Communication and coordination make the difference.
Those who have been in the field of corrections for an extended period can be assured of a few constants: Top leadership will change; concepts are cyclical; and progress depends on one's ability to be flexible.
Even as these elements are a fact of life in government and specifically corrections, there are some processes and practices that are institutionalized and survive the test of time. These practices are built upon evidence of efficacy, and are focused on a clear, concise vision and mission of the organization. As stewards of the profession, corrections administrators must always seek better ways to accomplish meeting the mission, with efficient and efficacious practices. In that light, the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) established a goal to provide staff with the information they need to make informed decisions for the youths that they serve.
OJJ identified a critical area in which better communication between the field services and facility staffs would allow them to coordinate their efforts to provide more effective services for youths. Historically, OJJ's Community and Field Services Program (probation and parole) has operated somewhat independently of Facility Services (secure care).
While Louisiana's initial reform efforts focused on changing the secure facilities from a correctional model to therapeutic intervention, it quickly realized that supervision services provided at the community level should align with therapeutic practices as well. Providing staff with procedures that encouraged communication and cross training was vital to the success of the effort to move the system from a correctional tradition to the therapeutic model.
OJJ, with assistance from its national partners, began to review the processes by which youths entered and progressed through the system. Facility and field personnel worked together to design new procedures that encouraged collaboration. The priorities centered around three main principles, provide consistent staff presence for the youths from entrance to exit; regular communication between probation and facility services; and increased family involvement.
Having studied national best practices, the agency's core team developed the service coordination model and curriculum based on these three principles. The goal of service coordination is simple: to provide every youth with a seamless continuum of care. The service coordination model was fully implemented statewide in June 2009, and is the first of its kind in the nation.
Providing staff with procedures that facilitate communication is vital to creating a successful agency. Both field services and facilities staff embraced change as they became more knowledgeable about individual youths and agency processes. Staff in both programs no longer operate in a vacuum and can work more effectively toward meeting the agency's mission and goal--to protect the public by providing safe and effective individualized services to youths, so they will become productive, law-abiding citizens. Service coordination is the bridge that allows field services and facility staff to work together to provide more effective services to individual youths. Staff development and programs have been aligned to reflect the new philosophy.
OJJ believes it is beneficial to teach youths to develop a trusting relationship with the staff member primarily responsible for ensuring that appropriate services are provided. Under the service coordination model, that person is the probation officer.
A youth meets his (or her) probation officer shortly after entering the system, whether through field or facility services. The probation officer establishes a relationship with him and his family, provides consistency, and remains the point of contact with him throughout his stay in the OJJ system. The probation officer follows the youth through the system as he steps down or moves to a higher level of custody. If the youth moves into a secure facility, the probation officer maintains contact and participates in treatment planning. The probation officer is a partner and liaison with both the family and the secure facility, working to ensure that the youth will be successful when he is released from the system.
"Families are developing a relationship with one officer who remains their point of contact throughout their experience with OJJ," said Deputy Assistant Secretary Carolyn B. Lewis, who heads up the Community Based Services Division that includes Field Services and Probation and Parole. "Before service coordination, a youth might have a number of officers assigned to their case," Lewis said. "Having the opportunity to build a relationship makes a difference in our officers' ability to provide quality services to our youth and their families."
OJJ has implemented service coordination in nine of its 11 regions, with the remaining two regions soon to receive training. The reaction from staff has been enthusiastic. Patricia Newman, Monroe regional manager, said, "Implementation of service coordination has provided our youths and families, as well as the probation officers, a sense of continuity. It also allows an opportunity to develop a mutually beneficial relationship, with a better understanding of the needs of our youths and the services to best address those needs."
"The Thibodaux Region began service coordination a year and a half ago," said Regional Manager Kelly Clement. "One of the benefits is the single case management component that affords the probation officer the opportunity to work with a youth and the family throughout his supervision. Even if a youth on probation later requires an out-of-home placement, the same probation officer continues to work with the youth and the family, helping to provide a quality seamless continuum of care."
Service coordination gives probation officers the support they need to meet the mission: provide effective, individualized services to the youths in OJJ's care and custody.
Mary L. Livers, Ph.D., MSW, is deputy secretary of the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice.