The Business of Positive Youth Justice: Changing Staff Perception

Last week, our Positive Youth Justice series explored the use of positive youth development (PYD) in re-entry work at Waterside Workshops. The small nonprofit by the San Francisco Bay uses boatbuilding and a bike shop as the starting point of a personal relationship between the staff and youths. 

Re-entry into the community is of course the last logical step on the continuum of juvenile justice. This week, we move away from practice for a discussion about process. How does one establish a PYD mentality where a different approach existed? 

Following is part one of a two-part analysis by Marc Schindler, who helped establish a PYD approach at the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, D.C.

Intro Part One / Part Two / Part Three / Part Four / Part Five / Part Six / Part Seven

I recently described to a friend the picture The Imprint painted of juvenile justice systems rooted in a Positive Youth Justice (PYJ) framework, which operationalizes positive youth development to best meet the unique needs of justice-involved youth.

After we discussed the exciting possibilities, she asked, “Why isn’t this already the dominant frame for juvenile justice reform?”

Good question. The evolution of the District of Columbia’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) from a deeply troubled system, plagued by overcrowding and unsafe facilities, to one of the nation’s forerunners in the implementation of Positive Youth Justice offers some insight.

The early reforms of DYRS in 2005, when I was involved in executive leadership at the agency, attempted to implement basic systems improvements informed by a positive youth development (PYD) approach. Like many, DYRS’ juvenile justice system grew out of an adult correctional model, with a punitive modality. The facilities were dirty, run down, dangerous and characterized by chaos.


One of the first activities under DYRS’ positive youth development framework was a white-water rafting trip with youths and staff

Even as DYRS moved beyond its punitive past, it still struggled with overly medical approaches that pathologized youth and sought deficit-based diagnoses with treatment as the primary intervention. Like many juvenile justice agencies, DYRS had vacillated between a correctional and medical approach for decades.

Adoption of a PYD approach can require a radical culture shift—and it’s harder than it sounds. I remember an early attempt to change DYRS culture where we asked staff to identify challenges facing an individual youth. The responses came fast: family addiction issues, exposure to violence, mental health disorders, and on and on.

When asked to map out the strengths both possessed by and available to that youth, however, the lists were short and slow-coming. Seeing kids’ strengths first, particularly when they are involved in the justice system, doesn’t always come easily.

A big part of DYRS’s culture shift involved training for everyone, from the director to the cooks who served the kids meals. We provided leadership, and training, training and more training.

We worked to ensure all of our services and interventions came from the belief that justice-involved youth are more similar to their adolescent peers than they are different.  Fundamentally, it means operating from the assumption that all kids have valuable strengths, talents, and experiences. And we saw shifts in attitudes and behaviors.


One of the first activities under DYRS’ positive youth development framework was a white-water rafting trip with youths and staff

To connect to the kinds of core experiences all kids need, we engaged in what some considered a shockingly un-conventional activity: staff and youth from our secure facility went on white-water rafting trips. How exactly, we were asked, does a white-water field trip with delinquent youth serve safety?

Here’s the thing: Kids grow from experiences beyond their everyday world. White-water rafting was way out of their typical experience. It helped show this group of adolescent boys, thrill-seekers in the way typical of their age, that they can get the same feeling not by joy-riding in stolen cars, but by racing down a river with nothing but a raft between them and the raging water.

Turns out, white-water rafting was one of the most transformative experiences for kids and adults. Not only did the kids get a new experience to show them how to channel their energy differently, but staff and the kids had fun. They also relied on each other in ways that changed their relationship.

When a youth, or a staff member, fell out of the raft, everyone had to pull that person back in and they had to trust that they were all looking out for each other. The relationship between staff and youth was altered in a way that could probably never happen within the walls of a secure facility.


One of the first activities under DYRS’ positive youth development framework was a white-water rafting trip with youths and staff

The issue isn’t really about the merits of white-water rafting—it’s about meeting kids’ core needs in ways that go deeper than addressing delinquency or even medical deficits.

Translating a PYD approach to a justice system means taking responsibility for shaping the whole youth, in the fullest way possible. And it should look a lot like the kinds of activities we want for non-justice-involved kids.

Just as I believe in helping youth grow to their fullest potential, so too do I believe in the capacity of the adults and systems that serve them.

Marc Schindler is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute.  Between 2005-2010, he served as general Counsel, chief of Staff and interim Director with the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

This series was made possible through the support of the Sierra Health Foundation, which has partnered with the California Endowment and the California Wellness Foundation to launch the Positive Youth Justice Initiative to reform the juvenile justice system in four California counties.

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