February 2016 Bar Bulletin
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Step Up Program Gets County BoostTo Help Troubled Teens


As a single mother of a teenaged boy, I know well the shift in power dynamics that occurs when one’s child becomes bigger and stronger than a parent at the same time that the child wants to challenge parental authority. Fortunately, my son believes that words are better tools than fists — and he knows how to use them.

But sometimes adolescent rage escalates to the point of assault — a parent or sibling gets punched or kicked, or worse. The police come and, if the adolescent is 16 or older, under current law the officer is required to arrest the teen. He is brought to juvenile detention, where he stays until the youth can see a judge one to three days later.

Until the first of this year, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office would charge misdemeanor assault, the youth would go home, and weeks or months later the charge would most likely be dismissed because parents do not want to create a criminal record for their child. Those teens who were convicted, often months after the incident, would finally be referred for services to Step Up, a unique King County program designed to help families avoid violent conflict.

Needless to say, none of this made much sense. But changing it took a lot of patience, dedication, hard work and courage. There is no question that this effort was the brainchild of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, including Juvenile Chair Jimmy Hung and victim advocate Stephanie Trollen. They worked doggedly to create FIRS: Family Intervention and Restorative Services.

On January 1, King County Juvenile Court was finally able to steer young people charged with misdemeanors against family members to services immediately and divert them from the juvenile justice system altogether. King County Executive Dow Constantine and the County Council supported increasing the Department of Judicial Administration’s Step Up staff by two social workers and allowed us to team them with two juvenile probation counselors, at a cost of about $425,000.

Families are referred to the program and if the prosecutor and the Court agree, they may immediately be engaged with Step Up rather than being charged and arraigned, and beginning their journey through the juvenile justice system. Step Up works with the family to develop a safety plan and then works with families in group settings to treat one another more respectfully, to learn to forgive and to make amends.

The essence of a safety plan is to help the family identify the point at which the youth needs to separate from other family members — often when the yelling starts. The youth is encouraged to identify something that will calm them down, and the parent is encouraged to respect the youth’s efforts to avoid violence in this way. Maybe 20 minutes later they can agree on a time to discuss whatever the issue was or to let it go.

Once a safety plan is established, Step Up embarks on a 21-session curriculum for families to attend together. It uses a restorative practice model of accountability, empathy and competency development to restore family relationships. The goal is to help a youth recognize the impact of his or her actions on others, cultivate empathy and take steps to repair the harm done.

Both youth and parents can be held accountable by their peers in a group setting. The newly funded positions enable us to serve 8 to 10 new young people and their families every week; these numbers quickly add up, so the funding enables Step Up to serve these families over several months after the arrest by establishing new groups that meet in the evening.

Senior social worker Lily Anderson is excited to see Step Up available to far more families now that youth can be diverted very early in the process. The mix of youth and families is more complex and challenging than it used to be, she said, but with FIRS there is a team of social workers and probation officers to problem-solve how to get youth into services they need. Usually parents have been trying to get youth into counseling, mental health or substance abuse services before the police are ever called, but the youth refuses to go.

In just the first two weeks, the program’s experienced probation counselors have been able to steer as many youth toward evidence-based programs offered by the Court as they did in the first half of last year. These programs include Aggression Replacement Therapy and Family Functional Therapy. Youth and families are far more receptive to services immediately after a crisis than they are six months later, the probation counselors report.

While that stands to reason, as presiding judge I need to keep an eye on the Court’s financial bottom line. Currently the Court is reimbursed by the State only for services offered following a conviction or a statutory diversion (which FIRS is not). This funding mechanism needs to be changed for us to make more wholesale changes to the juvenile justice system in King County.

In this first six months of FIRS, youth will need to stay in detention until it is safe to go home. Some families might agree to take a child home, even though they were not sure it would be safe, just to get the child out of detention. Clearly, a residential option other than detention is desperately needed.

Thanks to the generosity of the City of Seattle, on June 1 just such a residential option will become available. Led by City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, Seattle appropriated $254,000 to enable us to convert an unused detention unit into a residential space from which youth can come and go through a door to the outside world. City Auditor Claudia Gross-Shader bird-dogged this proposal right down to the last minute before the City Council.

These funds will enable us to contract with an agency to supervise the youth overnight, ensuring that the youth are safe and are working with a therapeutically oriented worker when the Step Up team goes home. The County hopes to identify additional funding to keep the residential component of FIRS going after the City funding runs out.

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