It’s our benchmarking week in the Graduate School’s Executive Potential Program, and we’re in Kansas City, Missouri. Team O was assigned a benchmarking site visit at the Missouri Division of Youth Services. We had a simply amazing vist at the Northwest Regional Youth Center.
We arrived at the facility at 9am, and were greeted by several staff members, including Tim Decker, the Director of Missouri Youth Services, and Courtney Collier, his Deputy Director. During the first 90 minutes of our visit, Tim outlined the Missouri approach to the Juvenile Justice System. He spoke about how the juvenile justice system had historically been very punitive, focusing on incarceration and punishment. In the early 1980’s, the Missouri Division of Youth Services (DYS) went through a fundamental change in their processes. They determined that it would be more effective to run their detention center as what is essentially a therapeutic group home. The idea was that if you simply get the kids to comply to avoid receiving punishment, they will do their time and when you let them go back to their original environments they’ll fall right back into their old patterns. If you help the kids work through their issues and understand what got them there, if you help them develop coping skills and a plan for the future, they will be much more likely to be successful when they are released and to stay out of the system in the future. In addition, Tim spoke to the hiring and training processes of his staff. They hire people with the heart for the job, knowing that they can train the right skills into someone with a passion for the work. They create their managers and leaders from within. We were highly impressed with Tim’s presentation. It is clear that he and his staff wholeheartedly believe in this program and have put their hearts and lives into it.
After the presentation, we had the pleasure of being introduced to 3 of the youth residents of the facility, Ricardo, Cody, and William, who had been chosen to serve as our tour guides for the day. They began by showing us their group living quarters, and talking about some of the therapeutic activities they participate in. They were amazingly open about their experiences. We had many questions, and they willingly answered them. We ended up sitting in the living room chatting with them about their experiences for over an hour. We were even graced with a performance from William, who had taken second place in a DYS talent show with a song he had written. Before we knew it, lunch time had arrived and we were way behind on our tour! We quickly saw their dorm and group therapy room, and left the viewing of the classroom for after lunch.
We had a great spaghetti lunch with the youth, which gave us an additional opportunity to chat with them. It was inspiring to listen to them talk about their futures, and to see the hope for the future that they had clearly found through their self-exploration at the center. The program places a heavy focus on education, and many of the youth receive high school degrees or GEDs while they are residents there. In fact, in many cases that becomes a condition of release…the youths’ sentences are open-ended, so the counselors are able to determine when they feel that a participant has really progressed to the level needed for release.
The success rate of the program is amazing. We were told that after 3 years of release, over 90% of the youth have avoided further incarceration, and over 70% have avoided any further infractions of the law at all. Those are some amazing numbers! The Missouri approach has received several awards and recognitions, and has been visited by the administrators of juvenile justice programs from over 30 states. They are truly an organization to be emulated.