggestions will go into effect.
Twentieth Judicial District Chief of Staff Leeanna Brown said those working within the district – Faulkner, Searcy and Van Buren counties – as well as other judicial districts across the state should realize that giving court-involved youth the chance to form a relationship with court officials and their probation officers.
Instead of implementing each of the child’s ideas, just by listening to what these young individuals have to say promotes empowerment. It also allows the probation officer to see what works best for the child they are serving, Brown said.
The juvenile justice and probationary process is extensive.
Often, it appears court staff are looking to pinpoint “what’s wrong with” the child, Shepherd said.
To combat this demeaning feeling many court-involved youth may feel, one Faulkner County probation officer said it’s important not to use a child’s charge against them.
The child’s family history also should not be used to incorrectly place bias on a child, Denise Pearson, a Faulkner County probation officer, said.
“I don’t look at it as ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I look at it as, ‘What’s been done to you,’” she said.
She also said that if a family has a dispute about a court order, it’s better to set a new hearing before the judge instead of destroying one’s relationship and the rapport builty up as a probation officer with the child and their family.
To learn how individuals piloting their way through the Faulkner County Juvenile Justice System feel about the court process, organizers invited three teens to Tuesday’s training session.
One of the teens recently completed the probation he was ordered to serve. Of the other two, one is nearing Juvenile Drug Court graduation.
The two teens still on probation said that while Youth Challenge was just that – a challenge – it was also a program that helped change them for the better.
“I was so upset and I spent Christmas in there,” one of the juvenile panelists said when describing Youth Challenge. “But, it really changes you so much as a person. Those who made a fool out of it didn’t get anything out of it.”
Though the Youth Challenge program was no walk in the park, Panelist No. 2 admitted “it really builds you as a person.”
The three panelists volunteered to participate in the panel. Brown said it was not only a way to empower their experiences, but also helps court officials gain insight from a juvenile’s perspective as to how the programs they’ve been ordered to attend have affected them.
A difficult part of the court process for each of the teens was earning their family’s trust back.
“The complete sense of loss of privacy and trust” was one of the toughest obstacles, Juvenile Panelist No. 1 said.
When asked if there was something that was said to him while on probation that stuck with him, Panelist No. 2 said two things came to mind.
On a positive note, the teen recalled being told: “You’re going to get through this. Everything is temporary.”
But before he ever heard those encouraging words, he first heard his mother say, “I’m so disappointed in you.”
While his mother’s words hurt him, the teen said he has used that inspiration to better himself.
Panelist No. 3 said she has benefited greatly by having a mentor to guide her through the court process.
It helps to be able to talk to someone that’s not a family member and not your probation officer, the girl said.
The teenage girl proposed the juvenile court offer more hobby-focused programs for court-involved youth to help inspire them to follow their dreams and set goals.
One of the teens said that while he was thankful the court staff has held him accountable, being on probation has been a difficult process. At the end of the day, Panelist No. 2 said the process was rewarding and helped better him as a person, but that the process of getting to where he is today was no walk in the park.
“Understand, we’re new to responsibilities and know that we do get overwhelmed,” he said to probation officers from Faulkner, Searcy and Van Buren counties. “Probation is exhausting, but we do it.”
The teens also looked back on time spent in jail and the quick transition to their probationary period.
“It’s a mind-opening thing,” Panelist No. 1 said. “I wouldn’t change anything I ever did, because then I wouldn’t be who I am today.”