Child welfare and disability rights advocates are calling on Tennessee to reform its youth justice system through “prevention and rehabilitation” not “facilities and incarceration.”
A report released this month by Disability Rights Tennessee and the California-based Youth Law Center commends lawmakers in the state for “finally paying attention” to a “broken” youth justice system, following earlier revelations of abuse at a state-run juvenile detention center and system-wide failures of the state Department of Children’s Services.
“As the Legislature examines different approaches to much needed reform, its recommendations must focus on understanding and supporting children and families and the provision of prevention and rehabilitation services in the community, not facilities and incarceration,” report authors state.
In April, Disability Rights Tennessee and the Youth Law Center released an investigation of state-run Wilder Youth Development Center, finding abusive staff, a failure to investigate wrongdoing, and staffing issues that regularly resulted in facility-wide lockdowns and arbitrary use of solitary confinement. An audit released this month by the state comptroller of the Department of Children’s Services found these issues were not limited to Wilder, but existed throughout the juvenile justice system.
But there are “workable solutions to protect the vulnerable youth in the Department of Children’s Services failing system.” It states that an ad hoc committee within the Legislature was formed in response to the report on Wilder, and aims to guide the reforms that committee is considering.
The underlying principle behind the recommendations is that serving young people within families, using community-based resources produces better outcomes for the youth, their families, and the community at large, and is more cost-effective for taxpayers who ultimately fund the services.
“These are investments in a future in which Tennesseans are safer because all youth in Tennessee are connected to loving families—a future that an expansion of hardware secure facilities could never create,” the authors state.
The report’s recommendations include:
- Investing in family- and community-based interventions for youth struggling with mental and behavioral health, rather than relying on residential treatment facilities and lock-ups that leaves young people in crisis isolated from their communities and support networks.
- Properly assessing all youth and families with child welfare involvement to identify their needs, and develop appropriate, individualized services.
- Building out the state’s network of mental health supports for youth and families, and ensuring that investments in these services are spread throughout the state so that children have access regardless of where they live, and don’t need to be placed in far-flung facilities to receive necessary treatment.
- Barring administrative transfers from the youth justice system into the adult correctional system.
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