Juvenile Justice Advocacy: Working to Help Local Youth – Part 4

Shawne Coonfare, Director of the Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC), says the JAC’s general philosophy is if a youth is eligible to be diverted from formal court processing, then they need to do that.

“It’s really more about supporting youth and young people in what they need than keeping them out of court. What’s most important to us is that we are supporting the young citizens of Douglas County. And, by doing that, many of them don’t need to proceed to court,” said Coonfare.

The JAC provides assessments for juveniles for the County Attorney’s office. Coonfare explained the CA’s office has the legal responsibility of determining further processing and further charging decisions. So they rely on the JAC to use a standardized, validated, risk-assessment instrument and other screening instruments that can help them determine the real risk and needs for that individual youth.  

Coonfare said not all kids are the same, “Two young people might be shoplifting together at Claire’s, and they both come to the JAC. They meet individually with an assessment professional here as do their parents or guardians. We look at the youth holistically, within the framework of our validated risk-assessment instruments and determine what are their risk and needs. One youth may actually have low risk, not have many needs and so may receive a recommended warning letter from the County Attorney. And another youth, in that same incident, may show a really high risk to continue offending behavior and other unhealthy behavior and needs some interventions put in place, like a therapy intervention or decision-making, something like that.”

The common charges kids face every year are theft, shoplifting, substance abuse and fighting. The actual issue areas the JAC is seeing are concerning.

“We’re really seeing an increase in mental health issues that kids are facing and challenging family situations. So we are trying to find services to address whole families rather than just the youth,” she said.

Coonfare said they’re also seeing kids experiencing suicidal ideation so they’re trying to make sure they get the right things in place for kids around those issues.

For the last decade, the JAC has been funded about 50% by grants and 50% by County General Funds.

“It’s really that steadfast support of the County Board of Commissioners that we rely on for our functioning – to see kids and get them connected with services,” she said.

There are also large grants right now from the Nebraska Crime Commission that pay providers in the community, so the JAC can make referrals to those providers to serve kids.

Over the last 15 years, the JAC has not only gotten good at their jobs, but they also continue to seek out ways to get better. Coonfare explained that includes some research projects they have going on with UNO and UNL. She said these projects continually offer the JAC opportunities to examine their processes so they can get better at serving kids.

For parents who are struggling with youth behavior, at any age, Coonfare recommends contacting the Nebraska Family Helpline.

“Anyone who needs help trying to connect a youth with any kind of services, call the Nebraska Family Helpline and they will help match resources in the community for any, any youth issue,” she said.

Nebraska Family Helpline, 888-866-8660; Boys Town, www.BoysTown.org
Cheril Lee

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