Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Do No Harm should apply to juvenile justice! Some lessons from the Luzerne County (PA) scandal.

Some of you will have followed the scandal that reached national notoriety in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania – where judges were ordering youth held in secure confinement in a private facility and money was being funneled back to them by the facility operators. Finally, at least some aspects of that have come to some closure with the review and expungement of over 2,200 juvenile cases and an end of the state’s oversight of that county court. The court also created a restitution fund to help reimburse some of the victims of the youth’s acts, since the expungement essentially relieved the youth of that liability. These are positive steps forward for Luzerne County, and in some ways it could be said that the scandal is over. But civil claims against Judge Ciavarella are not resolved and more importantly one can only wonder about the damage done to youth through their unnecessary incarceration and how that has a lingering effect on their lives, even if the “paper record” no longer exists.

We would all like to think that the type of abuses that occurred in Luzerne County could not occur in our own systems, and they rarely do. But, we too rarely apply the axiom of “first do no harm” to our work in the juvenile justice system.

In reality the impact of our decisions and systems is much more subtle in nature and done under the guise of “teaching him or her a lesson” or “being tough on crime” or some other adult construct that we use to justify our actions. Rarely do they rise to the notoriety or level of what occurred in Luzerne County, but that should not allow us to think “it can’t happen here”.

Every time we lock up a youth needlessly, whether in a juvenile facility or even worse in an adult facility; every time we delay court actions for reasons of convenience or set over a hearing “for good cause” when the cause is not really that good; every time we confine a youth in a facility that is poorly designed and staffed by adults who are not sufficiently trained to work with youth; every time we cut off a youth from their education or a positive relationship, even for a short time; every time we view youth only through our own cultural lens; every time we focus on blaming youth for the past without adequately supporting their future; every time we forget about the impact of a youth’s behavior on the community and on victims; every time we directly or indirectly blame a family for their failings and fail to take the extra step to really engage them in positive change; and every time we let the needs of the system supersede the needs of youth, victims, and the community we run a great risk of failing to meet the “first do no harm” test. It’s more than a risk. It’s almost a certainty.

Is the harm done more subtle? Yes. Is it often unintended? Sure. Does it get the scrutiny and media attention that it deserves? Rarely. Are our system’s actions uninformed by what we know really works? Way too often.

As you read this, today, now, somewhere in our state there is a boy or girl meeting with a social worker or facing a judge or being interviewed by police or sitting in the principal’s office – in all cases having some adult intervene in their lives and making decisions about their future that will have an impact, one way or the other. All of the adults bear the responsibility to understand that they should first, do no harm. Of course we hope for more, and in many – perhaps most – situations we get more. Unfortunately, in some we get less.

Working well with youth is hard work and it is about making tough choices, often choices that are contrary to conventional wisdom, and often choices that make the work harder - but choices that in the end deliver better results. For each of us, keeping the lessons of Luzerne County in mind as we choose which road to take as we work with youth can’t hurt!                       by Jim Moeser

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