Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Addressing Truancy in High Schools: Modifying Early Intervention Models

The Center for Children, Families, and the Courts (CFCC) Truancy Court Program  (TCP) uses early intervention to address the problems that underlie truancy. Each week, TCP staff meet with students who are “soft” truants, having between five to twenty unexcused absences in a semester. The goal of the program is to prevent truancy and promote values, such as education, discipline and respect. By instilling these values, TCP staff hope to prevent students from leading a life of delinquency, crime, and violence. Thus far, the TCP has been successful as an early intervention program, particularly in elementary and middle schools. In the Fall 2011 session, the TCP saw an average reduction in unexcused absences of 71%.  The question remains, however, whether an early intervention model, such as the TCP, can achieve similar success in high schools.

This year, the TCP participates in three high schools.  One of these high schools is Patterson High School.  Patterson and TCP staff face a number of challenges as they seek to prevent truancy.  These challenges are not unique to Patterson but occur in countless Baltimore City public high schools.  Of those Patterson students participating in the TCP, many are ninth grade repeaters, who struggle with paying attention in the classroom, and who have more than twenty absences in a semester.  Like many Baltimore City students, they also cope with issues of violence, drugs, and poverty on a daily basis. It is undeniable that some intervention is needed to assist these students.  The disputed issue is exactly what kind. 

Many argue that high school students no longer benefit from the skills and techniques used in early invention programs. Some techniques used by the TCP include: providing students with resources, such as alarm clocks, organizers, or bus passes; completing character building exercises where students are encouraged to have a positive attitude; and engaging in discussions on basic life skills, such as organization and time management.  By high school, however, students often develop a serious history and pattern of truancy.  In addition, many suffer from behavior problems and lack respect for authority figures.   These are problems that go beyond what can be addressed in weekly TCP meetings.    

Early invention models may not be the answer to preventing truant behavior in high school students.  That said, the TCP is the only program of its kind in the Baltimore City Public Schools. As the TCP already has a long-standing history of preventing truancy and because TCP staff continuously study this issue, the best solution may be to modify the program to meet the needs of high school students.

One way to modify the program is to decrease the number of program participants in a given high school.  Often ten students from a school are selected to participate in the TCP.  By offering the program to fewer students, TCP staff can devote more time and attention to students’ needs.  Although the TCP may not impact as many students, it may influence those students with greater issues and those more likely to engage in delinquency, violence, or criminal behavior in the future.  Another option is to provide students with rigorous mentorship opportunities, where mentors take the time to speak with students regarding their academics, friends, home life, and problems.  The TCP meets weekly with ten students for one hour.  Thus, students are not given a great deal of one-on-one attention.  Mentors can visit students in school, commit to monthly outings, and communicate with students by phone on a weekly basis.  The TCP also must develop a plan of action to address substance abuse issues.  A majority of high school students are  substance abusers.  Bringing in substance abuse counselors, or perhaps former drug dealers or users, during TCP sessions may benefit students greatly.  Finally, active parent involvement should be required for high school students to participate in the TCP.  Although parents are required to sign a permission slip and consent to their child’s participation, it is equally important that parents attend at least one TCP session.  It is important that parents reinforce the values and skills taught during the program.  Without parental involvement, students could easily attend the TCP with little to no improvement.  Students must know their parents are also committed to their academic success. 

Baltimore City Public Schools face an up-hill battle in the challenge to educate high school students.   Many high school students have developed negative behaviors that are very difficult to break.  Currently, Baltimore City Public Schools are not equipped to deal with some of the profound and complex issues students face.  It would be a disservice to our children, however, not to at least try. Communities, parents, grandparents, churches, and other organizations must work together to combat this challenge.  Moreover, early invention programs, such as the TCP, must use their knowledge about truancy and the behaviors that underlie it to help save our youth. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and Problem-Solving Courts: From a Maryland Perspective

Through the CFCC Student Fellows Program, I was afforded the opportunity to learn how the integration of therapeutic jurisprudence, the ecology of human development, and problem-solving courts work together to impact children and their families. Problem-solving courts attempt to address the underlying problem that is responsible for the immediate dispute and to help the individuals before the court to effectively deal with the dispute in ways that will prevent reoccurrence with court involvement. Problem-solving courts use principles of therapeutic jurisprudence to enhance their functioning, which translates to rehabilitating the offender and the transformational use of the legal process (role of judge, multidisciplinary involvement, close monitoring of the offender). These problem-solving courts typically deal with individuals who need social, mental health, or substance abuse services. By utilizing the therapeutic jurisprudence approach in problem-solving courts, an offender’s likelihood of recidivating significantly declines due to the court system’s approach of interacting with the offender in a non-punitive manner.

There are various types of problem-solving courts that have been implemented in the United States. In Maryland, we have several types of these courts, including: drug courts (adult, juvenile, and family), mental health courts, and truancy reduction courts. 1 The drug courts in Maryland typically entail a court team working together in a non-adversarial setting with a goal of restoring the defendant as a productive member of society. 2 According to the National Drug Court Resource Center, the average graduation rate for the programs is 53%. 3 In addition, those who participated in the juvenile drug treatment court programs had lower recidivism rates (53%) and lower numbers of new arrests 18 months (70%) after completion of the program compared to those who did not participate in the program. 4 In Maryland’s mental health courts, participants are identified through mental health screening and mental health assessments, and they voluntarily participate in a treatment plan developed by a team comprised of court staff and mental health professionals. According to data collected by The Institute for Governmental Service and Research (IGSR), University of Maryland-College Park, for the Baltimore City mental health court participants, the most severe arrest charge is assault (32%), with drug related charges (19%) following right behind. 5

Lastly, the truancy reduction courts in Maryland were created to improve school attendance and the offenders’ views of education by establishing a bond among the family, school, and juvenile master or judge. According to a national May 2012 report, "The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation's Public Schools,” 10% to15% of students in the United States are chronically absent from school. This translates to least 5 to 7.5 million students missing at least 10% of the school year.6Such startling statistics are the reason why the Maryland judiciary has implemented several truancy reduction courts. Apart from the Maryland judiciary, other truancy court programs, such as the Center for Children, Families, and the Courts school-based Truancy Court Program (TCP), have been implemented in order to attack this problem. During the 2011- 2012 school year, there was a 71% average reduction in unexecused absences for Baltimore City TCP participants in Fall 2011.

I hope the Maryland judiciary continues the trend to utilize problem-solving courts, as these courts are effective at resolving underlying issues to prevent offenders from recidivating.

1 Maryland Judiciary Office of Problem Solving Courts, http://www.courts.state.md.us/opsc/index.html
2 Office of Problem Solving Courts Drug Treatment Courts,http://www.courts.state.md.us/opsc/dtc/index.html
3 Maryland Problem-Solving Courts Evaluation, Phase III Integration of Results from Process, Outcome, and Cost Studies Conducted 2007-2009, http://www.ndcrc.org/sites/default/files/maryland_phase_iii_integrated_final_report_1209.pdf
4 Id.
5 Process Evaluation of Baltimore Coty Mental Health Court, http://www.courts.state.md.us/opsc/mhc/pdfs/evalutations/bcmhcprocessevaluation3-11-10.pdf.
6 New Report on Absenteeism: Millions of Students Are Missing At Least 10% of School Year, http://library.constantcontact.com/download/get/file/1102919617272-138/Report+on+Absenteeism-draft.pdf.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Volunteering with the Truancy Court Program

Last year, I volunteered as a tutor with CFCC’s Truancy Court Program (TCP) and it was a wonderful experience.  I believe this is a great opportunity for all law students.  Many of us come to law school with some vision to serve the public interest.  Because law students are limited in their amount of free time, the one-hour weekly time commitment with TCP is manageable and worthwhile.  In addition to tutoring students, law students can interact with school administrators, staff members from the Center of Families, Children, and the Courts (CFCC), and local judges and attorneys, who are all involved in the TCP with the goal to improve students' attendance and behavior.

During my first month of law school, I received an e-mail from CFCC, which was looking for volunteers to assist with the Truancy Court Program.  I attended a one-hour training at the Family Justice Building, a few blocks away from the University of Baltimore School of Law’s main building.  A few weeks later, I began attending the weekly morning sessions at New Era Academy in Baltimore.  I chose New Era because I did not have classes on Tuesday mornings, but I knew there was flexibility because other programs met on other days of the week.  The weekly sessions took place in the school cafeteria and on some occasions, I sat with the judge when he met with individual students.  It was interesting to learn the underlying reasons why students were absent from their classes.  There were several reasons, including not being able to wake up because the student didn't own a clock, not having the proper uniform, and simply not wanting to attend school.  Regardless of the reasons, however, everyone around the table provided assistance and incentives to the students so they could improve their attendance and classroom behavior.  There was always something positive that the judge would recognize for each student, and it was clearly important for the student to understand that.  This shouldn't be a surprise, but by the end of 10-week program, many of the students graduated from TCP.  I think an important part of the success of the Truancy Court Program is the individualized attention given to each student, providing them with direction during the course of the program.  Law students can help in this process by volunteering to tutor these students.

 There are also other ways for law students to be involved with the Truancy Court Program.  A UB law student can enroll in an experiential learning course called the CFCC Student Fellows Program and can participate as a law clerk in the Truancy Court Program at various local schools to assist the TCP  judge in the weekly sessions.  Student Fellows learn the concepts of therapeutic jurisprudence and preventive law and how they are incorporated into the Truancy Court Program. The 3-credit course is offered in the fall semester and offers opportunities to visit various courts, such as the Family Division of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, drug treatment court, and the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center.

I encourage all law students to take a look into volunteering with the Truancy Court Program and/or enrolling in the CFCC Student Fellows Program because the students and families in the community need our help.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Investing in Children’s Mental Health As a Preventive Law Approach to Juvenile Delinquency

Courts struggle with effective ways to deal with individuals whose mental health issues lead to criminal behavior. This is especially true for courts responsible for adjudicating juvenile delinquency. Childhood exposure to violence can impact children’s social and emotional development. It has been linked to poor social functioning and mental health issues, including depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Some children repeatedly exposed to violence, particularly violence in the home, develop PTSD with symptoms such as re-experiencing, avoidance, numbing, attachment issues, and impulsivity and inattentiveness that mimic the symptoms of AD/HD1. Children involved in the court system, both the delinquency and abuse and neglect systems, have higher trauma exposure rates than other children. They need access to mental health services and treatment programs that can provide appropriate intervention, and they need a trauma-informed court system that can work in tandem with these providers.

Yet as a CFCC Student Fellow examining Maryland’s delinquency system, I find myself wondering how effective our system is at meeting the needs of these children. The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services is charged with providing “individualized care and treatment to youth who have violated the law or who are a danger to themselves or others2.” DJS treatment programs include Functional Family Therapy and Multi-systemic Therapy that provide services in both clinical settings and in the home. These interventions have the potential to help to positively impact children and their family unit as they address some of the underlying issues, including trauma, that lead to the child’s delinquency.

The problem with this model, however, is that children have to be adjudicated as delinquent before they have access to these services. This is especially problematic for poor families who cannot afford to pay for services on their own. Where middle and upper income families can afford to pay for private therapy programs to help their children who are acting out, families without these means must wait for the behaviors to worsen and the consequences to become more severe before intervention is available. By then, the intervention may be too little too late.

Perhaps it is not DJS’s role to provide access to mental health and family therapy services before youth are adjudicated as delinquent. The agency is after all charged with the care and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. If DJS cannot provide these services, I think the state should provide access through another agency. While it is true that in the current economic climate funding for such programs is scarce, the state ends up paying the price down the road in the form of juvenile detention. Maryland spends $22.6 million each year to detain youth.3 According to one study, 2/3 of young people in juvenile detention would meet the requirements to be diagnosed with a mental disorder.4 Furthermore, Maryland continues to move forward with plans to spend $70 million building a 120-bed jail to house youth who have been charged as adults. Juvenile detention is expensive and arguably ineffective. Looking at these statistics, I believe that more investment at the front end to provide children and families with better access to mental health services could lead to lower rates of offenses. Our current system is reactionary. A proactive preventive approach would likely be a better use of the state’s limited resources.

1 Lisa Pilinik & Jessica R. Kendall, The Safe Start Center Series on Children Exposed to Violence Issue Brief #7: Victimization and Trauma Experience by Children and Youth: Implications for Advocates (2012) available at www.safestartcenter.org.
2 Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, DATA RESOURCE GUIDE FISCAL YEAR 2011 (2012)