Big Questions for Youth Services in 2016

The curtain has closed on 2015, which was The Chronicle’s third year of existence and our second full year of publishing. We have again more than doubled our page views. So Youth Services Insider begins with a hearty “Thank You” to anyone and everyone who read an article this year. Especially those of you who subscribed!

So what big stories loom in the youth services sector for 2016? YSI humbly submits the following list, in no particular rank of importance.

IV-E Reform: Can It Move?YSI-MB-Page

The Senate Finance Committee actively discussed reforming federal child welfare policy all last year. On the Republican side, Senate Finance Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is passionate about curbing federal support for congregate care.

On the Democrat side of the aisle, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is equally passionate about injecting flexibility into the multi-billion dollar Title IV-E entitlement, the largest infusion of federal funds into foster care. Flexing IV-E would enable states to steer those dollars toward prevention and preservation efforts for the first time.

Both men have said all the right things in support of each other, but it appears now that they will jointly pursue their goals in what would amount to the biggest legislative reform of child welfare since 1980.

Details have recently trickled out about the Families First Act, a yet-to-be-drafted bill that would include elements of Wyden’s flexibility vision and Hatch’s hopes to curb group care.

Click here to read more about the bill, which has garnered support from several national advocacy groups even though it has yet to be written, let alone introduced.

Expect it to dominate the federal child welfare conversation in 2016. Key things to watch:

  • Limits on federal support for group care: The act is expected to halt IV-E funds for group care after 14 days, with wide exceptions for specialized group environments.
  • Cost: It will almost certainly be in the billions– it’s just a question of how many. Which leads to the big one…
  • House Republicans: Even insiders who are wary of certain goals of this proposed bill tell YSI they have a hard time seeing big advocacy groups line up against it. But even if Senate Republicans have Hatch’s back on the bill, moving it past House Republicans will be tough with a high price tag from the Congressional Budget Office.

Obviously, buy-in from Speaker Paul Ryan could do the trick. Another key Republican on child welfare issues: Rep. Dave Reichert (Wash.), a veteran member of the Ways and Means Committee.

Class Action in Big States: What’s Next?

While federal reform is a big “if,” there is virtually no question about changes in the nation’s second biggest state child welfare system. Texas will, via court mandate, reform its foster services under the eye of a judge-appointed monitor.

The judge in question, Janis Jack, took Texas to the woodshed in her decision against them.

Jack said in her decision that the state foster care system is “broken” especially “for Texas’s PMC children, who almost uniformly leave State custody more damaged than when they entered.”

Yowza! Texas ran into trouble by failing to effectively help youth in its Permanent Managing Conservatorship (PMC), which is just a fancy name for the group of children for whom no permanent placement was determined after a year in foster care.

Texas has appealed the decision, but history suggests it will lose that battle. So the first big question to answer for the court is: Who’s the right person to serve as special master?

Texas might not be the only big state to see significant changes underway in 2016. Among the others:

Illinois: This will be the first full year on the job for Department of Child and Family Services boss George Sheldon, who helped reform Florida’s system before leading child welfare for the Obama administration. Sheldon was brought in, in large part, to address the scary problems with DCFS congregate care exposed by the Chicago Tribune.

New York: New York City’s Public Advocate, Letitia James, filed a lawsuit in July on behalf of ten children who had spent long periods of time in the city’s foster care system. Her partner on this venture: A Better Childhood (ABC), the child welfare litigation group led by former Children’s Rights boss Marcia Lowry.

It got interesting in October. The state Office of Child and Family Services settled with the plaintiffs. The city’s Administration for Children’s Services did not.

Legal providers in the city lined up with ACS, voicing opposition to the goal of reforming the city’s system through a lawsuit. This is something we heard on background from other New York advocates: The lawsuit came at a time when there was dialogue on reform between them and ACS, and the suit has disrupted it.

The future of reform in one of America’s biggest child welfare systems is sure to develop in 2016.

California: A few different things to keep an eye on in the Golden State:

Los Angeles: The city named high-profile former judge Michael Nash to lead its new Office of Child Protection, a creation inspired by the recommendations of a blue ribbon commission on child welfare reform. The authority of the office is limited, so Nash’s clout will likely be the X-factor in whether it has any impact.

A.B. 12: It’s been three years since the state started to allow foster youth to remain in care until 21, which means the first group of youth to access three extra years will be entering adulthood on their own.

So…did the extra years help, or just lengthen the runway? 2016 will provide some early answers. Most notably in May, when Mark Courtney of Chapin Hall – the pre-eminent researcher on foster youth outcomes – will release his CALYOUTH study.

Mental health services: The sun has set on Katie A. v Bonta, the class-action lawsuit that placed mandates on counties to serve the mental health needs of poor children.

2016 will likely indicate how much of that court-ordered reform stuck, and how much counties were doing just to stay out of trouble. Advocacy groups, including the Young Minds Advocacy Project led by Patrick Gardner, will be watching.

Continuum of Care: The state has approved a new protocol for compensating placements and services in the child welfare system. 2016 will almost certainly be guinea pig year for this, as policymakers figure out exactly how to regulate and troubleshoot the broad new protocol signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

Post-Adoption and Juvenile Transfers: What Will the Numbers Say?

YSI has often described adoption failure and the outcomes of juvenile transfers to adult court as the “blind spots” of youth services data. There is little to no knowledge about how often adoptions of foster youth fail, or what happens to most juveniles whose cases are moved out of juvenile court.

2016 could end up being the year we get at least some information on both counts.

Starting this year, if a case worker establishes a prior adoption or guardianship, he or she must also include the following information:

  • Prior adoption date (month and year the adoption was finalized)
  • Prior adoption type (inter-state, intra-state, tribal or international)
  • Prior adoption jurisdiction

The results will be somewhat limited in telling the whole story, for reasons we explain here. But it’s a major first step.

On juvenile transfers, the data will be less encompassing. After years of delay, a study commissioned by the Justice Department in 2010 is near completion. YSI has it on good authority that data collection has begun with 2014 figures, and the Justice Department told us that at least some data would be publicly available in 2016.

The data collection on this venture might not be great; we’ve heard that it has been a nightmare to get states to be cooperative in putting numbers together. But our hunch is that even limited results might surprise people on this issue.

If you just asked 100 Americans what they think happens to juveniles who are transferred to adult court, the prevailing response would almost certainly be that they go to prison for a fairly long time. That’s because the whole notion of transferring cases was borne of the 1990s “adult time for adult crime” movement.

But the very limited research that exists on this would suggest otherwise. A 2009 study of 135 Baltimore juveniles transferred into adult court found that about 10 percent were convicted. About a third were sent back to juvenile court after a criminal court judge reviewed the case, and 21 percent of the youths got adult probation.

That last slice, the ones getting adult probation, is the most interesting to YSI. Are a high percentage of transferred juveniles getting adult probation? Because if so, that would mean those youth are not getting the opportunities often opened up by juvenile probation or a meaningful community-based or residential intervention.

Will JJDPA Miss Out Again?

2015 is the latest in a line of years where it looked like reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act might be possible. The last time it happened was 2002, so it’s long overdue for a dust-off.

Despite the fact that seemingly nobody in Congress has a strongly held view against the JJDPA, it stalled again. All indications are that the bill marked up and approved by the Senate Judiciary would pass, but the House has shown no strong indicator that it is in lockstep.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee, led by Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.), held an informal hearing about juvenile justice, at which several Democrats raised the importance of JJDPA reauthorization.

If that sounds like a thin sign of progress to you…you are absolutely right. But it is the first glimmer of any hope that Kline and Republican leadership would maybe consider JJDPA. Earlier in the year, Kline’s staff refused to answer when YSI asked if he supports the idea of reauthorizing JJPDA.

This all really seems like it comes down to Kline. Unlike the IV-E reform stuff, JJDPA reauthorization is not an expensive proposition. But short of one very general meeting, there is zero evidence Kline has interest in supporting this.

If YSI was a betting man, we’d guess that if and when JJPDA ever gets reauthorized, it’s going to be as some hasty tack-on to a larger crime bill in the dead of night. There won’t be fanfare of any kind, and all of a sudden it will just be reauthorized.

Will OJJDP Get Its Act Together?

With JJDPA kinda-sorta on the table, it was a bad year for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to look disheveled. Employees were calling for the resignation of Administrator Bob Listenbee through union representation, and meanwhile the Senate Judiciary investigated the integrity of OJJDP’s compliance monitoring process for holding states accountable to the standards of JJDPA.

Worse than that, the House’s fiscal 2016 spending bill completely zeroed out OJJDP. It has come close to that in the past, approving just $20 million in its 2014 bills, but never actually backed the full closure of JJDPA-related activities.

At a hearing on OJJDP in April, Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason told Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that the Justice Department has established a “Core Protections Division” at OJJDP and will develop a “robust compliance policy that is objective.”

YSI learned this fall that the division is being managed by OJJDP Acting Associate Administrator LeToya Johnson. You can bet Grassley will want to hear about progress in 2016.

Supporters of Facility Closure and Facility Improvement: Friends, or Frenemies?

Let’s start here: There is almost no open, overt discord in juvenile justice advocacy. So the question isn’t about a war waged between these two camps.

But as we noted during the YSI national juvenile justice conference tour in October, there is some tension between two leaders on these issues: the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the National Partnership for Juvenile Services (NPJS).

The former is a big-budget grant maker with a juvenile justice strategy group focused on lowering the number of youth who are detained and/or incarcerated.

The latter is an umbrella group that operates on a shoestring budget and represents the various professionals who work at detention and incarceration facilities.

Patrick McCarthy, the CEO of the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation who once ran Delaware’s juvenile justice agency, called for the closure of all youth prisons in a TEDx speech posted in July on YouTube.

“I believe it’s long past time to close these inhumane, ineffective, wasteful factories of failure once and for all,” McCarthy said. “Every one of them.”

McCarthy’s talk did not go over well with NPJS leadership, who are excited about new research out of Chicago that suggests best practices in secure settings can make those facilities effective.

“It’s frustrating to hear those messages,” NPJS Managing Director Mike Jones told YSI. He supports Annie E.’s desire to reduce and right-size the country’s use of secure confinement, he said, “but not all juvenile corrections facilities are bad.”

This is a subtle disagreement that, in our minds, is reflective of an issue that merits more attention in the field. Reform and reduced juvenile arrest rates have helped drive down the number of youth who are detained and incarcerated, which hopefully will pave the way to greater investment in community-based alternatives to incarceration.

But there are lots of juvenile facilities still open, and regardless of one’s hopes for a future without them, some versions of secure facilities are going to be here for a good long while.

So how has a decade of downward-trending numbers impacted the culture and quality of these facilities? Is there new information and evidence on the best ways to intervene with serious juvenile offenders in facility settings?

These are just a few of the youth-related questions that could be answered in 2016. But hey…who knows what else will come down the line?

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.