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Project Asks Stakeholders To Remember Adolescents Have ‘Changing Minds’ 10/15/18  10/21/18 9:54:57 PM Printer Friendly VersionPrinter Friendly Version

Project Asks Stakeholders To Remember
Adolescents Have ‘Changing Minds’

By Scott Stewart
The Daily Record

Youth involved in Nebraska’s court system can sometimes face criminal charges for behavior that often would be written off as typical adolescent behavior – that is, treated as acting out and not a crime.
Understanding typical behavior versus abnormal behavior, as well as how mental health and the changes that happen during adolescence can contribute to negative behavior, was the focus of a series of regional conferences organized by the Nebraska Court Improvement Project.

“We are all trying to find the best way to meet the needs of youth who have multiple challenges in front of them,” said CIP project director Deb VanDyke-Ries. “The more that we can all come together to have those conversations, problem-solve and figure out solutions, the better outcomes will come for youth and families that are involved in the system.”
The “Changing Minds” conferences featured Youth Thrive, a research-informed framework that brings together research on positive youth development, resilience, neuroscience, stress and the impact of trauma on brain development. The framework seeks to improve outcomes for youth living in or transitioning from foster care, as well as those involved in child welfare and juvenile justice cases.
VanDyke-Ries said keynote presentations at recent regional conferences for stakeholders in those areas – foster care, child welfare and juvenile justice, as well as the courts – asked officials to look at children in their caseloads and ask how adolescent development plays a role in their behavior. She said the project’s hope is the insight helps reduce the criminalization of typical adolescent behaviors. They were also encouraged to reach out to local school officials to determine whether educational needs are being met.
For example, one presenter shared a story from a foster parent whose foster child took a car without permission and wrecked it, VanDyke-Ries said. Law enforcement asked the foster parent whether she wanted the child to be removed from her home. The caseworker asked the same question.
Yet, the presenter said that the mother had the same situation happen with a biological child, and no one asked to remove that child from her home. The foster parent asked why the double standard was being applied to system-involved youth.
The conferences also featured presentations from formerly system-involved youth sharing personal perspectives that can be helpful for evaluating current practices.
“I think that has been a very powerful message hearing from youth, formally system-involved youth, about their experiences,” VanDyke-Ries said.

Judge Lawrence Gendler said conference attendees were exposed to subjects like trauma-informed therapy, which takes a different approach from traditional therapy. Therapist might begin working with a trauma patient by asking “what happened to you” instead of saying “tell me about yourself” – putting the focus on the trauma so it doesn’t block further discussion.
“Trauma can affect brain development, and it can affect behavior,” Gendler said. “So to effectively treat somebody who has been subjected to trauma, the approach has to be different.”
Gendler, who has worked on juvenile justice issues as an attorney, and later a judge, since graduating from the Creighton University School of Law in 1978, serves as a judge of the Separate Juvenile Court and Juvenile Drug Court in Sarpy County. He’s the project chair for the Through the Eyes of the Child Initiative, which began 12 years ago under the direction of Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican. Gendler acts as a liaison between various judges and the rest of the system.
The initiative has 25 teams across the state, each led by a judge. The teams meet at least quarterly and promote interaction between professionals working with system-involved youth. The discussions create a space where problems can be identified and solved at the local level, and best practices can be shared more widely at the regional conferences and larger summits, held once every three years.
“The bulk of the work really occurs within these team meetings,” Gendler said. “They bring in local people to be a prat of their team and present on what might be available.”
This year’s regional conferences were held in late September and early October in Lincoln, Norfolk, Gering and Lexington. VanDyke-Ries said follow-up presentations taking a deeper dive into adolescent development are planned for March 2019. She said those will be in different communities to make sure all areas of Nebraska are being served, but the target audience will be the same.
The next children’s summit is scheduled for September 2019. No theme has been selected at this time, VanDyke-Ries said.
Many of the people involved in the Through the Eyes of the Child Initiative do so as volunteers, giving up time they could be spending earning money or pursuing other activities. That’s especially the case for court volunteers and court-appointed special advocates, Gendler said.
“I’m always amazed at people who are willing to give up their time and commit to this,” Gendler said. “It speaks well for the people who are working in this area – really how committed they are to their local system.”

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