The goal of juvenile justice is rehabilitation. Michael, 16, was incarcerated for 891 days, from age 13-16, before being released in October 2015. He was rearrested four months later on theft charges. (Baltimore Sun video)
We experienced the rage, sadness, and fear right alongside the 14-year-old girl who poured her heart out to us about how it felt to hold her mother in her arms as she died from an overdose. Every day, we listen to the young people in our care share their stories of pain, anger and anguish at what life has dealt them. And we stay with them and support them without giving up. Because we know that wounded children and families heal and find hope in their own time and in their own way — and that an integral part of their healing process is finding their own strengths and skills that will empower them to keep moving forward in life.
Who are the "we"? We are families, communities, schools, churches, store owners, police, juvenile services workers, social services workers, foster care parents, psychiatric residential treatment facilities, group homes and community-based programs that work with these youth. We are the private and public agencies committed to providing services to help keep these youth at home with their families, or work diligently to return these youth back to their homes as soon as possible and to ensure that they can safely stay there. And, when that is not an option, we work tirelessly to provide a home-like experience for those youth who need an alternative or who need more intensive treatment.
Two recent articles about youth services in Maryland — one about the treatment of girls in Maryland's juvenile justice system and the other about a residential treatment center cited by regulators — fail to acknowledge the critical role that residential providers play as part of the system that cares for these youth and their families, many of whom have experienced significant trauma in their lives.
We, as providers, strive to follow a structure that ensures safety and good care. We want and need to be held accountable for — and to learn from — our mistakes. But we, as a community, need to remember that we do not create the world in which we live. The reality is that we come to work every day with an understanding that the aggressive behaviors that led to a child's out-of-home placement could be directed at us, and yet we forgive and do our best to model appropriate behavior and to teach important life skills — and to listen, to laugh and to love. In return, we feel privileged to spend our days with families and youth who, when the time is right and when trust is earned, open their beautiful hearts and let us see their hope.
Unfortunately, the acuity and severity of mental illness continues to increase across our country, specifically in Maryland. Many youth have multiple problems, like psychiatric illness, substance abuse, profound trauma, learning issues and long term economic stressors. Yet they do not give up. And so we don't either.
While it's important to hold public and private child-serving agencies accountable when mistakes are made, it's also important to come to the table with solutions to the problem. So, here's a start. These are three things that could be done to begin to make a serious difference for communities, providers and the youth and families we serve:
•Align resources for families and communities to identify situations that require intervention before a crisis that requires out-of-home intervention occurs. Providers can play a serious and important role in this prevention. In a recent article, Molly McGrath Tierney, director of Baltimore City Department of Social Services, stated that 40 percent of abuse allegations come out of one section of Baltimore City. How can the system of care unleash its resources to make a difference there?
•Tear down the funding and regulatory silos for services so that the right interventions can be applied at the right time and in the right place.
•Ensure that, as youth and families move through the array of services, there is human connectedness during transitions, which are the most vulnerable time for families.
Let's work together to devote more discussion to how the system of care can better respond to the needs of these courageous youth and their families. Things can be better for multi-stressed families in Maryland. We can make it so.