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Show & Tell: Missouri's Division of Youth Services acts as a national model.

Author's Note: The following article was adapted and updated from a longer story published in the Spring 2003 edition of AdvoCasey, the magazine of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The original article is available online at

Long renowned as the "Show-Me State," Missouri is fast earning a new moniker: the "Show-and-Tell State," as juvenile justice officials and state legislators from all over the country are flocking to visit.

During the past two years, more than 250 officials from Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, South Carolina and the District of Columbia have come to tour facilities operated by Missouri's Division of Youth Services (DYS) and learn about the state's unconventional approach to youth corrections. DYS has been featured on National Public Radio and was dubbed a "guiding light" for juvenile justice reform by the nonpartisan American Youth Policy Forum.

For visitors, the tours have been eye-opening. "What impacted me most was the atmosphere that existed there," said Maryland Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth Montague, who toured facilities in the Kansas City region last September. "The staff knew these kids very well. They conveyed an attitude of continual support for them, and the kids were really responding to that," he added. "That's the kind of environment we all want.... As Will Smith said [in the movie Independence Day], 'I got to get me one of those.'"

Saying No To Training Schools

The DYS approach to juvenile corrections differs dramatically from the national norm. In most states, the greatest budget expenditures and the greatest number of incarcerated youths are concentrated in large, congregate-care training schools. Nationwide, 52 percent of juveniles confined in 1997 were held in facilities with more than 110 offenders.

These training schools employ teachers and typically some certified counselors, but youths spend much of their time under the watchful gaze of correctional officers, who are often high school graduates, some with little training in or affinity for counseling or youth development. If youths misbehave, they languish alone, under lockdown in isolation cells.

Despite high costs of $100 or more per day, recidivism studies routinely find that half or more of training school youths are convicted of a new offense within three years of release. Missouri, too, once relied on training school incarceration. From 1887 until 1983, the Boonville Training School was Missouri's primary correctional facility for boys, holding up to 650 teens at a time. Though its stated mission was rehabilitative, the reality at Boonville was often brutal.

In 1949, former Boonville Superintendent John Tindall described the facility in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I saw black eyes, battered faces, broken noses among the boys," Tindall wrote. "The usual corrective procedure among the guards was to knock a boy down with their fists, then kick him in the groin." A 1969 federal report condemned Boonville's "quasi-penal-military" atmosphere, particularly the practice of banishing unruly youths to the "Hole"--a dark, solitary confinement room atop the facility's administration building.

In the 1970s, DYS began to experiment with smaller correctional programs. Liking the results and tired of endless scandals at Boonville, Missouri shut down the training school in 1983 and donated the facility to the state's Department of Corrections, which turned it into an adult penitentiary. In place of Boonville, as well as a training school for girls in Chillicothe that closed in 1981, DYS secured smaller sites across the state-abandoned school buildings, large residential homes, a convent--and outfitted them to house delinquent teens. The largest of the new units housed only three dozen teens.

DYS divided the state into five regions so that confined youths could remain within driving distance of their homes and families. It also began staffing its facilities primarily with college-educated youth specialists rather than the traditional correctional officers found at the training schools. These youth specialists received extensive training and were selected more for their interest in nurturing youths' development than guarding youths.

During the next decade, DYS developed a distinctive new approach to juvenile corrections--relying on group process and personal development, rather than punishment and isolation, as the best medicine for delinquent teens. Today, Missouri achieves far more successes than most other states in reducing the future criminality of juvenile offenders. Missouri also rises above the pack in protecting the safety of confined youths, preventing abuses and fostering learning. "I think it's a great system," said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. "More than any other state in the country, Missouri provides a positive, treatment-oriented approach that's not punitive or prison-like."

Small Is Beneficial -- But it is Not Everything

The switch to smaller facilities was crucial to improving Missouri's juvenile correctional system. "The most important thing in dealing with youthful offenders is ... the one-on-one relationships formed between young people and staff," said veteran juvenile justice consultant Paul DeMuro. "And not just the line staff. It's critical that the director of the facility know every kid by name."

"The kids coming into juvenile facilities need a lot of specialized attention," added Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators. "A small facility allows the staff to get to know the kids on a very individual basis." Large facilities routinely suffer from high rates of staff turnover and absenteeism, Loughran said. "So the kids spend a lot of time sitting in their rooms.... With large [facilities], it's like going to a large urban high school. Kids get lost, and these kids can't afford to get lost," he added.

Smaller facilities, however, are not a magic bullet for juvenile corrections reform. Kentucky has long housed delinquent teens in small facilities, but a federal investigation in 1995 found that the state was ignoring abuse complaints, using isolation cells excessively and providing substandard education and mental health programming. (Since then, Kentucky has beefed up staff training and closed its worst facilities.)


In Missouri, small facilities also produced no immediate miracles. Initially, chaos reigned inside many of the new sites, recalls Gail Mumford, who began working with DYS in 1983 and now serves as the division's deputy director for treatment services. "It was really crazy," she said. "We didn't know what we were doing. The boys ran us ragged [at first]. They were acting up every day, sometimes every hour." But conditions improved steadily as DYS tinkered with staffing patterns, invested in staff training, built case management and family counseling capabilities, and invested in community-based services to monitor and support teens after they leave custody.

Remodeling The Schoolhouse

In what was once an elementary school on the northern fringes of Kansas City, 15 miles from downtown, the Northwest Regional Youth Center is home to 30 serious juvenile offenders. Inside, the facility has been redesigned from its schoolhouse days. But there are no cells, no iron bars. In fact, other than a metal detector at the front door, there are few locked doors and little security hardware of any type--just video cameras connected to monitors that line a wall of the central office.

The main lobby of the Northwest Center is furnished with couches, rugs, an upright piano and an elaborate fountain stocked with oversized goldfish. Three of the old school's classrooms remain, and three others have been turned into dormitories--each an open room furnished with two-level bunk beds and dressers. These dorms are each part of a larger "pod" where residents spend the majority of their time. Each pod also includes a living room furnished with couches and coffee tables, plus the treatment room, where the team meets for an hour each afternoon and youths talk about their personal histories, their future goals and the roots of their delinquent behavior. "Why I think they're such a good system is that they have preserved the community aspect, even in the secure programs," said Loughran. "When you visit, you can see that they're not institutional. They've been able to preserve ... a family atmosphere."

From the day they enter a DYS facility, Missouri youths spend virtually every moment with a team of nine to 11 other teens. The teams eat, sleep, study and shower together, always under the supervision of two trained youth specialists (or during the school day, one youth specialist and one teacher). At least five times per day the teams check in with one another, telling their peers and the staff how they feel physically and emotionally. And at any time, the youths are free to call a "circle," in which all team members must stand facing one another to raise concerns or voice complaints. Thus, at any moment, the focus can shift from the activity at hand--education, exercise, clean-up, a bathroom break--to a lengthy discussion of behaviors and attitudes. Staff members also call circles to enforce expectations regarding safety, courtesy and respect.

At the Northwest Center, efforts to establish a positive environment are clearly paying off. "I remember my first day," recalled Dawson, a resident, before leaving the facility. "People were helping each other, people were interacting with each other in ways you weren't used to. You ain't used to a total stranger helping you out."


The final pillar of Missouri's rehabilitative process takes place in the treatment rooms, where teams meet each afternoon before dinner. On most days, one resident makes a presentation to the group about his or her life. In the "life history" session, teens are asked to, and often do, talk about wrenching experiences in their lives, such as domestic abuse, violence, sexual victimization and family negligence, or the crimes they committed.

During the "genogram" exercise, teens produce and then explain a coded family tree detailing domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, criminality and illiteracy in their families. During the "line of body" exercise, residents trace their bodies onto a large sheet of paper and then write in the physical and mental traumas they have suffered during their young lives.

According to Vicky Weimholt, who recently retired as deputy director for treatment services at DYS, convincing delinquent teens to open up about their troubled pasts is critical in reversing behavioral problems. The keys to getting teens talking are physical and emotional safety. "Our staff are always there, and they will not let you get hurt," Weimholt explained. "And on the emotional side, you can't underestimate the power of group work.... There's safety in knowing that I'm not the only one going through this."

Community Connection

More than most states, Missouri supports youths through the tricky transition between leaving the facility and returning home. DYS assigns one service coordinator to oversee each young person from the time he or she enters DYS custody until discharge, usually after three to six months back home on aftercare. Unlike parole officers employed by most states, these coordinators decide when the young person will leave residential care. Additionally, they already have longstanding relationships with the teens when they do head home.

While on aftercare, youths meet and speak frequently with their service coordinators, and many youths are also assigned a "tracker," who is typically a college student or a resident of the youth's home community. These trackers meet with the youths several times per week, monitor their progress and help them find jobs. Missouri also operates 11 nonresidential day treatment centers from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. each school day, which serve as a step-down for many teens after leaving a DYS facility. DYS also assigns some youths--typically younger teens with lesser offending histories--directly to day treatment.


Measuring Outcomes

Last February, a DYS recidivism analysis found that of 1,386 teens released from custody in 1999, just 111 (8 percent) were sentenced to state prison or a state-run, 120-day adult incarceration program within 36 months of release, and 266 (19 percent) were sentenced to adult probation. The report also showed that 94 youths were recommitted to DYS for new offenses following release. (Another 134 youths returned to DYS residential facilities temporarily for breaking rules while on aftercare. DYS does not consider these cases failures and does not include them in its recidivism data.)

Compared with states that measure recidivism in similar ways, these success rates are exceptional. For example, a 2000 recidivism study in Maryland found that 30 percent of youths released from juvenile correctional facilities in 1997 were incarcerated as adults within three years. In Louisiana, 45 percent of youths released from residential programs in 1999 returned to juvenile custody or were sentenced to adult prison or probation by mid-2002. In Florida, 29 percent of youths released from a juvenile commitment program from July 2000 through June 2001 were returned to juvenile custody or sentenced to adult prison or probation within 12 months; the comparable figure in Missouri is just 9 percent.

Missouri's lower recidivism rates do not come with a high price tag. The total DYS budget for 2002 was $58.4 million, which is equal to $103 for each young person statewide between the ages of 10 and 16. By contrast, Louisiana spends $270 per juvenile 10 to 16. Maryland spends roughly $192 for each youth ages 10 to 17, and Florida spends approximately $271. (Juvenile courts in Maryland and Florida have jurisdiction over youths up to age 17, while Missouri and Louisiana juvenile laws cover youths only up to age 16.)

In addition, not a single Missouri teen has committed suicide under DYS custody in the 20 years since Boonville closed. Lindsay Hayes, a researcher with the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, reports that 110 youth suicides occurred nationwide in juvenile facilities from 1995 to 1999.

Missouri's educational outcomes are also promising. Though DYS youths enter custody at the 26th percentile of Missouri students in reading and the 21st percentile in math, and many have not attended school regularly for years, three-fourths made more academic progress than a typical public school student in 2002, and 222 DYS youths earned a GED.

Changing Behaviors

These impressive outcomes are just part of the lure for the many state leaders coming to study the Missouri model. Just as important is the aura of safety and optimism inside DYS facilities and the ability of Missouri youths to articulate a positive message and dispel the negative stereotypes that typically surround delinquent teens.

After touring St. Louis-area DYS facilities in December 2002, David Addison, chief juvenile public defender for Baltimore County, Md., said, "I was very impressed with the professionalism of the staff, and I was impressed that the kids really understood what the program was all about. They were able to express it a lot better than a lot of the staff could explain it here in Maryland."

"The kids we met had definitely gone through a process of change. They had a lot of new tools for coping when they get out," said Diane Winston, a Louisiana state legislator. "In Louisiana, we have what Missouri had 20 years ago, which is warehousing kids in facilities that isolate and punish our juvenile offenders," she added. "In Missouri, they've broken it down into smaller therapeutically focused centers ... They really are changing behaviors."


After driving through the entry gates of the Watkins Mill State Park one gray November afternoon, two dozen well-dressed power brokers traverse a gravel parking lot and approach a nondescript wood-frame building. The front door is unlocked.

Inside, the walls are decorated with crepe paper and the air is infused with the welcoming aroma of hot cider. A half dozen teens--black and white, boys and girls--greet the visitors warmly. Though they have been sentenced here for serious (but mostly nonviolent) crimes, the youths are dressed in their own clothes--no jumpsuits, no military crew cuts. The teens laugh and joke with staff, they look visitors in the eye and they smile easily as they offer up cider and a snack.

Most of the visitors have come from Louisiana, members of a state commission exploring possible reforms for the Bayou State's deeply troubled juvenile correctional system. The group is understandably tired. This is stop No. 3 today in a whirlwind tour of juvenile correctional facilities in and around Kansas City. But something about this site sparks their attention: There are no fences here and no heavy locked doors. The path to escape is wide open.

"Why don't you run?" asks one member of the delegation, a county judge. The question is posed to a tall, slender 16-year-old with a speech impediment and deep scars crisscrossing his face. "I did when I first got here," the boy says. "I was making my plan. But then I saw that the other kids weren't going anywhere, they were thinking about their futures. And I saw that the staff here really cared. So I changed my mind.

"I'm in here because I stole a car and crashed it going 85 miles an hour," the boy continued, his voice suddenly trembling. "I need to get this surgery finished. I need to make some different choices. I don't want to spend the rest of my life running."

That evening, at a going away dinner in downtown Kansas City, Louisiana state legislator Diane Winston stood up at a podium and confessed that "until now, this issue of juvenile justice has just been words and numbers to me. But this tour has really put a human face on the issue for me. It's a face of hope."

Dick Mendel serves as editor of AdvoCasey, the policy magazine of the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore. He has authored three national reports on juvenile justice and youth crime prevention for the American Youth Policy Forum.
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Title Annotation:CT FEATURE
Author:Mendel, Dick
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2004
Previous Article:ACA accreditation in juvenile corrections.
Next Article:Juvenile justice collaboration in Idaho.

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